“The arts” is the collective term for four disciplines; music, dance, visual arts, and drama. For tamariki birth to school age, the arts play a very important role in communication and the expression of ideas. In fact, it is often said that the arts are the first literacies for tamariki. This is because each of these disciplines involves the use of symbols (expression, movement, gesture, image, and sound) to convey meaning. The arts is the optimum way for tamariki in early childhood to engage in complex modes of thinking and abstract ideas.

The arts are a key contributor to the unique bicultural and multicultural character of Aotearoa New Zealand. Cultural history, values, ideas, and stories are the elements that performers, artists and creators take inspiration from and work with. This is the case for tamariki as well as adults. As our technology becomes more sophisticated, the ability to make these expressions of culture accessible to a wide audience is increasing exponentially. It is through the arts that we get much of our cultural knowledge (of our own and others’).

The huge diversity – between and within the arts disciplines – make it a very inclusive component of the curriculum, where tamariki of all abilities can find a place and an expressive outlet.

Learner focus

As well as being a powerful form of communication and cultural expression, the arts has the potential to contribute to learning in many other ways. This potential is more likely to be reached when kaiako bring deep knowledge, interest, and enthusiasm for the arts to their teaching.

When considering curriculum design (planning) for the arts in early childhood services, it can be useful to think in terms of:

  • learning about the arts
  • learning through the arts.

Learning about the arts

When tamariki are encouraged to develop a foundation of knowledge about the arts, they are more able to take full advantage of all that it offers in terms of meaning making, enjoyment, and expression.

Developing a foundation of knowledge involves arts appreciation, learning about techniques and concepts, learning the vocabulary, and learning about purpose and function.

Arts appreciation

Tamariki can appreciate art through experiences where they are able to see, be inspired by, and explore the intentions and ideas of other artists and performers.

There are many ways to do this, including:

  • using the talents of tamariki and whānau within the service
  • bringing in artists and performers
  • using books, digital technologies, and other artefacts as inspiration and provocation
  • taking tamariki out of the service to see performances and installations.

Techniques and concepts

Tamariki learn about techniques and concepts used by the different arts disciplines, such as:

  • rhythm and beat in music
  • art elements in visual arts
  • performance voice in drama
  • movement in dance.


Learning the vocabulary of the arts means that tamariki can talk about their own expressive work and that of others.

Purpose and function

Tamariki learn about purpose and function – how the arts are used to convey stories and meaning – for example, the stories of kōwhaiwhai, whakairo, and tapa patterning, or the feelings associated with different sounds and rhythms.

Learning through the arts

When the arts are used in ways that strongly value active engagement and the creative endeavours of tamariki, they can develop many other skills and attributes that are embedded in Te Whāriki.

The arts is a particularly good context for learning about:

  • identity, well-being, and emotional regulation – through the emphasis on self-expression
  • cultural ways of being, doing, and knowing
  • new perspectives – encouraging tamariki to play around and try out roles and ideas of the imagination
  • communicating experiences, ideas, and thinking
  • working independently and collaboratively – contributing to a group or community
  • evaluating and thinking critically.

The role of kaiako

The value the arts brings to the strands and goals of Te Whāriki, and to tamariki rights, depends greatly on how kaiako see their role. Neither a “hands off” nor very structured approach is likely to lead to the varied and complex learnings outlined above.

Kaiako who are effective in promoting learning through the arts are thoughtful and intentional in the way they design experiences.

  • They are curious and interested to learn about aspects of the arts themselves.
  • They favour experiences and activities that stimulate creative action and responses, self-expression, thought, and a sense of delight.
  • They draw on familiar experiences and cultural knowledge of tamariki when thinking about curriculum design for the arts.
  • They understand the contribution that technical knowledge and knowledge of artistic processes play in enabling tamariki to reach their creative potential. Importantly, they embed these in the everyday experiences and activities they offer, rather than leave them to chance.

Useful resources

Kei Tua o Te Pae – Book 19: The Arts

This resource looks particularly at the arts and provides a number of assessment exemplars. However, more arts exemplars can be found throughout Kei Tua o Te Pae Assessment for Learning: Early Childhood Exemplars.

Visual Arts Inspirations: People, Places, and Things

Five video clips produced by the Auckland College of Education.

Layering Thinking on Canvas

This clip highlights how integrating specific technical skills and processes within the actual experience, supports children and adults to create their work successfully.

Ko Maungawhau te Maunga

This clip shows drawing on Maungawhau, an Auckland volcano, in response to the environment and the history of the setting – the kaupapa Māori early childhood setting.

Thinking in Three Dimensions

Thinking in Three Dimensions focuses on clay work and how that developed into children going to a local potter’s studio where they worked on a potter’s wheel.

Focusing Beyond the Gate

Children engaged with taking images in the local sanctuary, documenting their own perspectives and experiences. The clip shows revisiting and reviewing this documentation with children and families at the kindergarten.

Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

The clip shows using re-found/recycled objects to construct a robot sculpture in an inner city kindergarten (engaging with a sculptor from afar) and the preliminary drawings and democratic processes children engaged with to decide upon the design.

National Library - Discover database

Discover is an online database of resources developed by the National Library to provide access to their collections of New Zealand art and music. It includes audio clips of New Zealand birds and early waiata, as well as images and other historic information.

He Kupu Journal

He Kupu is a collection of articles covering the different disciplines within the arts and all written for the New Zealand context.

Hair straighteners in the home corner

In these two blog posts written in 2015 and 2016, Karen Hope asks readers to consider whether the props and tools provided for dramatic play encourage or challenge everyday stereotypes.