Deciding what matters here

Ko Te Whāriki te mokopuna. Ko te mokopuna Te Whāriki.

Te Whāriki is the child. The child is Te Whāriki.

Key ideas

Te Whāriki sets out the principles, strands, goals, and learning outcomes for young children’s learning. The learning outcomes are broad statements of valued learning, which encompass knowledge, skills, attitudes, and dispositions that grow and strengthen over time. This broad framework enables early childhood services to weave their own distinctive, culturally responsive, and contextually relevant curriculum, based on what they believe is important for the children in their setting.

Each service defines a vision for their learners; a vision that is defined by the knowledge, beliefs, aspirations, and values of kaiako, parents, whānau, and community. Thoughtful and evidence-informed planning, evaluation, and assessment help kaiako plan for and respond to learning.

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Stories of practice

Enacting “what learning matters here” in a home-based service

Visiting kaiako, Lisa, is exploring ways to introduce the refreshed curriculum during her contact with educators at Barnardos Kowhai in Auckland. Her own professional learning has highlighted the question “what learning matters here” as a provocation for deepening curriculum knowledge. During home visits and at playgroup Lisa shares the importance of children learning through trial and error. She talks about how this is promoted within Te Whāriki.

The service runs a two-hour playgroup once a week for their home-based educators. During playgroup sessions, Lisa provides ideas and learning opportunities that educators can try in their homes to tautoko tamariki learning and development.

For Lisa, playgroup also presents an immediate and practical way to highlight “what learning matters here”. As she observes educators and tamariki in action, she looks for coaching opportunities – times when she can either model or talk an educator through an alternative teaching approach.

Here is an example:

When Eva was puzzling over why a set of scales would not balance with all the stones on one side, Lisa observed the educator was about to step in and fix the problem. Lisa gestured to the educator to pause and watch while she modelled an approach aimed at encouraging Eva to find her own solution. Together they looked at the scales from all angles, and Lisa made a point of using comments and questions such as, “I wonder what would happen ...”, “Maybe we could try ....”

Lisa followed up her modelling in a conversation with the educator. She explained her reasons for encouraging Eva to work out a solution for herself. She talked about this in terms of valued learning – experimenting and problem solving – and the missed learning opportunities that result from too quickly showing tamariki the answer.

The following week, Lisa noticed that the educator was more intentional about following Eva’s interests rather than directing activities for her, and Eva was able to experiment more.

Prioritising working theories

At Ngā Tamariki Early Childhood Centre in Wellington, kaiako use children’s working theories as a lens for noticing and valuing children’s learning. This began some years ago when some of the teachers attended a workshop on working theories. There, they were challenged to see beyond “children’s interests” – to observe and try to understand the thinking and problem solving children were doing while they were engaged.

Michelle, a teacher at Ngā Tamariki, was struck by the workshop facilitator’s explanation of the relationship between observing children’s interests and working theories. She likened interests to a car and working theories to the road the car travels. While the car is instrumental, it is actually the road, with its twists and turns and uncertainties, that gets you to your planned destination. Similarly, working theories guide children’s interests towards a more rational, complex, or mature understanding (learning).

At Ngā Tamariki, kaiako see working theories as expressions of children’s identities. However, because working theories are held in the mind and often unspoken, they are also cautious about over-interpreting the theories children are using. This is seen in Learning Stories where kaiako often “wonder” about the thinking going on behind the action they have observed.

Kaiako encourage children to explore and refine their working theories by:

  • providing resources that enable children to further explore and test ideas (these may include exploring within another area of the curriculum)
  • choosing language and questions that encourage tamariki to explain or think about their theory
  • inviting other children to express their ideas, which may be different.

Kaiako say that noticing and responding meaningfully to working theories involves:

  • standing back and observing – looking for clues to the thinking in the action
  • taking time and weighing up what is important
  • talking with families
  • talking amongst kaiako about “what learning matters here”.

Investigating thinking rather than facts – a parent’s response to a working theory

Alice Shafer (2002) suggests that “resisting the temptation to correct a child’s misconception, to not teach, may be one of the most difficult tendencies we struggle to overcome and one of the most valuable gifts we give children.”

This story illustrates an adult creating an opportunity for Felix to share his ideas, and then setting up a scenario to help him test and explore his ideas further.

Fendalton Playcentre was at the local park. Felix was looking at a seesaw and asked Kristina “Why is it called a seesaw?”

“Why do you think”? Kristina asked him. “Well, it looks like a saw and it looks like the sea”. “Does it”? Pointing at the bar that supported the seats, Felix said, “This bit here looks like a saw because it’s long and skinny and this bit here (while pointing to the curved legs) looks like a wave so it’s like the sea.”

Kristina was taken by Felix’s idea and recognised this as an example of Felix expressing a working theory about the reason for the name.

A short time later, Kristina saw a sculpture of a seesaw that looked quite different from the one in the park. With Felix’s theory in mind, she took a photo and later showed him the photo. To Kristina’s surprise, Felix found a way for this new type of seesaw to fit into his existing theory.

I reminded him of the seesaw at Spencer Park and his explanation of why it was called a seesaw. I said to Felix, “I had noticed that the leg on this seesaw was shaped differently to the one at the park and how it did not look like a wave or the sea and yet it is still called a seesaw.”

“Perhaps it is this bit here (he points to the handle). It looks like a submarine. This bit (the stem) is the bit that comes out of the water and these bits (points to the ends of the handle) are the bits that you can see out."

By creatively linking the handle of the seesaw to the periscope of a submarine Felix managed to keep the connection to the sea and to his theory about the word seesaw.

Reflecting on these events, Kristina remarks,

... In the past I may have chosen to investigate the internet or books with children to find out why it is called a seesaw to show them the answer, now I want to investigate what they think rather than providing them with "cheap facts", as Shafer says. It’s about the journey not the answer.


This story of practice is adapted from: Davis, K. & Peters, S. (2010). Moments of wonder, everyday events. How are young children theorising and making sense of their world? Playcentre Journal, 137, 25-29.

Shafer, A. (2002) Ordinary Moments, Extraordinary Possibilities. In Fu, V.R., A.J. Stremmel, & L.T. Hill. 2002. Teaching and learning: Collaborative exploration of the Reggio Emilia approach (p. 191). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Teacher and child

Integrating infants, toddlers, and young children into a mixed-age environment: Prioritising sharing, caring, and social obligation

A puna kōhungahunga in Auckland made a decision to review their arrangement of separating infants from older children for much of the day. Their motivation to do so came from reflecting on a reading about better strengthening educational outcomes for Māori children and sharing their understandings of Māori views on quality teaching and learning.

Recognising that children interact daily in collective groups such as whānau, iwi, and hapū made it easy to decide to provide a group learning environment at the puna. This change has helped tuakana-teina relationships to flourish and has fostered a range of social competencies, such as manaaki and caring for others.


Fremaux, M., & Liley, K. (2014). Mā te tuakana te teina e tōtika ai, mā te teina anō te tuakana e tōtika ai: Tuakana and teina learn from one another. The First Years: Ngā Tau Tuatahi. New Zealand Journal of Infant and Toddler Education, 16(1), 14–17.

Teacher and two children

Valuing Samoan language, culture, identity, and faith

Fetu Taʻiala Ā‘oga ‘Āmata is located in Mangere, Auckland and is a full immersion Samoan language setting that caters for 36 children aged from under two years to school age.

Their key priorities for children’s learning are to maintain the Samoan language, culture, and values (fa’a Samoa). These priorities were developed through discussions with parents and aiga who share their goals, aspirations, and expectations with teachers.

Teaching practice supports children to develop knowledge, skills, and attitudes linked to the setting’s priorities. Conversations are rich in Samoan language, helping children to become confident and capable in the language. Children are active and confident participants in activities that foster Samoan language, culture, and values.

Teachers work together to ensure clear links are made between planning, assessment, and evaluation processes for individuals and groups of children. Assessment portfolios are a record of children’s learning and development and have a strong focus on next steps to improve outcomes for children.

The curriculum is designed to promote a feeling of partnership and provide an environment that fosters the holistic development of all children. An emergent curriculum integrates children’s interests and play with the centre’s identified priorities for the children’s learning.

Teachers plan weekly to extend children’s learning and follow a self-review process that includes planning the focus, gathering and documenting evidence, reflecting and evaluating, and revisiting to acknowledge improvements.

Adapted from:

Education Review Office. (2013). Priorities for children's learning in early childhood services: Good practice. Wellington, New Zealand.

Adult and child reading

Weaving Te Whāriki with Playcentre philosophy

Kaniere Playcentre is located on the outskirts of Hokitika and caters for children aged from under two years to school age. The Playcentre philosophy, strongly influences their curriculum. alongside the strands of Te Whāriki and the children’s development of dispositions.

Parents worked together to identify the following priorities for children’s learning:

  • to grow and develop positive and useful skills, knowledge, and attitudes
  • to be affirmed as individuals
  • to develop generosity of spirit, respect, endeavour, aroha, and integrity.

Teaching practices at the Playcentre reflect these priorities.

Assessment of children’s learning shows children’s involvement in the curriculum and highlights next steps. Links to the principles and strands of Te Whāriki and dispositions are included, along with notes about how these are being supported.

All parents contribute to profiles and openly discuss children’s learning with other parents. Programmes for individual children focus on a relevant strand and goal from Te Whāriki and dispositions to be developed. They also make specific suggestions about how to support each child’s further learning.

Curriculum planning sheets bring together individual programmes and information from parents. Parents reflect on each session and discuss assessment information to inform future sessions. Planning meetings each term focus on children’s needs and interests and decisions about resourcing the curriculum.

Adapted from:

Education Review Office. (2013). Priorities for children's learning in early childhood services: Good practice. Wellington, New Zealand.

Two children playing

Prioritising inclusion, with a focus on education for all

Building all children’s mana is a key focus in Te Whāriki. Botany Downs Kindergarten has prioritised inclusion of all children, including those requiring additional support for learning.

There are many examples in the report (see the link below) that illustrate this priority, including:

  • the preparation of the environment and specific visual communication tools to ensure a child and their family felt welcomed from their very first day

  • the teachers’ recognition of the value of these visual communication tools, originally designed to help children on the autistic spectrum, for all children in the kindergarten

  • the installation of a sound augmentation system to ensure that a teacher can speak in a quiet voice yet be heard by all children.

Many people assumed that the kindergarten would provide specific help, equipment, and materials only for children with difficulties or impairments. Instead, they focused on the whole environment and aspects of teaching that enhanced the participation and learning for all children. They made changes that were likely to be beneficial for all, while reducing barriers for children with additional needs.


Glass, B., Baker. K., Ellis, R., Bernstone, H., & Hagan, B. (2010). COI Botany Downs Kindergarten: Inclusion at Botany Downs Kindergarten Centre of Innovation 2006–2008.

Two children painting

Prioritising and supporting children’s friendship skills development

At Myers Park KiNZ in Auckland, the transient nature of families in the central city meant that the centre had a high turnover of children attending. This transience sometimes impacted on children’s ability to make friends, therefore "friendship-making" became a learning priority for the kindergarten.

Video footage showed a group of boys making aeroplanes with Lego and helped the teachers to realise that one 4-year-old boy, Caleb, was attempting to use a number of strategies, unsuccessfully, to try to make friends. From analysis of this video, Caleb’s working theories about friendships appeared to include that you need to have something in common to be a friend, take an interest in what peers like to do, play in the same kinds of ways as peers, and talk with peers to become accepted as part of the group. He had an expectation that if he followed the “rules” of friendship activities he could become friends with this group of boys. But it wasn’t that simple. The responses of teachers were critical to his learning about being friends. Further observations and discussion with his parents helped teachers to develop a plan to support him. Strategies were developed to support him to develop independence and make friends. Positive changes were observed as Caleb began to develop confidence that also supported his smoother transition to school later on.


Hedges, H., & Cooper, M. (2016). Collaborative meaning making using video footage: Teachers and researchers analyse children’s working theories about friendship. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal.

Hedges, H., & Cooper, M. (2014). Inquiring minds, meaningful responses: Children’s interests, inquiries and working theories. Final report to Teaching and Learning Research Initiative. Wellington: NZCER.

Child doing a puzzle

Prioritising becoming ecologically sustainable in early childhood education

Connections with the local community and attending to matters of wider, global concern were emphases in Collectively Kids’ philosophy. They therefore prioritised sustainability in their curriculum and wider centre practices. Teachers identified ways children came to understand about taking responsibility for the centre (“who is going to tidy this mess?”) and the wider community (donating money to support building schools in the Solomon Islands and making election posters that incorporated children’s ideas about what is important to them).

The article below notes that “rather than feel disempowered by the complexity and urgency of addressing climate change, teachers, children, families, and community are engaged in an ongoing process of change, which arises out of a commitment to local and global transformation” (p. 6).


Duhn, I. with Bachmann, M., & Harris, K. (2010). Becoming ecologically sustainable in early childhood education. Early Childhood Folio, 14(1), 2–6.

Reflective questions

Use these questions in team discussions to guide you through the process of establishing and reviewing your setting’s curriculum and learning priorities.

  • What is the collective vision for children in this setting? Who do we want our children to be and become? What worlds do our children live in and will live in? What is important for children to know and do?
  • How are the key ideas of Te Whāriki reflected in this setting’s curriculum?
  • How does this setting ensure the voices of governance, management, kaiako, whānau, parents, children and communities inform the vision, philosophy, and learning priorities?
  • What are the goals and aspirations parents and whānau have for their children? How do we know what these are?
  • What are the goals and aspirations children have for themselves? How do we find out what these are?
  • How well are children learning and progressing across the whole curriculum? How do we know?
  • What is the learning that is valued in this setting? How are we ensuring that all children have fair and equitable opportunities to achieve this?
  • How well does this setting reflect the community in which it stands?
  • What kind of learning environment do we need to create that will respond to our collective vision? What is working well? What needs to change?
  • How is this setting’s internal evaluation (self-review) informing and responding to collective priorities?
  • How are the collective priorities evident in planning and implementation?
  • How do we make children’s learning in relation to collective priorities visible to parents, whānau, and children?

Implications for leadership

Leaders in early childhood settings take responsibility for pedagogical leadership, that is, leading and evaluating teaching and learning. For leaders, identifying priorities for weaving a whāriki could involve:

  • Leading the process to develop a vision for learning and curriculum and learning priorities, that is deciding “what matters here”.
  • Ensuring there are systems and processes for:
    • developing and reviewing the setting’s philosophy of teaching and learning
    • assessing children's progress and learning in relation to the strands, goals, and learning outcomes of Te Whāriki and the learning that is valued in the setting
    • conducting internal evaluation of what is currently happening and how well it is working
    • considering kaiako interests, beliefs, skills, and knowledge in the provision of curriculum
    • collecting and considering parent and whānau aspirations and wider community goals and concerns – including those of local iwi and/or hapū
    • supporting continuity of early learning as children transition to school.
  • Prioritising time in team meetings to talk about assessments of children’s progress, development and learning.
  • Being willing to confront longstanding “ways we’ve always done this”, provoking reflection and inviting different views.
  • Accessing and circulating relevant readings and resources and leading discussion of topics related to evolving priorities.
  • Accessing appropriate professional learning support – for example, a “critical friend”, who may bring a fresh perspective to everyday happenings kaiako may take for granted.

Connections to the principles

Empowerment – Whakamana

Children have voice in the process of deciding “what matters here” in deciding their own priorities for learning. Assessment documentation provides information about each individual child and groups of children, in relation to their strengths, learning, interests, and development. Children and their parents and whānau are empowered to engage in this process. Together with information gathered through internal review and consultation with parents, whānau, and communities, this information is used to set curriculum and learning priorities that empower children to learn and grow in an environment that recognises them as capable and competent learners. It is important to include children in this process through self-assessment, decision making, and identifying what their learning priorities are.

Family and Community – Whānau Tangata

Parents, whānau, and kaiako share responsibility for the setting’s curriculum and learning priorities. Parents and whānau have a wealth of valuable information and understanding regarding their children that can inform these priorities. Children bring the funds of knowledge they gain from their families into their ECE context. In addition, parents, whānau, and communities have aspirations, expectations, and goals for their children that may be woven into a setting’s curriculum planning, implementation, and environment.

Holistic Development – Kotahitanga

Curriculum and learning priorities should encompass all dimensions of children’s learning and development and should see both the child and the curriculum as a whole. The way curriculum priorities are identified and enacted in each early childhood setting should ensure that children have the best possible environment to grow, flourish, and progress in relation to all components of Te Whāriki.

Relationships – Ngā Hononga

Each setting’s curriculum will be influenced by the relationships between adults (for example, parents, families, whānau, kaiako and other adults who have roles in the setting) and children, adults and adults, and children and children. Strong, reciprocal relationships ensure that information and knowledge shared adds colour and texture to the setting’s whāriki. In addition, the people in the setting have relationships with places and things in the setting and the community that will support implementation of the curriculum. Curriculum and learning priorities should take into consideration ways to strengthen and enhance these relationships.