ERO's overall findings

ERO found variability between services in how well each service’s curriculum supported infants and toddlers to become competent and confident communicators and explorers. 1 This is similar to findings from previous research. Figure 1 shows that over half of the services in this evaluation had a ‘highly responsive’ or ‘somewhat responsive’ curriculum 2 that supported positive learning outcomes for infants and toddlers. The aspects of practice for the four categories of services are expanded upon in Figure 2 and throughout the findings.

Figure 1: ERO’s overall findings

Figure 1 is called ERO’s overall findings. It has four pie charts showing the percentage of services in each category. The charts are headed from left to right as Curriculum: Highly Responsive (for which the percentage is 12%), Curriculum: Somewhat Responsive (44%), Curriculum: Limited Responsiveness (31%), and Curriculum: Not Responsive (13%).

New Zealand and international research points to structural elements of quality, such as ratios, group sizes, roll sizes and teacher qualifications, as important factors in determining the quality of education and care, particularly for children up to two years of age. However, they are not the sole factors.

Structural and regulatory elements are not necessarily indicators of quality by themselves. Rather, they set up the conditions for quality practice.3 Nor does quality provision depend on any one theoretical position, provided the practices are good. 4

The relationship between structural elements, teachers’ theoretical knowledge and their knowledge of infants’ and toddlers’ emerging interests contributes to education and care that promotes positive learning outcomes for these children.

Variation of structural elements across service type

As part of this evaluation, ERO gathered information about each service’s adult-to-child ratios, group sizes and the percentage of qualified and registered teachers working with children aged from birth to two years and from two to three years. This information, along with information about service type, licensed roll numbers, ownership arrangements and ages of children enrolled, is shown for each of the four categories in Appendix 4.

The figures in Appendix 4 show that ‘highly responsive’ services included kindergartens, education and care services and Playcentres, as well as a range of roll numbers, ownership arrangements and ages of children. Adult-to-child ratios were similar across the four categories. Group sizes and the percentages of qualified and registered teachers working with infants and toddlers were very similar across ERO’s categories. 5 Within each of the four categories, there were services that met or exceeded minimum requirements regarding ratios and best practice guidelines for group size. There was a spread across services in terms of roll numbers and percentages of qualified and registered teachers working with infants and toddlers. 6

Characteristics of services with a highly responsive curriculum

Services with a ‘highly responsive’ curriculum had some common characteristics that went beyond the structural elements. These characteristics included:

  • high quality leadershipa highly reflective culture where teachers inquired into and regularly reflected on their teaching practices
  • whole-staff professional learning and development about infants and toddlers.

At these services, leaders and teachers had a shared understanding of ways to support infants and toddlers that led to positive outcomes for these children.

These services were well led and managed, with leaders using the strengths and knowledge of team members to benefit children’s learning. Leaders had high expectations for teaching and learning and promoted a collaborative and collegial culture. Teachers had a shared understanding of their approach to the education and care of infants and toddlers. Self review was well established and teachers were highly reflective about their teaching practice.

Teachers had a deep knowledge of Te Whāriki, and how it informed their service’s curriculum. As a result of professional learning and development (PLD) (often whole staff), teachers knew about current theories and research regarding the education and care of infants and toddlers, and as a team, had considered how to incorporate this knowledge into their practice in ways that made their curriculum ‘highly responsive’. Teachers and leaders evaluated the resulting changes to practice and the impact of this for children.

Teachers knew the infants’ and toddlers’ strengths and interests and respected and trusted them to be initiators, explorers and self-directed learners. This knowledge came from a strong focus on continuity of care. For many services in this group, the practice of having primary and secondary caregivers or key teachers for each child meant teachers developed lasting and meaningful relationships with them. 7,  8

Infants and toddlers as competent and confident communicators and explorers

Figure 2 shows the characteristics of the services in the four categories in relation to eight aspects of practice ERO investigated.

Figure 2: Curriculum responsiveness and aspects of practice


Highly responsive

Somewhat responsive

Limited responsiveness

Not responsive

Aspects of practice to promote positive learning outcomes for infants and toddlers

A pie chart showing Highly Responsive (12%) A pie chart showing Somewhat Responsive (44%) A pie chart showing Limited Responsiveness (31%) A pie chart showing Not Responsive (13%)

Teacher knowledge of Te Whāriki, current research and theories

Extensive use of teacher knowledge to inform curriculum.

Good use of teacher knowledge to inform curriculum.

Variable use of teacher knowledge to inform curriculum.

Limited use of teacher knowledge to inform curriculum.

Leadership - expectations for teaching and learning, and reflection on teacher practice

Well led with high expectations for teaching and learning, including teacher reflection on practice and links to performance appraisal/self review.

Good leadership. Strong focus on improving teacher reflection and links to self review.

Variable leadership. In some services, leaders were beginning to develop higher expectations for teaching and learning.

Leadership of service overall poor, with leaders lacking knowledge of good practice for the education and care of infants and toddlers.

Curriculum, including parents' and whanau aspirations to inform curriculum

High quality curriculum based on what teachers knew about children’s interests and their parents’ aspirations. Teachers encouraged children to try new things, express their ideas and feelings and lead their own learning.

Most of these services planned a responsive curriculum for infants, but less so for toddlers. Children’s learning in relation to the communication strand of Te Whāriki was more visible than for exploration. Parents’ aspirations were sought and acted on.

More likely to respond to interests and strengths of infants than they were to those of toddlers.

Curriculum was not responsive to children’s interests and was often largely teacher directed for toddlers. Parents’ aspirations were informally sought but not used to inform curriculum. Teaching practice did not extend children’s learning.

Professional learning and development (PLD) about infants and toddlers

Whole staff PLD related to infants and toddlers resulted in positive outcomes.

Teachers in two-thirds of these services had undertaken PLD related to infants and toddlers. Little or no review of the impact of any PLD.

Teachers in many of the services had not undertaken any PLD related to infants and toddlers.

Teachers in most of these services had not undertaken any PLD related to infants and toddlers.

Relationships and interactions

Responsive and reciprocal relationships between children and teachers and between older and younger children were fostered.

Teachers knew children well but were not always responsive to children’s interests.

Generally, good, but interactions with toddlers were less responsive. Teachers were not always responsive to children’s interests.

Relationships were positive but interactions did not extend children’s learning.

Assessment in relation to communication and exploration

Assessment captured children’s learning and progress over time, and this information informed curriculum planning.

Good in many, but poor in others.

Adequate in many, but poor in others.

Generally poor, more about participation in activities than focused on children’s learning.

Environment to support infants' and toddlers' learning

Thoughtfully designed, well resourced environments were safe, stimulating and challenging.

Thoughtfully designed, well resourced environments were safe, stimulating and challenging.

Safe, stimulating and challenging, but access was restricted at times.

Lacked challenge.

Self review

Well established and staff knew about the impact of their practices.

Most still developing self-review practice.

Generally little or no self review.

No self review.

What did teaching and learning look like in the most responsive services?

High quality curriculum and teaching practices were evident. Teachers valued and used what they knew about individual children’s homes and families to support their learning. Teachers wove the communication and exploration strands of Te Whariki meaningfully through the programme according to children’s developing needs and emerging interests. They were familiar with infants and toddlers’ verbal and non-verbal communication and responded positively to their efforts. Infants and toddlers were developing a sense of security and confidence.

Children had opportunities to initiate activities and develop independence. Teachers extended toddlers’ language by using meaningful and open-ended questioning and giving children time to respond. Children’s preferences were respected and they had opportunities to take responsibility for their own learning.

Teachers supported children to express their ideas and feelings. They encouraged child- initiated conversations. Toddlers had opportunities to successfully interact with other children and adults. Positive relationships with older children allowed infants and toddlers opportunities to observe, listen and try new experiences.

Teachers encouraged children to try new things and make connections to what they were interested in. They encouraged infants and toddlers to explore different environments, by introducing new resources in deliberate ways and offering new and challenging experiences and activities. Teachers supported children to take risks and solve problems. They were often physically nearby to provide support, but were careful not to interfere. Toddlers had opportunities to make decisions, ask questions, think creatively and use their imagination.

Relationships with infants and toddlers were an important feature of the curriculum in these services. ERO found that:

  • children were settled, secure and confident through having a key person who provided continuity of care
  • children experienced one-to-one interactions that were meaningful and positive, and they felt respected and cared for 9
  • teachers worked alongside children at their level and pace
  • children could choose if they wanted to play or interact with others, or be on their own
  • children’s ideas were affirmed by teachers who were skilled at following the child’s lead teachers modelled care and respect through their interactions with children and flexibility in care routines.

These services placed emphasis on successfully transitioning children into and within the centre, which meant that parents and whanau had many opportunities to develop trusting relationships with teachers. Parent-teacher communication was strong and teachers were able to easily discuss parent/whanau aspirations and expectations in both formal and informal ways. Leaders and teachers were highly responsive to these aspirations. Teachers understood what children liked to do with their families at home and responded to them in culturally and developmentally appropriate ways.

They made links between learning activities at home and at the service. Teachers shared developments in children’s learning with parents and whanau.

Assessment information made children’s learning and progress in relation to the communication and exploration strands of Te Whariki clearly visible to parents and whanau. Children’s progress was fostered through planned experiences that were based on their identified next steps or suggested goals.

Environments were thoughtfully designed and easily adaptable and children had the independence and freedom to explore and use resources. Indoor environments included spaces for painting and drawing, writing, construction, collage and family and dramatic play. Children had access to indoor climbing structures, balls, science tables, musical instruments, books and natural and tactile materials. Photos and displays were at heights that infants and toddlers could engage with. Outdoors, children could safely explore climbing frames, ropes and pulleys, wheels, slides, ramps, bridges, planks and bikes. Activities such as sand, water and messy play were accessible. Environments included grassed areas, densely planted areas and gardens, as well as resources to encourage dramatic and imaginative play. Non-mobile infants were able to explore through a range of sensory experiences. There were safe spaces for infants to enjoy floor time and spaces that encouraged them to climb, crawl and explore.

What was it like for infants and toddlers in these services?

Infants and toddlers in these services were competent and confident communicators and explorers. This was evident where:

  • children confidently communicated verbally and non-verbally and experimenting with language
  • toddlers asked open-ended questions and engaged in conversations with adults and other children that showed and developed their curiosity and problem solving

infants had opportunities to roll, crawl, climb and pull themselves up in safe spaces, as well as opportunities to observe and interact with older children

  • toddlers confidently explored both indoor and outdoor environments and investigated ideas and concepts in science, music, physical movement, gardening, sand, water and messy play, construction, art and drama
  • children explored at their own pace, experimented, took risks and solved problems, and developed independence, curiosity and perseverance
  • children re-enacted their experiences outside of the service in their play (evident in parent feedback and records of learning)
  • infants and toddlers made choices about what was to happen to them and teachers waited for children to respond to the choices offered
  • toddlers, along with their parents and whanau, revisited their learning to see how they had grown in confidence and competence over time.

Infants and toddlers in these services were learning to express their ideas and feelings, and to persist when faced with challenge and uncertainty. They were learning strategies for: active exploration, thinking and reasoning and how to share their ideas and knowledge of how things work with others.

Promoting positive learning outcomes for infants

Research shows that education and care are interrelated. For infants, the curriculum combines care routines and everyday experiences. Teachers need to understand the different communication styles of infants and the increased physical care and emotional nurturing they require. The relationships and interactions between teachers and infants (and their parents and whanau) are more important than the activities that infants participate in. 10

Practices that provided positive learning outcomes for infants were evident in services where teachers knew the infants well, and were knowledgeable about attachment theories 11 and how to respond to infants’ non-verbal cues. 12 Primary caregiving was a strong feature. Teachers:

  • understood when very young children preferred their own company or needed interaction with others
  • understood and responded to non-verbal communication such as body language and subtle cues
  • gave infants appropriate challenges such as opportunities to pull, push, touch and grasp supported language development through routines and everyday happenings.

The indoor spaces and routines reflected infants’ home environments, which helped create a strong sense of belonging. Young babies had safe but open spaces to observe others and be part of the group. Spaces allowed them to roll, crawl, pull themselves up, and lift their heads

The following examples describe opportunities for exploration and communication experienced by infants.

Exploration - balance and challenge

In the nursery, a 10-month-old boy is gaining confidence in his ability to pull himself up and take a few steps. He pulls himself onto a small balance frame, holding his teacher’s hand for security. He carefully walks sideways along the rail, looking to his teacher for reassurance, and smiling at the praise and encouragement he receives.

Infants and making choices, communicating and following their interests

Teachers are responsive to infants and toddlers, support them to make decisions and choices, and encourage meaningful conversations. Only two of the five children (aged between 12 and 16 months) are ready for morning tea. Another teacher helps them into their chairs and gives them their morning tea, also talking to them about what they are doing. Another teacher reads a story to the other three children, talking to them about the pictures and asking questions to prompt them to communicate with each other.

The key issue for these services was to develop a curriculum that fully responds to infants’ strengths and interests. Infants primarily make sense of their world through sensory exploration and physical activity, and are sensitive to their surroundings. Children benefit from a rich sensory space that provides for safe exploration and active whole-body learning. A well-designed space supports child-initiated and teacher- facilitated learning.

What do services that were less responsive to infants need to do to improve?

These services need to:

  • maintain their emphasis on wellbeing and belonging, but also support infants to become confident communicators and explorers
  • increase understandings of teaching practices and their role to appropriately support and challenge these very young children as communicators and explorers
  • support teachers to use rich conversations to enhance infants’ oral language development, and
  • ensure non-mobile infants have opportunities to learn and develop in an environment conducive to their development.

Promoting positive learning outcomes for toddlers

In the early years, children’s main way of learning and developing is through play.

Play gives toddlers the opportunity to explore, observe, experiment, solve problems and learn from their mistakes. However, toddlers need support and opportunities to do this. Play also helps toddlers build relationships by learning about who they are and where they fit in the world. A well-planned curriculum, based on toddlers’ changing interests and abilities, empowers them to make their own choices and supports their learning.

It encourages the development of social relationships with their peers and adults.

In services that promoted positive learning outcomes for toddlers, teachers planned experiences that were based on toddlers’ interests and modelled how to communicate and express emotions and ideas. They carefully planned transitions into the space for over two-year-olds with support from key teachers. Self review focused on practices to support children between the ages of two and three years and changes in practice were put in place to better support and promote more positive learning outcomes.

In these highly or somewhat responsive services, environments for toddlers enabled them to move freely around and opportunities for communication and exploration were maximised. Where possible toddlers played alongside older children and tuakana teina relationships were promoted. 13 Resources were accessible and designed for toddlers to experiment, explore and interact with.

In services that supported positive learning outcomes for toddlers, teachers put into practice their knowledge of Te Whāriki, education theories and philosophies to support toddlers in their play. Parents’ and whanau aspirations for their children were sought, discussed and informed the curriculum. Teachers supported toddlers to make successful transitions from spaces for those up to two years of age to environments with older children. The following examples outline high quality opportunities for exploration and communication experienced by toddlers.

Messy play and creativity

Toddlers explore and work together in open-ended activities that enable them to experiment with their own ideas. Six toddlers play with some warm finger paint - mixing colours, using small vehicles to make patterns in the paint and pouring paint between containers. They try different ways of getting the paint onto the surface and different ways of smearing and making marks. The children are learning about cause and effect, problem solving, pattern making, collaboration and physical coordination.

Imagination and problem solving

Two two-year-old boys are playing with planks and a truck. The truck gets stuck in the mud. Both the boys decide they need to get the truck out of the mud. ‘We need ropes.’ The boys go to the sandpit to get some ropes and then try to tie these around the planks. Finding it difficult, they ask a teacher for help. The teacher asks ‘What do you think we can do?’ The boys explain they want to tie the ropes to the planks to move the truck, and that they need help. With help from the teacher, they are successful at getting the truck out of the mud and are off again. Five minutes later - ’Oh no! Truck stuck in mud again!’ The teacher asks ‘Did you go push the truck into the mud again?’ ‘Yes’ reply the boys. ‘So what might you do?’ asks the teacher.

Making exploration and communication visible in learning

Assessment information for toddlers shows their progress over time in terms of communication and exploration. One toddler’s e-portfolio shows her beginning to show initiative at story-time by requesting stories she wants to hear. The portfolio shows her becoming more involved with interactive stories, fully participating in group stories and being actively involved. Later learning stories show her asking and answering questions about stories.

Another toddler’s e-portfolio shows the development of his problem solving.

It shows that he has an inquisitive mind and likes to work things out for himself. Being curious and asking questions about why certain things happen are identified as some of his strengths. After listening to a story about fishing and taking part in a discussion about making rods and fishing, he was a key helper in solving the problem of how to catch the fish by suggesting they make a hook like on a real fishing rod.


On a sunny day, the teacher sets up some water play. The toddlers rush to the water trough and watch as the teacher fills the trough with water. They start splashing and laughing. The teacher and the children talk about the temperature of the water, the colour, texture, and even what it smells like. They have many different resources in the trough to stimulate exploration and experimentation - sieves, funnels, pipes, cups, jugs, plastic bottles and bowls.

Exploration - balance and challenge

Teachers encourage the younger toddlers to explore as and when they are ready. One toddler wants to climb a ladder. A teacher is close by, to support his attempts and ensure his safety, as he climbs as high as he feels comfortable. The teacher celebrates with him when he achieves his goal.

What do services that were less responsive to toddlers need to do to improve?

These services need to:

  • develop a curriculum that better responds to toddlers’ strengths and interests and provides an appropriate level of challenge and risk taking
  • provide activities driven by teacher knowledge and responsiveness to the toddlers’ interests and curiosity
  • provide environments where toddlers can freely access outdoor areas, and interesting resources that support them to experiment and explore their ideas
  • focus less on toddlers following routines and behaviour management; and eliminate teacher-directed activities such as formal literacy and numeracy activities
  • carefully plan transitions for toddlers to spaces for over two-year-olds, ensuring that children who may have had a primary caregiver in the under-two space are well known to teachers as they make the transition into the older children’s space
  • improve the frequency and quality of teachers’ interactions with toddlers in mixed aged groups of two, three and four-year-olds, and ensure they are not overlooked, other than when they seek attention in ways such as grizzling and complaining, but provided with positive support and encouragement in their exploration and communication.

Buidling capability to improve

Across the services judged as ‘somewhat responsive’, ‘limited responsiveness’ or ‘not responsive’, ERO identified a variety of improvements needed in curriculum, relationships, assessment, environment and self review.

We identified that many of the services judged to have ‘limited responsiveness’ had the capability to make improvements to better focus on communication and exploration for their infants and toddlers. Some of the services had only recently begun to enrol toddlers and needed to extend good practices already in place for older children. Nearly half of the services in the ‘limited responsiveness’ category were governed by an association or organisation that had PLD and support processes in place to assist the individual services to improve.