This report investigates whether early childhood services provided a curriculum that promoted positive learning outcomes for infants and toddlers and enabled them to become competent and confident communicators and explorers. The goals in the communication and exploration strands of Te Whāriki are the foundation for children’s future learning.

ERO’s evaluation was prompted by recent reports that highlighted the need to focus on how infants and toddlers are supported in New Zealand’s early childhood education sector. These reports identified the importance of ensuring that those working with children up to two years of age understand and are able to respond to them in a way that supports this critical and fundamental period of development. A sector advisory group advised the Government to provide specialised professional learning and development (PLD) for all staff working in services licensed for children up to the age of two years. The advisory group highlighted that poor quality education and care can undermine children’s learning and development. 1, 2

The Ministry of Education (the Ministry) responded with a PLD programme for 2013 to 2015 that included a focus on strengthening early learning opportunities for infants and toddlers. 3 This PLD was provided for services with low participation rates or those needing support to improve practices.

Two 2013 ERO reports, Working with Te Whāriki and Priorities for Children’s Learning in Early Childhood Services, 4 found that the exploration and communication strands of Te Whāriki were less visible in services’ curriculum planning and assessment documentation than other strands of the curriculum. Both these strands are vital to infants and toddlers in becoming leaders of their own learning, deciding what they want to learn, and making sense of the world.

Why are communication and exploration important?

Te Whāriki highlights the importance of communication and exploration as two of the five strands of the curriculum:

  • Language grows and develops in meaningful contexts when children have a need to know and a reason to communicate.
  • Children learn through play - by doing, by asking questions, by interacting with others, by setting up theories or ideas about how things work and trying them out, and by purposeful use of resources.

Communication is vital for children to be able to share their strengths and interests, find out what they want to know, and take increasing responsibility for their learning.

Te Whāriki outlines four communication goals for children. These are that children experience an environment where they:

  • develop non-verbal communication skills for a range of purposes
  • develop verbal communication skills for a range of purposes
  • experience the stories and symbols of their own and other cultures
  • discover and develop different ways to be creative and expressive.

The exploration strand is grounded in the principles of holistic development and empowerment.

Holistic Development:

The curriculum reflects the holistic way children learn and grow


Children should experience open-ended exploration and play in an environment where tasks, activities and contexts are meaningful to children. Exploration involves learning with others as well as independently and enhances children’s sense of self worth, identity, confidence and enjoyment.

The four goals for exploration outlined in Te Whāriki are that children experience an environment where:

  • their play is valued as meaningful learning and the importance of spontaneous play is recognised
  • they gain confidence in and control of their bodies
  • they learn strategies for active exploration, thinking and reasoningthey develop working theories for making sense of the natural, social, physical and material worlds.

The goals in the communication and exploration strands of Te Whāriki set the foundation for young children’s future learning as outlined in The New Zealand Curriculum. 5 Its vision and values describe that we want our young people to be literate and numerate, creative, energetic and enterprising. Students are encouraged to value innovation, inquiry and curiosity by thinking critically, creatively and reflectively.

In mathematics, learners explore and use patterns and relationships in quantities, space and time, and in English they succeed when they are effective oral, written and visual communicators and able to think critically and in depth. These and other learning areas in The New Zealand Curriculum build on the learning outlined in the communication and exploration strands of Te Whāriki.

Curriculum specific to infants and toddlers

ERO’s evaluation focuses on the curriculum provided for infants and toddlers (birth to three years), particularly in relation to the exploration and communication strands of Te Whāriki. Te Whāriki states:

The way in which each early childhood service implements curriculum will vary. Each service will develop its own programmes to meet the needs of its children, families, the specific setting, and the local community. Programmes will be based on the curriculum principles and be planned and evaluated in terms of the curriculum’s strands and goals.

Te Whariki states that, to thrive and learn, an infant must have an intimate, responsive and trusting relationship with at least one other person. While infants can develop close attachments with several people, Te Whāriki suggests this attachment is not possible with many people. Infants must experience physical and emotional security to become confident in relationships and as learners. Te Whāriki provides some key curriculum requirements for infants. These are:

  • one-to-one responsive interactions
  • an adult consistently responsible for, and available to, each infant
  • higher staff ratio than older children
  • sociable, loving and physically responsive adults attuned to infant needs
  • individual programmes adjusted to infant rhythms
  • predictable and calm environment
  • partnership between parents and other adults caring for infants. 6

During toddlerhood children are evolving a sense of self and independence from adults but still need continual emotional support. Their ongoing dependence on adults is often in conflict with their growing independence and knowledge. Toddlers need lots of practice at the physical, social, reasoning and language skills they are acquiring at a fast pace. They need both challenge and comforting routines. Te Whariki provides some key curriculum requirements for toddlers. These are:

  • a secure environment and a programme that provides both challenge and predictable routines
  • opportunities for independent exploration and movement
  • a flexible approach - with spontaneity and a pace that allows toddlers to try things themselves
  • adults who encourage toddlers’ cognitive skills and language development
  • responsive and predictable adults who understand and accept their development swings. 7

The Ministry’s ECE Educate website provides early childhood leaders and teachers with questions to help them reflect on their everyday teaching and learning practices in relation to communication and exploration. 8

Communication: Do you invite me to communicate and respond to my particular efforts? Do you hear me?

Exploration: Do you engage my mind, offer challenges, and extend my world? Do you let me fly?

A recent review of the research evidence about the quality of education and care for children up to the age of three notes that:

The first three years of life are a period like no other. During these early years, babies and young children experience phenomenal growth in brain development, and in their understanding of themselves and the world around them. They are active and curious learners from birth, able to lead their own learning within the context of close, intimate and supportive relationships with responsive adults. 9

This review of the research evidence suggests five key conditions for quality. These are:

  • knowledgeable and capable practitioners, supported by strong leaders
  • a stable team of staff with a low turnover
  • effective use of staff (e.g. favourable ratios, staff continuity)
  • secure yet stimulating physical environments
  • engaged and involved families.

It also identifies four key dimensions of quality teaching and learning for children up to the age of three. These are:

  • stable relationships and interactions with sensitive and responsive adults
  • a focus on play-based activities and routines which allow children to take the lead in their own learning
  • support for communication and language
  • opportunities to move and be physically active.

A 2011 literature review about quality for up to two-year-olds highlights two key dimensions associated with high quality provision of education and care. 10 These are:

  • attuned interactions that establish secure relationships which stimulate emotional and cognitive growth
  • an environment that is free of toxic stress (small group sizes, high adult-to-child ratios, a calm relaxed atmosphere with unhurried, individual routines).

This literature review emphasises that teaching and learning for infants and toddlers is specialised and not the same as that for older children. This is because of the different communication style of this age group and their increased need for physical care and emotional nurturing. The curriculum for infants and toddlers places the teacher at the centre and promotes the importance of attachment relationships.

An article by Rameka and Walker 11 discusses issues related to working with Maori babies in early childhood services in New Zealand. The authors note their concerns about the ‘non-existence of literature on Maori perspectives of infants and toddlers in early childhood education.’ Their study concluded that despite some similarities between Western and Maori perspectives on infants and toddlers, there are some differences that need to be acknowledged.

Educators must be open to learning about and understanding te ao Maori perspectives in order for their practices with Maori babies to be culturally and socially responsive. Aroha is the foundation of the care and education of Maori babies. Educators cannot fully respect Maori babies if they do not understand the concept of aroha.