Te Whàriki Curriculum: Strands and Principles

te whariki curriculum strands and principles

Te Whàriki is the New Zealand Early Childhood Education curriculum.

It was developed in 1996 through collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators. Its intention was to be a curriculum that embraces genuine multicultural education and is based upon Maori and Pasifika worldviews.

te whariki early childhood curriculum

This curriculum covers the education of children from birth to 5 years of age, after which they move on to The New Zealand Curriculum for English-speaking primary school students or Te Marautanga o Aotearoa for Maori-medium schooling.

What is Te Whàriki?

Te Whàriki is a Maori term for “woven mat”. It is a metaphor for the ways the four strands and five principles of the curriculum are interwoven to create a holistic early childhood educational experience.

The strands run one way, and include wellbeing (in Maori language: mana atua), belonging (mana whenua), contribution (mana tengata), communication (mana reo), and exploration (mana aoturoa).

The principles run across the strands, metaphorically ‘weaving themselves through’ the strands. The principles include empowerment (whakamana), holistic development (kotahitanga), family and community (whanau tangata), and relationships (nga hononga).

This is shown in the infographic below:

the strands and principles are depicted as a visual metaphor of a woven mat showing how the strands and principles weave together

Curriculum Strands

1. Wellbeing

The learning outcomes for this strand revolve around ‘caring for self’ and ‘caring for the wellbeing of others’.

There is a surprisingly strong focus on how children can act to ensure their own well-being is met (which is consistent with the focus on children’s agency/power).

For teachers (‘Kaiako’), the focus is on creating a safe and caring environment that nurtures development.

Teachers need to also think about ensuring consistency and continuity as children move across learning spaces and move to new teachers.

2. Belonging

The curriculum aims to ensure children have a sense of belonging in the classroom.

To achieve this sense of belonging, children should interact socially with their peers, their teachers (known as ‘Kaiako’), and community (known as whānau).

“[Children] need to know that their ECE setting is part of their wider world and inclusive of their parents and whānau”

Further, every child’s cultural background is brought into the classroom, celebrated, and encouraged.

3. Contribution

This strand emphasizes children’s rights to participate in and contribute to their communities. Children are encouraged to learn “with and alongside others”.

Te Whàriki emphasizes the importance of children’s citizenship and membership in their communities.

The curriculum states that children should be able to contribute using their own particular strengths and interests wherever they can.

Further, contributions are encouraged both physically in-person and virtually via the use of communication technologies.

4. Communication

Language development is emphasized within the curriculum.

Teachers should recognize that language is developed within social and cultural contexts. So, children should learn their language from elders within their community who can model language use, pronunciation and the role of metaphors within the language of instruction.

The classroom should be rich in symbols and language.

Maori language, symbols and arts (te reo Māori) are embraced in all settings. The curriculum states: “it is important that te reo Māori is valued and used in all ECE settings.”

5. Exploration

Embracing a constructivist orientation to learning, this curriculum highlights the importance of learning through play.

It also highlights the importance of providing age-appropriate equipment and tools to encourage exploration in the classroom. Further, in similarity to the Forest Schools approach, this curriculum embraces “adult-supported risk-taking play“.

Curriculum Principles

1. Empowerment

Learning should be an empowering experience. Children should be empowered to learn and grow throughout their formative years.

As a part of this, children are seen as “competent and confident learners” who have “agency” (choice and control) within the learning environemnt.

The curriculum document has as its core this vision of children as powerful:

“Underpinning Te Whāriki is the vision that children are competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society.” (p. 2)

In Maori culture, this empowerment is termed ‘mana’. Mana is roughly translated to mean the power of being, spiritual power, authority, or control 

2. Holistic Development

A holistic approach to development highlights that education isn’t just about gaining new knowledge.

Rather, holistic learning emphasizes the importance of all different types of learning: cognitive (hinengaro), physical (tinana), emotional (whatumanawa) and spiritual (wairua). Social and cultural dimensions of learning should also be considered.

Further, a holistic approach doesn’t see each of these aspects of learning (cognitive, physical, emotional, etc.) as separate things. Rather, it sees them as interwoven and interconnected. They can therefore be taught and engaged with at the same time – you won’t have one physical lesson and one cognitive lesson … they’re more interwoven than that!

3. Family and Community

Children learn with and within family and community groups. Community or whānau are encouraged to be an integral part of children’s learning experiences.

Where possible, children should learn using their own cultural knowledges and backgrounds. School should build on the knowledge and experiences families bring into the classroom.

4. Relationships

Relationships should be “responsive and reciprocal”. In the classroom, this means children’s cooperative play and collaborative skills should be encouraged.

Children don’t just have relationships with people. They also have relationships with places, things and time. For example, children need to develop relationships with the past through stories of their cultural histories.

If children and their cultures have strong relationships with places, these should be encouraged (which further feeds into their sense of belonging within their communities).

Underpinning Theories

The following theories are explicitly highlighted as underpinning theories within the curriculum. 

1. Bioecological Model

The bioecological model highlights the importance of learning within contexts. Its key theorist is Bronfenbrenner, who is explicitly embraced by the curriculum.

Bronfenbrenner emphasizes the importance of families, teachers (Kaiako), community, whānau, and society in supporting children’s development. People closer to the children (their parents and teachers) are some of the biggest influencers on children’s learning, and need to be partners in helping children to develop.

2. Sociocultural Theory

The Te Whāriki curriculum explicitly embraces the sociocultural theory of learning and development. The curriculum explicitly names Vygotksy as a key underpinning sociocultural theorist.

Vygotsky states that language and communication helps development. Through communication, children learn about how their society and culture thinks about things and understands the world. Extensive communication helps children learn and develop.

Learn More: 15 Sociocultural Theory Examples

2. Kaupapa Māori Theory

Māori are the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa (New Zealand). Kaupapa Māori theory has at its core an interest in sustaining Māori belief systems, language and ways of being as a norm within Aotearoa (New Zealand).

3. A Pasifika Approach

Pasifika people are the Indigenous people of the Pacific Islands, including people from kopu tangata (Cook Islands), falalalaga (Samoa), fale hanga (Tonga), and inati (Tokelau).

A uniting feature of Pasifika values is respect and reciprocity, which is emphasized within the curriculum.

4. Critical Theory

Critical theory emphasizes the importance of social justice and equality.

It aims to identify the needs of people who are oppressed and marginalized, and works to achieve justice for those peoples. The theory seeks out injustice and attempts to rectify it through education.

Glossary of Key Terms

  • Aotearoa: The Māori term from ‘New Zealand’.
  • Kaiako: Teachers.
  • Whānau: Extended family group who work together for a common cause. Often used as an affectionate term for the whole New Zealand community.
  • Mana: The spirit and power within a human. It can represent the authority, status, prestige and control of a person.
  • Whàriki: A woven mat. Used to describe how the curriculum strands and principles are woven together to create a holistic learning experience.
  • Pasifika: Indigenous peoples of the smaller Pacific Islands near New Zealand.
  • Maori: Indigenous peoples of New Zealand.


All citations are in APA format:

Alvestad, M., Duncan, J., & Berge, A. (2009). New Zealand ECE teachers talk about The TW Curriculu.. New Zealand Journal of Teachers’ Work6(1): 3 – 19.

Lee, W., Carr, M., Soutar, B., & Mitchell, L. (2013). Understanding the T-W approach: Early years education in practice. New Zealand: Routledge.

New Zealand Ministry of Education (2017). Te Whāriki early childhood curriculum. Retrieved from: https://education.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Early-Childhood/ELS-Te-Whariki-Early-Childhood-Curriculum-ENG-Web.pdf

Reedy, T. (2013). Tōku rangatira nā te mana mātauranga: Knowledge and power set me free. In Nuttall, J. (Ed.), Weaving Te Whāriki: Aotearoa New Zealand’s early childhood curriculum document in theory and practice (2nd ed., pp. 35–53). Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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