National Aistear Development Officer, National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA)
Curriculum Planning for Babies and Toddlers
Playful, emergent, and inquiry-based learning
A curriculum for babies and toddlers is often difficult to conceptualise, raising questions such as: What does it look like? Where does it happen? Who develops it? This article looks at these questions and how using Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework can support this.
From birth to three years is a critical stage of child development. As noted in First 5: A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families, ‘the pace of growth and learning is unequalled at any other stage’ (Government of Ireland, 2018, p. 23).
Aistear: The Early Childhood Curriculum Framework (NCCA, 2009b) and Síolta: The National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education (Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education [CECDE], 2006) support the learning and development of all children from birth to six years across a range of early childhood settings. In 2015, the NCCA established the Aistear Síolta Practice Guide, an online resource to support early childhood practitioners to develop and implement a curriculum underpinned by the principles of Aistear and Síolta.
This article focuses on what a quality early childhood curriculum looks like for babies and toddlers and how the Aistear Síolta Practice Guide can support this.
A curriculum for babies and toddlers
Curriculum is defined in Aistear as ‘all the experiences, formal and informal, planned and unplanned in the indoor and outdoor environment, which contribute to children’s learning and development’ (NCCA, 2009b, p. 54). Therefore, a curriculum for babies and toddlers must include the totality of children’s experiences – the broad goals for their learning and development, the activities and experiences through which they can learn and develop, the approaches and strategies used to support and enable children to achieve their goals, and the environment in which all of this takes place. In essence, a curriculum for babies and toddlers is a reflection of their everyday lived experiences.
An emergent and inquiry-based curriculum
Aistear aims to help practitioners to plan and build a curriculum that supports children to develop positive dispositions, skills, attitudes, and values, as well as knowledge and understanding. In developing a curriculum, practitioners respond to children’s interests and questions, extend their learning, and promote challenge and engagement through enjoyable and motivating experiences, be they planned, spontaneous, or regular daily care.
The Aistear Síolta Practice Guide notes that ‘an emergent and inquiry-based curriculum uses children’s and practitioners’ interests, questions and experiences as starting points for curriculum planning’. Therefore, children’s everyday routines and interactions, such as feeding, nappy changing, and learning to crawl, walk, explore, and play, form an integral part of curriculum planning for babies and toddlers.
In supporting early childhood practitioners to develop and implement an emergent and inquiry-based curriculum, the Aistear Síolta Practice Guide lists six pillars of practice that practitioners should consider: building partnerships with parents; creating and using the learning environment; learning through play; nurturing and extending interactions; planning and assessing using Aistear’s themes; and supporting transitions. These are discussed in the sections below.
The quality of early childhood experiences has a direct and long-term influence on children’s learning and development (Hayes, 2007). Moreover, children under three years of age have unique and distinct needs that set them apart from older children, so they need a specialised curriculum that meets the individual needs of each child.
Children under three years of age have unique and distinct needs that set them apart from older children, so they need a specialised curriculum.
The Aistear Síolta Practice Guide emphasises the importance of adult–child interactions in meeting these needs. Practitioners who spend time caring for, playing with, and talking to babies and toddlers are supporting the development of secure attachments. Babies and toddlers need a secure attachment to at least one adult in their setting. This relationship provides comfort, reassurance, and security. Respectful and consistent interactions increase the child’s confidence and competence to respect, explore, develop, and learn.
Babies and toddlers interact and communicate non-verbally through movement, gestures, and facial expressions, and verbally through sounds and words. Practitioners need to be responsive to these cues in order to help children form secure attachments with their caregiver and progress their learning. Equally, babies and toddlers notice and respond to the non-verbal cues of their caregiver, such as tone of voice, body language, and responsiveness. They interpret these cues to form ideas and concepts about their own abilities and position in society; this, in turn, can influence the development of their learning dispositions, values, and attitudes.
To ensure that secure attachments are given priority in developing a curriculum for babies and toddlers, a ‘key-person’ approach is used in many early childhood settings. This approach aims to support children’s learning and development by ensuring that children experience warm, responsive, and nurturing relationships, with a consistent and trusted adult who enables them to feel confident and competent.
When planning a curriculum for babies and toddlers, early childhood practitioners must remember that ongoing consistent relationships, predictability, and continuity of care are fundamental aspects of quality practice (French, 2018). Care-giving routines, such as with nappy changing, sleep times, and meal times, are a critical aspect of the interactions between the key person and the young child. Every moment in these routines is an opportunity for learning and development and is thus an important part of the individualised curriculum provided to children under the age of three.
The curriculum provided for babies and toddlers should reflect their lived experiences. A quality early childhood service commits to working in partnership with parents to provide an environment in which babies and toddlers are happy, feel they belong, and can develop to their fullest potential. In this environment, parents and practitioners work together to share information and expertise, and this communication is two-way in a trusting relationship (NCCA, 2009c).
The learning environment
A quality learning environment that promotes learning and development for babies and toddlers is nurturing, challenging, and stimulating. In this environment, practitioners must develop the skills of observation and reflection to facilitate planning that supports and extends learning.
Early childhood practitioners must remember that ongoing consistent relationships, predictability, and continuity of care are fundamental aspects of quality practice.
Aistear refers to learning and development that occurs both ‘in the indoor and outdoor environment’, and so both environments should receive equal emphasis and planning in the curriculum. In fact, many of the activities that babies and toddlers enjoy indoors can be achieved outdoors and with greater freedom (French, 2007).
The NCCA identified play as one of the key contexts for children’s early learning and development:
“Much of children’s early learning and development takes place through play and hands-on experiences. Through these, children explore social, physical and imaginary worlds. (NCCA, 2009c, p. 11)”
Children require time, space, and support both to play and to develop their play. As curriculum developers, practitioners need to create an indoor and outdoor environment that provides for a wide range of play opportunities.
Planning and assessing
Aistear defines assessment as ‘the on-going process of collecting, documenting, reflecting on and using information to develop rich portraits of children as learners in order to support and enhance their future learning’ (NCCA, 2009b, p. 72). Planning and assessing form part of practitioners’ day-to-day interactions with babies and toddlers. Practitioners continually make judgements about their key child’s learning and development, and use the information to progress learning. These everyday observations and interactions form the basis of planning and assessing a curriculum for babies and toddlers (NCCA, 2009a).
The importance of supportive and smooth transitions in early childhood cannot be overestimated. Aistear recognises a transition as the process of moving from one situation to another and taking time to adjust. Major transitions often represent significant milestones in a child’s life and signify change for children and their families, such as the move from home to the first out-of-home setting. This transition is best handled by a key worker who will provide a consistent approach to enable the baby or toddler to feel more secure and hopefully adapt well.
Other types of transition are more frequent, for example the transition from one room to another in a setting, or from one activity to another. Consideration must be given to the number of transitions a baby or toddler experiences in a day and whether these meet the child’s individual needs in a consistent, predictable, and caring manner. Good relationships are key to ensuring that all transitions happen as smoothly as possible.
This article has emphasised the importance of interactions and relationships when developing a curriculum for babies and toddlers. These interactions and relations frame the learning and development of and for young children. According to First 5:
“A curriculum that recognises learning and care forms ‘an inseparable whole’, offers opportunities for play, exploration and active participation by children and their parents, and is responsive to children’s interests and abilities is also an essential component of quality. (Government of Ireland, 2018)”
Aistear provides the framework, and the Aistear Síolta Practice Guide provides the resources to support and enable early childhood practitioners to develop and implement an individualised curriculum that meets the learning and care needs of all children.
Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education (CECDE) (2006) Síolta: The National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education. Dublin: National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education.
French, G. (2007) ‘Children’s Early Learning and Development: A Research Paper’. Dublin, NCCA.
French, G. (2018) The Time of Their Lives: Nurturing Babies’ Learning and Development in Early Childhood Settings. Dublin: Barnardos.
Government of Ireland (2018) First 5: A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families 2019–2028. Dublin: Government of Ireland.
Hayes, N. (2007) ‘Perspectives on the Relationship between Education and Care in Early Childhood: A Research Paper’. Dublin: NCCA.
National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) (2009a) Guidelines for Good Practice. Dublin: NCCA.
National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) (2009b) Aistear: The Early Childhood Curriculum Framework. Dublin: NCCA.
National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) (2009c) Principles and Themes. Dublin: NCCA.
National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) (2015) Aistear Síolta Practice Guide. Available at: www.aistearsiolta.ie.