What is a School Curriculum and do children really learn best through play

What is Curriculum in early childhood education?

By Karen Elzinga 7/06/2018

Curriculum is determined from whatever takes place over the duration of an active day (Nuttall & Edwards, 2007; New Zealand Ministry of Education, 1996; DEEWR, 2009).

Curriculum refers to the programming and pedagogical practices in early childhood education and care, but also includes unplanned interactions, experiences, routine occurrences and room transitions (Arthur, Beecher, Dockett, Death & Farmer, 2015).

Curriculum can be defined by key selective areas:

Aims, Objectives and Outcomes- That educators aim to provide motivational and obtainable goals with achievable age related outcomes for children.

Methods/ Procedures- That the principles, practices, procedures and methods that educators place into an active day are in the best interest of the child.

 Content and Programming -Learning is suited to a targeted group of children.

·         Evaluation/ assessment- Child assessment and extensive review and evaluation of assessment documents, in order to determine changes and improvements to increase the child's learning and developmental outcomes (McLachlan, Fleer & Edwards, 2015; McLachlan, Fleer & Edwards, 2013). 

Curriculum can be drawn from various specified early childhood frameworks like the National Quality Framework (NQF), or the Early Learning Years Framework (ELYF). Educators can utilize these frameworks filled with early childhood education and developmental information, to guide decisions on design and implementation practices (Australian Government Department of Education and Training, 2010; ACECQA, 2017 ).

In the framework of the ELYF  is information to aid educators, by helping to clarify areas of childhood growth and development, in what is called the Belonging, Being and Becoming framework. Although the ELYF does not offer content specific to the early childhood curriculum, educators can draw valuable direction from its principal learning areas, practices and developmental outcomes. The ELYF covers a cross section of information and is a valuable and informative resource for guiding educators in their programming with topics such as:

Partnerships with families

Children and communities

 Trust and respectful relationships with children

 Respectful equal interactions

 Acknowledging and embracing diversity

 Educator training and practices

 Self assessment and reflection (Arthur, Beecher, Dockett, Death & Farmer, 2015),. (DEEWR, 2009).

When educators link their curriculum programming to these types of professional industry accredited frameworks, they can justify their values, beliefs, goals, and potential future vision for children, to a place rooted in research. (Alvestad & Duncan, 2006). This shared approach of linking ideas from specific sector based frameworks to individualised curriculums, also provides educators with an ally when expressing and sharing curriculum decisions, with concerned or interested families and communities. (Nuttall & Edwards, 2007).

How do children learn the curriculum by 'playing' in early childhood education and care centres

 Early research tells us that through playbased learning children are structurally enhancing the design of their brains through the trusting and building of secure attachments. This stimulation on
the brain through emotional and social play, physical exploration and experimentation of environments, is instrumental to developing and strengthening the neural pathways and synapses in the brain. This improved brain activity leads to better brain flexibility and functioning, and reflects
a capacity for increased future life learning in academic based curriculums (Lester & Russell, 2008).

Language says Dr Brenda Fitzgerald is what makes us human; that language is the basis from which all other learning is built. While learning children are exposed to many words within social interactions through play in early childhood, and receive vital stimulation important for successful brain structuring. An example of this is a baby's innate ability to learn. When born babies are internally built to learn language; this language comes from parental and social interactions, and the
more language within interactions, the better the brain builds pathways to engage in future learning (Fitzgerald, 2014).

 Harvard University conducted a study on babies
and mothers called the "Still face experiment". In the study mothers
engaged closely with their babies with a happy face, and loads of expressive
qualities in reaction to their babies. After a time laps, the mothers were
instructed to turn away from their babies than turn back with a blank stare,
and without any interaction. The results were that it showed evidence that
babies go through an inbuilt and hardwired response of trying to reengage their
mothers in play. This was clear as the babies became more and more frustrated leading
to crying when they didn't achieve the results they had expected. (Fitzgerald,

Dr Fitzgerald along with the work and theory of Vygotsky both expressed awareness and ideology that the physical neurological development of the brain depends on linguistic intelligence or words. They insist that every time a child hears the same words repeated like in conversations through play based learning, the more hardwired the brain becomes. The brain then creates new connections stemming from those original connections and more involved learning and extended learning occurs. If words are not continuously and repeatedly overheard those connections in the brain simply shrink and dissolve in a process known as pruning. This process decreases a child's ability to effectively learn new knowledge. But it is not simply a case of hearing repeated words that makes this a viable brain forming process. The quality and quantity of social play based interactions with other people, and their use of the associated words with intent and meaning, is what brings about successful brain structuring resulting in enhanced and successful curriculum learning outcomes  (Fitzgerald, 2014)., (Reid, 2002).

Long term developmental outcomes are expedited by play based learning says researchers Bodrova and Leong. They suggest that children's play is directly related to increased academia and tangible and meaningful school adjustment. They believe through a play based curriculum that children are able to explore and experiment in risk taking when they feel safe and supported. That children learn problem solving methods through exposure to problematic tasks and environments, and create purpose and meaning for their lives by social interactions with peers, people more knowledgeable than themselves, and community engagement. By developing skills through play children develop intellect and language proficiency, by social interactions and practicing word use and meaning. Children also obtain a good level of self actualization through their play based social and emotional interactions, whilst also learning self behaviour regulation. All of these acquired skills form lifelong learning connections and thus children develop new skills, one of which is memory recall (Bodrova & Leong, 2005).

Such memory recall is evident in children in early childhood from as young as 3 months old, as they acquire the skills to organise and categorise their varying experiences (Quinn, 2002)., (Quinn & Bhatt, 2006) An example of this is that a child may become gradually distracted or disinterested when shown a pile of picture cards showing only dogs, but will regain interest when a card showcasing a different animal such as a bird is shown (McDevitt & Ellis Ormrod, 2010). This being said however young children rarely intentionally seek out trying to memorise or learn something new, a skill know later in early primary school as 'rehearsal'. Preschool children derive their learning from play based experiences, by being tactile and engaging with new challenges. For e.g. a child will succeed far more readily in remembering how something works, functions, acts or behaves, by playing and learning through hands on interaction with it, than by receiving and hearing mere instructions for the items function or use (Newman, 1990).

Piaget's use of constructivist learning is one pedagogical way that children learn the curriculum through play. By staggering or staging learning children can absorb and cement existing learning before new knowledge is added to existing knowledge to form a new improved view. For e.g. a child learns about horses, they know they have 4 legs and the long face. When they go to the zoo they see a zebra to which they respond there's a horse, through constructivist learning the child is instructed that although it looks like a horse it differs from a horse because of its stripes (Arthur, Beecher, Dockett, Death & Farmer, 2015; McLachlan, Fleer & Edwards, 2013). 

There are numerous approaches to how children learn, here are some:

Child- centred


Old basics


Multiple intelligences

By grouping children

By utilising specific timetables or routines daily.

Employing good educated staff

Engaging children in quality programming (Arthur, Beecher, Dockett, Death & Farmer, 2015).

 As long as educators know and understand that pedagogical approaches to curriculum change with activities and change individually with children needs, they will be able to adapt play based learning to for fill the requirements of the curriculum and what is ultimately in the best interest of the child. (Arthur, Beecher, Dockett, Death & Farmer, 2015). Educational theorist and philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) words ring perfectly, he said "children learn by doing' (McLachlan, Fleer & Edwards, 2013).  .


Australian Children's  Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). (2017). Guild to the National Quality Standards. Retrieved from http://files.acecqa.gov.au/fil...

Australian Government Department of Education and Training. (2010). Educators’ Guide to the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Retrieved from https://docs.education.gov.au/...

Alvestad, M & Duncan, J. (2006). The Value is Enormous-It's priceless l think: New ZealandPreschool Teachers Understanding of the Early Childhood Curriculum in New Zealand- A Comparative Perspective, International  Journal of Education, Vol.38 no1, pp.31-45

Arthur, L., Beecher, B., Dockett, S., Death, E., & Farmer, S. (2015). Planning and programming in early childhood settings (6th ed.). South Melbourne: Cengage.

Bodrova, E. & Leong, D. (2005). Uniquely preschool: What research tells us about the ways young children learn. Educational Leadership, 63(1), 44-47.

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McLachlan, C., Fleer, M., & Edwards, S. (2013). Early childhood curriculum: Planning, Assessment, and Implementation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McLachlan, C., Fleer, M., & Edwards, S. (2015). Early childhood curriculum: Planning, Assessment, and Implementation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Newman, L. (1990). Intentional and Unintentional memory in young children: Remembering vs Playing. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

New Zealand Ministry of Education. (1996). Te Whariki, Learning Media. Wellington.

Quinn. P. (2002) Category Representation in Young Infants. Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Quinn, P & Bhatt, R. (2006). Are some gestalt principles deployed more readily than others during early development? The case of lightness versus form similarity. Journal of experimental psychology: Human Perception and Performance

Reid, J. (2002). Managing Small Group Learning, Primary English Teaching Association. Sydney.


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