Teaching approaches exploring multiple pathways to holistic development.

Marjolein Whyte New Zealand Tertiary College

Maddie Hendrie New Zealand Tertiary College

Practitioner Research: Vol 7, No 3 - April 2023

Te Whāriki: He Whāriki Mātauranga mō ngā Mokopuna o Aotearoa: Early Childhood Curriculum (Te Whāriki) (Ministry of Education [MoE], 2017) states that holistic development sees the child as a whole, encompassing all dimensions of children’s learning and development. What holistic development looks like in practice, however, is left open-ended in Te Whāriki (MoE, 2017). It can therefore be difficult for the practitioner to know what holistic development entails and how it can be practiced. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to holistic learning and development, and with this in mind, the authors will explore what holistic development involves and more specifically how it is practised in a range of teaching approaches.


Holistic development is awarded the status of being one of the overarching principles in the early childhood curriculum of Aotearoa New Zealand, signalling its importance as an aspect of learning. In Te Whāriki curriculum of Aotearoa New Zealand, cognitive, physical, emotional, social, spiritual and cultural dimensions of development are “interwoven and interdependent” (MoE, 2017, p. 19). Te Whāriki promotes lifelong learning, including learning dispositions, key competencies, values, skills and content knowledge from the learning areas of the school curriculum. The early childhood curriculum is rich and broad, which enables early childhood practitioners to weave in their own philosophies and teaching approaches, reflecting the diversity of early childhood services in New Zealand (MoE, 2017). This article will look at the teaching approaches of Reggio Emilia, Steiner, Montessori, Pikler and kaupapa Māori approach of Kōhanga Reo to explore how holistic development can be interpreted in a variety of different and unique ways.

Holistic development in Reggio Emilia

Looking at holistic development in Reggio Emilia in Italy, what stands out is the multiplicity of resources (natural as well as loose parts) and the multiple ways of learning (Brandao & Theodotou, 2020; Edwards et al., 2012). The approach was developed after World War II by Loris Malaguzzi with a vision to develop critical thinking in children. By offering many different modes of learning, children are encouraged to collaborate and engage in research and dialogue with their teachers, parents and each other (Brandao & Theodotou, 2020). In an interview with Lella Gandini (2012), Malaguzzi shared “what children learn is due to the children’s own doing, as a consequence of their activity and own resources” (p. 45). Children investigate, reflect deeply, and “observe, re-observe, consider and re-consider, represent and re-present” (Edwards et al., 2012, p. 12). The holistic aspect of this learning is evident though the open-ended environment, where provocations invite ongoing learning and exploring (Brandao & Theodotou, 2020). The environment is seen as a third teacher that is stimulating and aesthetically pleasing (Robson, 2017). The emphasis on the environment can be linked to Te Whāriki’s mention of the importance of connecting to the natural environment and being kaitakitanga (guardians) of the natural world (MoE, 2017).

In his interview with Lella Gandini (2012), Malaguzzi commented that teachers “must know that experiences should be as numerous as the keys of a piano and that each calls forth infinite acts of intelligence when children are offered an infinite variety to choose from” (p. 49). This exploring through multiple ways Malaguzzi called “the 100 languages of children” (Adams et al., 2016; Brandao & Theodotou, 2020). The 100 languages include many art forms such as painting, sculpting, dance, drama, music and story-telling. Malaguzzi believed that children can achieve higher thinking and present complex ideas (Robson, 2017) through 100 different ways of thinking and presenting. Adams et al. (2016) saw the use of multi-media as the spiritual aspect of the approach. Gandini (2012) sums up the holistic way of working in Reggio Emilia by stating “the school is a workshop or laboratory where knowledge is constructed continually - not a linear or progressive way but in a dynamic, active and often social context” (p. 326). This ensures an environment where rich experiences are offered with many shades of colour and light, open spaces and rich and varied materials (Gandini, 2012).

Holistic development in the Waldorf-Steiner approach

A very different view of holistic development can be found in the Waldorf-Steiner approach. Instead of offering children a wide variety of learning experiences and resources, and multi-modal ways of thinking as in Reggio Emilia, Steiner’s primary concern was with the spiritual development of the child (Steiner, 2008; 2012). Steiner saw children’s spiritual development as slowly unfolding over seven-year periods, with the first seven years forming a strong base for later cognitive development (Nicol, 2007; Steiner, 2012). Steiner (2012) believed that the psyche of the young child is close to nature; exploring nature with their whole being unlocks the child’s inner potential. During this time the ‘will-senses’ are developed, which Steiner (2012) described as the seed for the spirit and soul of the child, involving sense of life, touch, movement and balance. Children therefore needed to exercise their senses by engaging in crafts (developing the muscles in their hands), creative play, tasks around the home, helping with food preparation and looking after animals (Steiner, 2012). There is a link here to Te Whāriki curriculum, where children “use of all the senses and physical abilities to make sense of the world” (p. 47). A stable, harmonious and peaceful environment is established, guided by the repetition of daily and seasonal routines. The children internalise the patterns of nature through nourishment of their senses and caring for the environment (Attfield, 2022; Nicol & Taplin, 2018). Rhythm is observed in the growth of plants, patterns in nature and the seasons, which are introduced by the teachers through story-telling (Attfield, 2022). Imaginative play also has an important role in the holistic development of the child and takes place without interference and guidance. “You will ruin the soul of the child if you make him commit to memory ready-made conclusions” warned Steiner (2012, p. 134). Reading, writing and subject knowledge can therefore only start after the child has cut their first adult teeth (Goldshmidt, 2017; Steiner, 2012). Instead, children are encouraged to contribute to daily routines by imitating adults engaging in meaningful daily life tasks (Nicol & Taplin, 2018; Rawson, 2019).

Holistic development in the Montessori approach

Both Steiner and Montessori recognise the spiritual nature of the embryonic child (Montessori, 2012; Steiner, 2012), with the Montessori approach seeing children’s spirituality as linked to other areas of development as well as the whole child (Bennetts & Bone, 2019). While Steiner cautioned to introduce the child slowly to life so this could unlock their spiritual potential, Montessori valued children’s ability to learn things at a very young age and believed that children are born with a special psyche that helps them absorb everything in the environment effortlessly (Montessori, 2012). Montessori also commented on the ease with which children aged three to six years could remember complex scientific vocabulary: “It is as if a light is lit for the child” (2012, p. 245), which shows learning content knowledge of areas such as science, mathematics and literacy is encouraged by Montessori.

Montessori (2012) advised teachers to prepare a meticulously organised environment for the child in their early years, with a wide variety of materials for children to choose from. The resources have “a control of error which is very visible, so a little child of two years old can use it and with it acquire the knowledge of control and error on the path to perfection” (Montessori, 2012, p. 341). At the developmental stage of three to six years old, it is important that the child does a lot of constructing according to Montessori (2012). This is the time that the child builds concentration, laying the foundations of one’s character. Avoiding distraction and focusing attention is important. To help the child concentrate, the activities are carried out by the child with minimal help from the teacher who trusts that the child is able to solve the problems that are prepared for the child. The activities cover all facets of development and practical life (Bennetts & Bone, 2019; Isaacs, 2018). A connection can be made to Te Whāriki, noting that “children develop by participating actively in the opportunities that are available to them” (MoE, 2017, p. 36). Montessori encompasses all the senses, language and literacy development, science and mathematics (Isaacs, 2018). Spiritual qualities such as calmness, preparedness and compassion, are displayed by the teacher and taken up by the child (Smith, 2013).

Holistic elements of the Pikler approach

Pikler’s understanding of holistic development can be found in the spiritual qualities that can be detected in the caregiver’s ‘way of being’ with the infant or toddler, especially during care moments where a trust relationship and secure attachment is built through mindful and respectful caregiving Pikler, n.d). Attunement is needed to foster holistic development through the relationship and observing the child as a developing human being. An understanding is needed of how fostering relationships impacts development (Rockel & Fryer, 2016). Weber (2010), who worked closely with Pikler, explains that through respectful interactions and allowing the infant to develop their movement at their own pace, the child’s “[s]elf enters more and more deeply into her body as we communicate to the child over and over through our hands, our eyes, our voices that the world is good and that her existence is secure” (p. 19). Te Whāriki validates the importance of the use of non-verbal communication (MoE, 2017). It is necessary for these interactions to be uninterrupted and team support is key in this happening (Christie, 2011). Anna Tardos (2010), Emmi Pikler’s daughter, writes that letting the infant initiate and discover their own movements for the first time is an innovative element of the approach that creates a sense of competence in the child. Pikler commented that “such an infant is following his {sic} own movements with extraordinary interest and amazing patience. He {sic} attentively studies one movement innumerable times” (Pikler, n.d., p. 1). The child’s holistic development is promoted naturally and voluntarily, allowing the child opportunities for freedom of movement, to let their development unfold in their own time and space in a safe environment (Gnaoré, 2021; Marlen, 2017).

A sense of agency is created for the child by talking to the child, asking the child if they are ready for the next care routine (Tardos, 2011). It is important to also respond to the infant’s non-verbal communications: the caregiving is done with the child, not ‘to’ the child. The caregiver touches the child gently and slowly as to not startle the child, communicate their love and presence and to observe the responses from the child (Chahin & Tardos, 2017). A slowed down, gentle and calm approach is important (Rockel & Fryer, 2016). Reciprocal interactions and regarding the child as an active participant in their care, give the child a sense of ownership and agency (Chahin, & Tardos, 2017). This shows respect for the child’s potential, where empathy, intersubjectivity and reciprocal learning are key aspects (Rockel & Fryer, 2016).

Kaupapa Māori approach: Kōhanga Reo

Like the other approaches, the kaupapa Māori approach of Kōhanga Reo emphasises relationships and especially the connection to the whānau (wider family group) and whakapapa (ancestry). In te ao Māori, the child is part of the whānau and the whānau part of the child (MoE, 2011, MoE, 2009). The hapū (family group) is a central pillar of Māori society where the child has a connection with their forebears, the wider world and the spiritual worlds (Skerrett, 2018). The child has a personal power (mana) linked to their ancestors and sacred life force (Rameka, 2015). Therefore, the past is the guide for the future (MoE, 2009; Walker, 1990).

The wider perspective of the world contributes to the holistic way of being in te ao Māori (Māori world view): “Māori believe all things have a spirit as well as a physical body; even the earth has a spirit, and so do the animals, birds, and fish; mankind also has a spirit” (Barlow, 1993, p. 152). It is important to achieve a balance between the physical and spiritual to achieve holistic wellbeing. Part of the Māori way of knowing and being is the concept of wairua, a spiritual essence that lives in everything around us (Durie, 1985). Durie (1985) describes a Māori model of health and wellbeing, Te Whare Tapa Whā, that encompasses the four dimensions of taha tinana (physical health), taha whanau (family health), taha wairua (spiritual health and taha hinengaro (mental health). Te Whāriki makes links to Te Whare Tapa Whā and the importance of understanding Māori approaches to health and wellbeing (MoE, 2017).

In the kaupapa Māori approach of Kōhanga Reo, te reo Māori is a crucial vehicle through which Māori concepts and ways of being can be expressed. Holistic development is also expressed through a connection with the natural world where Māori are seen as kaitiakitanga (caretakers) of the natural environment. The child is a descendant of atua (Māori gods), Papatūānuku, the earth mother and Ranginui, the sky father (Rameka et al., 2021). Therefore, “the holistic worldview acknowledges the sacred relationship that humans have with nature, with each other and with themselves” (Cheung, 2008, p. 3).


The understanding of holistic development in Te Whāriki curriculum is broad and covers all areas of “cognitive (hinengaro), physical (tinana), emotional (whatumanawa), spiritual (wairua), and social and cultural dimensions” (MoE, 2017, p. 21). It is influenced and transformed by teachers’ personal philosophies and the teaching approach of the early childhood service. Examining the pathways that different philosophies such Reggio Emilia, Steiner, Montessori, Pikler and Kōhanga Reo take to approaching holistic development, opens up many possibilities to contribute to the richness and broadness of the curriculum (MoE, 2017). It is hoped that this article will enrich teachers’ understanding of holistic development and add to the diversity of teaching practice in early childhood education in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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How to cite this article

Hendrie, M. & Whyte, M. (2023). Teaching approaches exploring multiple pathways to holistic development. He Kupu, 7 (3), 15-22.