How Do We Define an Early Childhood Curriculum?

By Dr. Shirley Patterson

There are numerous approaches to early childhood education. Most, if not all, have a goal of enhancing school readiness, and the approach individual teachers use will most likely depend on their philosophical position on early learning.

Our views related to the purpose of a curriculum and the approaches we use can be envisioned on a continuum (Soler & Miller, 2003), with one end being child-directed input and the other more adult-directed input. The curriculum may become the object of discussion when different views or philosophies are expressed. What is the appropriate content and context for early learning in the classroom?  How will the curriculum be delivered?

Our vision for early childhood education is expressed through the curriculum we implement. I believe that high-quality, intentional curriculum can increase the achievement of children, particularly children from low-income homes (Klein & Knitzer, 2006).

What is an early childhood (EC) curriculum? Can you define your concept of a curriculum? Simple question—not so simple answer. If you ask this question to 10 people in the EC teaching profession, you might get 10 different answers. Some will say it is a framework for learning. Some will say it is a group of activities for children. Some will say it is a scope and sequence of goals/objectives. Is it any of these? Is it all of these? Does it matter that we can define it? I believe it does.

A lack of clarity in the definition leads to a lack of conceptualization of what an early childhood curriculum should be. For the teacher who arms her/himself with all the tools possible to provide the best instructional environment for young children, the curriculum is at the core of the program.

According to a 2009 joint position paper of the National Association for the Education of Young Children  (NAEYC) and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS-SDE), “Curriculum is an organized framework that delineates the content children are to learn, the processes through which children achieve the identified curricular goals, what teachers do to help children achieve these goals, and the context in which teaching and learning occur.”

Here are three other definitions of curriculum:

  • “Planned and guided learning experiences and intended outcomes, formulated through the systematic reconstruction of knowledge and experiences under the auspices of the school, for the learners’ continuous and willful growth in personal social competence” (Tanner, 1980)
  • “A written document that systematically describes goals planned, objectives, content, learning activities, evaluation procedures and so forth” (Pratt, 1980)
  • “All of the experiences that individual learners have in a program of education whose purpose is to achieve broad goals and related specific objectives, which is planned in terms of a framework of theory and research or past and present professional practice” (Hass, 1987)

There are commonalities among these definitions. According to a number of curriculum definitions, whether teachers write their own curriculum or purchase a commercial curriculum, some common features apply. For example, a curriculum is planned, systematic, and organized. It provides a framework and guided learning with the content and context for learning. There are goals and objectives with intended learning outcomes. And, as noted from the national professional literature and guidance, we need accountability and outcome measurements. Curricula must align with state guidelines or early childhood standards, the Common Core State Standards, and/or professional organizations such as NAEYC.

It is clearly a large task to produce an early childhood curriculum that has all components, is developmentally appropriate, and moves children forward in preparation for kindergarten. When we can define “curriculum,” then we can describe what we want children to learn, how we intend to teach, the sequence of instruction, the goals or outcomes we desire/expect, and how we will measure them. It is a big job. What is your definition?

Shirley Patterson, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and learning disabilities specialist.  She is a consultant in early language and literacy and a certified instructor for the The Emerging Language and Literacy Curriculum, which she coauthored with Ornes, McMillan, & Thomas.


Hoss, G. (1987). Curriculum planning: A new approach. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Klein, L. & Knitzer, J. (2006). Effective preschool curricula and teaching strategies. Pathways to Early School Success, Issue Brief No.2. Retrieved from

NAEYC & NAECS/SDE. (2009). Where we stand on curriculum, assessment, and program evaluation.  Retrieved from

Pratt, D. (1980). Curriculum: Design and development. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Soler, J. & Miller, L. (2003). The struggle for early childhood curricula: A comparison of the English Foundation Stage Curriculum, Te Wha’riki and Reggio Emilia.

Tanner, D. & Tanner, L. (1980). Curriculum development: Theory into practice. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Categories: General Education, Literacy | Leave a comment

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