Depth, Meaning, and Joy: What to Look for in an Early Childhood Curriculum

By Krista Shambleau, Ph.D. Consultant, Early Childhood, Oakland Schools

My husband and I visited early childhood programs hoping to find a match for our children. One of the qualities we considered was the curriculum- the knowledge and skills our children would be learning. What we carry in our hearts are the hopes and dreams for our children. Parents deeply understand the specialness and multiple intelligences of their children and want that to be honored. Your child and “all children have the right to equitable learning opportunities that help them achieve their full potential as engaged learners and valued members of society” (NAEYC, Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education). We desperately want our children TO BE engaged learners and TO BE valued members of society.  

Children as Engaged Learners 

Children are most engaged when their teacher truly cares about them, knows who they are and how they learn, and carries high expectations. If children feel safety, belonging, love, and challenge, then they will be on a transformative learning journey with their teachers and peers. What mattered most to my husband and I were teachers who would pay attention to and love our children. 

I fondly remember taking my son (Ben) to his preschool’s “Meet the Teacher” event to check out the classroom and meet Ms. Stein. I watched him across the room as he sat with other children: “Does anyone want to hear a joke?” he asked, trying to break the ice. The kids stared at him and Ms. Stein encouraged him to tell his joke. On the spot Ben continued, “ah, ah, ah” (quickly thinking up a joke) . . . “Why did the guy pour peanuts over his head?” . . . “because he wanted attention!!!” My child and every child deserves to be seen and heard and valued. 

Valued Members

The idea of mirrors and windows is one way to think about how children are valued. “The curriculum should provide mirrors so that children see themselves, their families, and their communities reflected in the learning environment, materials, and activities. The curriculum should also provide windows on the world so that children learn about peoples, places, arts, sciences, and so on that they would otherwise not encounter. In diverse and inclusive learning communities, one child’s mirrors are another child’s windows, making for wonderful opportunities for collaborative learning” (NAEYC, Developmentally Appropriate Practice).

The Role of Curriculum and What to “Look for”

A transformative learning journey includes specific encounters. This is the role of a curriculum: to inspire relationship-based encounters that create meaningful change. As a parent and early childhood consultant, I’ve listed ten curriculum considerations that will lead to significant learning and growth for your child.

Look for a curriculum that: 

  1. requires educators to really slow down. Slowing down allows more time for relationships to grow and requires educators to notice, appreciate, and value the talents of each child. Curriculum should be less about “covering ground” and more about going deeply underground to nourish the root of learning. 

  2. is developed in partnership with children's families and communities, and is respectful of children’s cultures and home languages. Your home and community are rich fertile resources for your child’s learning. When children see something familiar to them in the classroom, they feel more connected and included in their classroom community. 

  3. strengthens children's identities as thinkers and responsible citizens. Children who see themselves as capable and responsible internalize their worth and act on this belief. Select a curriculum that allows children to think through questions and problems.

  4. views children as active learners. Children learn best when they are active members. Educators carefully supply open-ended and interesting learning materials. They encourage children to manipulate materials (and ideas) for exploration and discovery. They offer children choices. They create a space respectful of the ideas and voices of children. They support many areas of learning and gently nudge each child’s current knowledge and skills.  

  5. encourages educators to use ongoing strength-based observations of what each child can do. Observations of children are exchanged between educators and families. This intentional process allows for greater understanding and celebration of children and helps inform the next moves by teacher and family.  

  6. encourages educators to design interactions and lessons from children's interests. Educators use children's interests to engage them in activities that are relevant and authentic. They are able to use these interests to deliver curriculum content in greater depth.

  7. is play-based. Not only is play enjoyable, it is essential to all areas of healthy development. When children play, they are actively focused, engaged, self-directed and motivated from within. Play builds important life skills such as solving problems, interacting and negotiating with others, processing emotions, taking risks, flexibility, and resilience ( 2019).

  8. functions in a supportive climate. Children and educators interact in supportive partnership using a mix of activities chosen by the child and the adult. Child and educator are viewed as co-designers, co-discoverers, and co-learners.

  9. promotes healthy brain development. Children need to exercise working memory, flexible thinking, self-control, and empathy. One way that curriculum offers this is by allowing time for children to plan and carry out their own work as well as reflect upon this work to generate meaning and ignite further learning.   

  10. facilitates wonder, curiosity, the joy in learning, and engaged investigations. Children are born eager to learn about the world. Educators, supported by strong leaders, can be empowered by children's curiosity and risk-taking and their eagerness for relationships and learning. 

A curriculum is as good as the professionals who use it. Get to know the committed people behind the work. Ask early childhood professionals how they view children and how they view their role. Listen to their values. These are the values that guide their work with your child. Finally, look for educators who find depth, meaning, and joy in the teaching and learning process. At the center of curriculum is a heart beating with love. 


NAEYC. (2019). Advancing equity in early childhood education (Position statement).

NAEYC. (2020). Developmentally appropriate practice (Position statement): Planning and implementing an engaging curriculum to achieve meaningful goals. (2019). Pathways play brochure.

  • Curriculum
  • Preschool

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