Skip to content
Welcome to Curiate! You've chosen well, we offer only the highest quality products that are ethically sourced, suitable for early childhood. Prices are Exclusive of GST.
Welcome to Curiate! Prices are Exclusive of GST.
Your Guide to Intentional Teaching

Your Guide to Intentional Teaching

What does the term, intentional teaching mean to you? 

Intentional teaching seems to become a bit of a catch phrase in early childhood education lately.  Often when I speak to teachers and read comments on discussion groups, I get the idea that teachers view intentional teaching as teacher-directed learning or as a way for adults to infringe on children’s right to free play. If you think this then you are not alone, I thought this too when I first heard about intentional teaching in a professional development workshop, I attended a few years ago. 

I just want to go on the record as being a passionate advocate for children’s rights to free play.  I am a firm believer that this is the best way for children to learn.  I do however also think of myself as an intentional teacher.  You might be asking yourself “how can you be an intentional teacher and have a pedagogy that is play-based and child-led?” 

 baby on the grass

Sometimes as teachers, in our efforts to emphasise the importance of child-led learning through free-play we can devalue the role of the teacher or become afraid to admit that what we in fact are doing is teaching.  As partners in learning both of these aspects are equally important. Although we allow children time and space to play freely; the environment, our planning and interactions with them should be intentional. 

“Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water.”

- Loris Malaguzzi

As mindful teachers, we intentionally interact with children in a respectful, reciprocal manner.  Why do we do this?  Because, perhaps like me you value relationships and know that children learn best when they feel a connection to an entuned adult. 

Each and every day we make decisions from our values and beliefs on what we think, and feel is best for children and their learning. We draw from the work of theorists that resonate with us and we intentionally engage in training and professional development, reflect on our practice and adapt our teaching in order to create the best possible outcomes for our children.   

 baby playing with toys in ECE

Intentional teaching can be defined as:

“to always be thinking about what we are doing and how it will foster children’s development and produce real and lasting learning”

- Epstein, 2007, p.10

This is in line with what Te Whāriki says:

“Kaiako are the key resource in any ECE service. Their primary responsibility is to facilitate children’s learning and development through thoughtful and intentional pedagogy.”

- Te Whariki, Ministry of Education, 2017, p. 59

Intentional teachers know themselves and are mindful about their attitudes, mindset, triggers and emotional states and how this plays a part in the emotional, intrinsic make-up of the environment.  They are curious and courageous, and they challenge themselves, their thinking, the status quo – they are always learning.  They are intentional with what they are communicating and how they are communicating.

“It is not just about technique but HOW I am with myself.”

- Dr Emmi Pikler

Intentional teachers take the time to authentically and sensitively observe children and use these observations to unpack the learning and intentionally plan provocations for learning.  They remain curious, and they set about finding out more – investigating why.  This intentionality is visible in their conversations with children, parents and other teachers. 


What Matters 

When we work in an early childhood setting as part of a learning community, we soon realise that our intentions as individual teachers are only one part of the puzzle.  We need to be conscious of the fact that children, parents and other members of our learning community have their own intentions too.

I would argue that in order to be truly intentional as a teacher or a team of teachers, it is vital to first start with why.  This concept of “what matters” although it has roots in the philosophy, spans much wider and deeper than just philosophy.  “What matters” is not just merely a statement of what we value but speaks to the core of who we are as a service, as a team and as a community. Our “what matters” should be evident in everything that we think say and do.

For instance, if you are a learning community that values natural and authentic resources for children, then your environment, your interactions, your conversations and your documentation would reflect this.  If you valued sustainability as a service, then this would shape your localised curriculum.  If you are a Playcentre you would have a distinctly different “what matters” to a setting that had a Montessori philosophy. Read more on this topic here.

 toys for early learning

 The Intentional Environment

One way that we can be intentional is in the environment.

However, this is one area of our teaching practice that we can easily take for granted, because we become comfortable in our environments.  We forget that our environment communicates in a huge way as to who we are and what we value.  New parents and visitors to our settings form their first impressions on what is in our environments and how our environment make them feel. 

As teachers, we facilitate and support children’s learning by providing learning opportunities and resources that ignite curiosity, create wonder, foster autonomy, allow agency and encourage mastery.

 teacher and babies in ECE

The next time you step into your setting, I invite you to take a look around your environment through new eyes and ask yourself:

  • How does your environment making you feel? 
  • What have you taken for granted in your environment? Are there messy, cluttered places that need a clean out?
  • What are you communicating with your environment?
  • Does your environment accurately reflect what your learning community values?
  • Is your philosophy alive in your environment?
  • Does it reflect the people in the setting?
  • How is your setting supporting the feeling of belonging for everyone in the setting?
  • How is your setting supporting the play and the learning of the children?
  • Are you intentionally setting up the environment to empower children, strengthen dispositions and to deepen thinking and understanding, or are you merely placing a basket of toys on a table top because “something needs to be out”?

  “Enabling environments mobilise the energy, attention, curiosity and focus of children”

- Howard Gardner

 ECE teacher

How Can You Be More Intentional in Your Practice?

The more I grapple with what it means to be an intentional teacher I see it is a broad over-arching term for being mindful, thoughtful and purposeful. It means being mindful of who you are - your purpose as a teacher and making this evident in everything that you think, you say, and you do. 

This means approaching your everyday practice and being mindful of:

  1. What do I bring? (Who am I as a person and as a teacher? What experiences, gifts, perspectives and knowledge do I bring with me?)
  2. What do I do? (What do I do with what I bring and what actions will I take?)
  3. What is the outcome that I would like to achieve?

Even if we work in a setting that is child-led, you might not realise how much influence you, the teacher has.  Each and everyday teachers decide:

  • The learning priorities for children - what do we think is important and whose voices will we include?
  • The content and context of our localised curriculum - what matters in our setting?
  • Whether it is play or routine time - will we have structured times for learning? If so, how many mat-times/group-times will we have? Will we have set meal-times and sleep-times or will we allow lots of uninterrupted time for free play and follow the rhythm of the child?
  • When, where and how we teach - Do we see learning as a set of structured teacher-led activities or do we follow the emergent curriculum and we allow children to have agency over their own learning?  Will you we facilitate or will we observe and support?
  • How we choose to view children - Do we recognise what a privilege it is to be part of this child’s life in this moment and time?  Do we view children through the lens of capable and competent?  Do we engage the pedagogy of the heart?
  • How we assess the learning - Do we notice, recognise and respond during our interactions with children?  In other words, when we are sitting at the playdough table with a child or a group of children, are we aware that we are engaged in assessment?  Are we aware that we are in fact in this moment Noticing, Recognising and Responding even if we are choosing not to document the moment? 
  • What will we document and how will we document the learning? - What learning do we see as important to document over other learning? Will we use learning stories, group stories, photographs, video or learning journeys?
  • How we respond to the learning - What teaching strategies we will use? How will we adapt the environment to support the children’s learning?
  • How we evaluate the learning - How can we tell if what we planned for actually happened?

 child in ECE reading a book

In conclusion, you might want to take a moment to reflect and ask yourself: Are you doing these things intentionally or are you doing this on automatic pilot? 

“The goal is concrete, the intention has been set but if I do not stop to reflect, there is no point at all! Teaching IS reflective practice.”

- Nicole Arndt.

Do you reflect on what you do,how you are and adapt to meet the learning needs of the children? How mindful, reflective - how intentional are you as a teacher?

 - Written by Tanya Valentin




McLaughlin, T. Aspden, K. McLachlan, C. (2015). How do Teachers Build Strong Relationships?

Ministry of Education. (2017). Te Whariki – Early Childhood Curriculum.

Epstein, A.S. (2014). The Intentional Teacher: Choosing the best strategies for young children’s learning. Washington DC, National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The Pikler Collection.

Next article Get Children More Engaged in Story Time

Leave a comment

Comments must be approved before appearing

* Required fields