Planning curriculum for infants
by Terri Jo Swim and Robin Muza
Maria and Antonio are teachers in an infant classroom. They
have eight children enrolled in their room, although they never
have more than six infants on a given day. They follow their
state’s guidelines for infant care, but still do not know
what to say when parents and co-workers ask what they “teach” the
babies. In fact, they wonder themselves if and what they are
teaching. It seems as though they spend the greatest amount of
time feeding, rocking, and diapering children.
This feeling is not uncommon for infant teachers. The traditional
notion of teaching seems—and is—inappropriate for
infants. They won’t sit in a group (if they can sit at
all). They can’t talk. So how do teachers recognize the
needs, interests, and abilities of infants to create a curriculum
that teaches them? Theories of child development and principles
of developmentally appropriate practice can guide your answers
to these questions.
Developmentally appropriate practices for infants
Experienced teachers of infants recognize the needs, interests,
and abilities of infants in their classroom (Bredekamp and
Copple, 1997). Some of these needs, interests, and abilities
are common for a particular age of children. Typically, infants
follow a developmental pattern. For example, infants typically
are able to sit without help around 7 months of age. When they
are able to sit in this manner, they usually begin to creep
or crawl (Berk, 1996).
Development during infancy is different
than during any other period of life. Here are five reasons:
period of growth and development is rapid. Noticeable changes
occur monthly, weekly, and, in some cases, daily.
areas of development are intertwined. Mental, or cognitive, development,
for example, cannot be separated from physical development. Changes
in one area result in changes in another area.
time is a foundation for later development and learning (Shore,
depend upon adults to meet all their needs.
have no effective skills for coping with discomfort and stress,
so they are open to harm (Morrison, 1996).
While some needs, interests, and abilities are typical to all
infants, others are specific to a particular child. These represent
the unique characteristics of each child in your room (Bredekamp
and Copple, 1997). Most of these differences are the child’s
desires or special preferences. For example, José likes
to have his back rubbed before he falls asleep at naptime, while
Naomi likes to hug her blanket and be alone.
Also, some needs, interests, and abilities are specific to cultures
or subcultures the children experience in society and in their
homes (Bredekamp and Copple, 1997). In other words, these are
the beliefs and values held by each individual’s family.
For example, Houa lives with his father in an extended family.
In this household, family needs are more important than individual
needs. Therefore, you might expect that Houa’s reaction
to situations, such as stress, would be different than other
How infant development impacts curriculum
Curriculum is everything you do with a child day-by-day and throughout
the year. According to Greenman and Stonehouse (1996), “curriculum
is the framework and rationale for doing what you do, not a
list of activities.” If your curriculum is developmentally
appropriate for infants, it will reflect both the typical features
of infant development and the unique characteristics and cultures
of the children in your care. Ideally, an infant curriculum
will do the following:
Emphasize relationships with people.
The teachers assist infants in learning that they are a vital
part of a relationship. For example, teachers who consistently
respond to cries in a caring manner teach that communication
is an important tool for getting needs met. In this case, they
are building a strong sense of trust and helping the infants
to learn that they can count on others during times of stress.
According to psychosocial theory (Erikson, 1950) and attachment
theory (Bowlby, 1969, 1980), developing a sense of trust is one
of the main developmental tasks for infants. Both theories suggest
that learning to trust others affects how well children will
fare socially later in life. In fact, researchers have found
that infants who trust their caregivers have better relationships
with peers later in life than those who don’t (Cassidy
et al., 1996; Park and Waters, 1978; Turner, 1991).
Establish a safe and emotionally supportive environment.
A reliable set of routines provides a sense of security, especially
those associated with pleasurable feelings (Herr and Swim, 1999).
Knowing that outside play follows naptime, for example, helps
infants order and predict events.
However, these routines need to be flexible to ensure that individual
needs are met. Meeting individual needs within a set of routines
creates a comfortable environment, free from too much stress.
For example, it is getting close to lunchtime and Faustina is
unusually tired today. You decide to feed her first so that she
can be in her crib earlier than normal. By meeting Faustina’s
individual needs, you are lowering her level of stress.
Focus on learning through play.
A stimulating infant classroom allows infants to learn through
their senses. The environment has safe, interesting items that
infants can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell (Piaget, 1952).
True exploration requires that infants be free to move their
bodies. Laying them on blankets indoors and outdoors, propping
them up with pillows (after creating a safe fall zone for them),
and urging them to crawl across the floor are all ways to support
Infants do not learn a new concept or skill by engaging in an
experience one time. They need lots of repetition. They are just
as interested in the 50th reading of Good Night Moon (Brown,
1947) as they were in the first! Infants also need the opportunity
to learn new skills independently through trial and error. Sometimes,
there is no better way for them to figure out something new than
to start with something that does not work.
Encourage learning through social interactions.
Infants, like older children, do not learn in a vacuum. They
learn by watching others and imitating what they see. They also
learn by interacting with others. Infants need the chance to
interact with toddlers, but with close supervision to prevent
accidents. Although infants are not skilled at interacting with
each other, they can benefit from observing. For example, propping
up Bradley so that he can see Carmen while playing provides each
child with an example of how to explore toys. Infants also need
the chance to interact with older children and adults.
Help infants meet developmental milestones in all areas of
An ideal curriculum addresses all developmental areas—physical,
self-help, cognitive, language, social, and emotional. It considers
the whole child; it does not over-emphasize one area and ignore
another. For example, Natasha’s learning to separate from
Mom is just as important as her learning to creep, crawl, and
walk or to find toys hidden from sight. However, because children
develop at their own individual rates, teachers may need to spend
a little extra time with a child on one area or another.
Assessment of infants
A teacher learns about an infant’s needs, interests, and
abilities through assessment. This means that you observe, record,
and evaluate a child’s behavior so you can make decisions
about that child’s developmental needs (Herr and Swim,
Assessments, like curriculum activities, need to be developmentally
appropriate (Bredekamp and Rosegrant, 1995). This kind of assessment
has the following characteristics:
It is designed to gather information about all areas of development
for each infant.
It focuses on understanding and valuing infants for their current
level of development. In other words, the goal is to recognize
each child’s strengths.
It results in benefits to the child. For example, you observe
that Carrie sleeps fitfully near the
window, so you move her crib to a quiet corner.
It reflects the ages and experiences of the children in care.
At the same time, it recognizes individual variations in learners
and allows for differences in styles and rates of learning. For
example, when doing a language assessment, you take into account
the fact that Yuji speaks Japanese at home and English in child
It happens regularly. Teachers observe each child in a wide
variety of situations—-while being fed, resting, playing
outside, having a diaper changed. Therefore, assessments are
embedded into the
curriculum and integrated into the daily routine. In this way,
evaluations of the children’s behavior take place in a
It involves parents. Teachers communicate with parents or other
family members through conversation and written notes about each
child’s experiences at home and in the classroom. Teachers
use this information in evaluating a child’s development.
assessments impact curriculum
What teachers learn about children through assessments helps
determine what will be in the curriculum. Ideally, you will
plan a balance of activities that support, enhance, and foster
all areas of development (Herr and Swim, 1999). Some experiences
will be repetitious and represent developmental tasks the child
has accomplished. Some experiences will provide opportunities
to master developmental tasks the infant is working on. Other
experiences will challenge and extend the child’s development
by requiring a slightly higher skill level. This last experience
works much like scaffolding, connecting the known with the
unknown. As infants struggle at this higher level, they may
need more support and help from adults to build their confidence
as competent learners.
What does curriculum development look like in real life? Here’s
an example to illustrate.
Maria and Antonio, the teachers mentioned earlier, have assessed
their infants during routine care times such as feeding, diapering,
and the transition to naptime. They have begun to notice several
things. In feeding, José and Sophia are just beginning
to put their hands around the bottle to help hold it. Naomi and
Zachary hold on to their bottles well, and they are also beginning
to show interest in holding spoons. Meanwhile, Faustina and Houa
feed themselves finger foods and are improving each day in their
use of spoons.
As a result of their assessments, Maria and Antonio have decided
to make some changes when feeding the infants during the upcoming
week. With José and Sophia, they will encourage each child
to hold the bottle independently. With Naomi and Zachary, they
will continue to invite each child to hold the bottle independently.
In addition, they will give each child a spoon to hold while
being fed and say something like, “This is a spoon. You
can use it to eat your cereal.” With Faustina and Houa,
Maria and Antonio plan to cut the finger foods into smaller pieces
to really work the small muscles of the thumb and forefinger.
They will also continue suggesting that these two infants feed
themselves using a spoon.
How to communicate with others about your curriculum
You have observed, recorded, evaluated, and implemented a curriculum
that reflects the individual needs, interests, and abilities
of the infants in your room. But your job as a teacher is not
finished. You still need to communicate with others about what
you are doing and why. You can accomplish this in several ways:
Display information about development on a bulletin board.
When talking with parents or guardians at the beginning or
end of the day, share things you have noticed about their individual
Hold regular parent-teacher conferences to discuss the developmental
progress of their child.
Share information with parents.
Provide weekly newsletters to tell parents about experiences
that you have planned or implemented to promote learning and
development in your classroom. When appropriate, you can suggest
ways to adapt those experiences at home.
What do infant teachers teach? They teach the beginning skills
that are the building blocks for later development and learning.
They teach these skills in their daily interactions with infants
and families and in the curriculum they create for the children.
By paying careful attention to the needs, interests, and abilities
of the children in their care, infant teachers can and do foster
development and learning.
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About the authors
Terri Jo Swim, Ph.D., and Robin Muza, M.S., teach early childhood
education and child development courses at the University of
Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, Wis. Together, they have presented
at local and regional conferences. As a graduate student, Terri
was a master teacher at The University of Texas at Austin Child
and Family Laboratory School. Robin has had more than 15 years
of experience with young children and parents, including having
operated her own family child care business.