Planning Cultural Curriculum


What is Culture?

Culture is the basic foundation of our life. It reflects the way we live, the things we use and what we believe and practice as tradition. In planning the curriculum, it may be helpful to consider the values and beliefs that are taught through the cultural experience.


  • legends and creation stories (spiritual values, history)
  • songs and dances (language, play, rites of passage)
  • arts and crafts (tools, games, hunting skills, clothing)
  • attitudes toward Elders, children, people with special needs, pregnancy, time, and wealth (respect, acceptance, good health)
  • relationships (marriage, communication)
  • laws and rules (behaviour expectations)
  • roles of children and family members (caring for each other)
  • connection to nature (identity, responsibility, medicines)
  • blessings and prayers (rituals, mealtimes, celebrations)
  • connection to the ancestors and spirit world (death customs, reverence for all of creation)

Universally, Aboriginal cultures share many similar values, chiefly a connection to nature – the earth, the animals and birds, the rivers, lakes and oceans. Balance and harmony with the natural world and the spirit world is an essential component of cultural curriculum.


To ensure a connection to the land, it is important that the AHS program is based on a culturally appropriate calendar for the local territory. Once a cultural calendar is established, it will provide a landscape for the 6 components to be incorporated. Using these, the preschool curriculum can be planned around themes that fit the calendar events.


“At Future 4 Nations, we incorporate culture throughout the daily routine. The local seasonal calendar was given to us and we implement it into the curriculum. For example, the eagles are here now, so our art activity is based on eagles. At circle, we talk about the meaning of the Eagles’ teachings about power and strength and sacrifice. We pass the eagle feather and show respect for our friends by listening. At snack time, we show respect with a prayer of thanks for all we have received. We honour the food that has given its life to feed us. Every day we talk about what it means to show respect.”
- Zelda Williams, Future 4 Nations AHS


Planning a Cultural Calendar

Planning a yearly curriculum calendar is a process based on the strengths of staff in each program. This process changes according to the needs of the students and the talents of the community who contribute. When families and teachers collaborate in creating a vision of cultural education for their children, then the responsibility for learning the language and customs is shared between the home and the classroom.

Using an outline developed in planning sessions with teachers, support staff, Elders, parents and family members, a curriculum can be developed that is specifically designed to meet the needs of the territory and people of each Head Start centre. Every enrollment brings a new group of children with varying backgrounds, so this will always be a work in progress. You may find the examples and ideas throughout these TIPS and TOOLS helpful in your program planning.


  • At the beginning of each new school year, hold a planning meeting with staff, parents, and Elders, in order to design a cultural curriculum based on the shared vision.
  • Ask all members (in small groups or together) to list the most important things that they want the children to know about their culture – our way of life.
  • Divide a circle into 4 parts and fill in the main activities of the local culture based on the 4 seasons.
  • From these seasonal activities, the themes can be chosen for each month of the school year.
  • Here are samples of cultural calendars provided by AHS programs:
          Sample West Coast calendar
          Sample Carrier calendar
  • The AHS Cultural Calendar is a large perpetual and erasable calendar that features one of the 12 AHS sites in BC each month. This resource contains sample themes language, activities, recipes, etc. from many different cultures. It can be written on to create your own calendar. For more info, go to our Resources page.
  • Field trips and real-life outdoor activities are the best way for children to experience their culture by connecting with nature where they live.
  • Bring the land indoors by creating murals, mobiles, historical artifacts of the region, samples of the plants and photos of animals who share the territory with you.
  • Create a background atmosphere by playing CDs of nature sounds (crickets, animals, birds, water running) or drumming and singing. Also, place fragrant cedar boughs or bundles of sage in the room, especially during cultural activities or language circle.
  • Gathering and preparing foods connects the child with the land as they learn where their food comes from, and with their culture as they learn the names of what they are eating in their traditional language. Lots of ideas can be found in our nutrition resource called Our Food Our Stories which is a collection of traditional recipes and stories contributed by Aboriginal Head Start community members from across Canada.

Themes: Cultural, Conventional and Personal Development

Themes are important guides for creating cultural curriculum. There are three main types of themes that can be combined into a well-balanced program.


Cultural Themes

Cultural themes connect us to the natural world around us. They emerge from the seasonal calendar activities. One theme per month is usually enough to provide a focus for all the facets of the preschool program. School curriculum around math, science, socials studies, physical education and art are easily adapted to the learning of a cultural theme.


Sample Cultural Theme – Deer Hunting
For example, the cultural theme of ‘deer hunting’ involves learning about the land/hunting territory/ techniques (social studies), how the deer lives and eats (science), the field trip (physical education), skinning and butchering (gross motor skills), preserving and cooking the meat (math), curing the hides, making drums, rattles and moccasins (arts & crafts), and play activities such as acting out the hunt (drama).


Most themes, such as the deer hunt, teach a broad range of skills and offer opportunities for social and emotional development at the same time as intellectual and physical education. Cultural practices can also be included in the theme, such as the male rite of passage and the giveaway of the first hunt, as well as our connection to the deer – the gifts that deer give us and what they’ve come to teach us.


“There are other ways of incorporating culture. No matter where we are, we are always stewards of the earth and sea. For example, the Cree and Ojibway looked after the tundra and they had to know how to care for the soil so they could grow their foods. Children of today need to learn where food comes from. We talk with the children about the environment and give them a holistic point of view about being caretakers of the earth. We take them out to the forestry, weather and marine stations, fire hall, fish hatcheries, farms and nurseries, so they will know about the roles they can play as adults.” - Eileen Nelson: Former Cultural Teacher, Cedar Road (Prince Rupert) AHS


Children living in the city may not be aware that coats, boots, slippers, purses and jewelry, as well as drums, rattles and regalia, can be made from the deer’s body. By showing respect and gratitude for this gift, we help connect the children to nature. When they understand what deer need to live and survive, the children grow to become responsible caretakers of the environment.


Conventional Themes

Conventional themes can be coordinated with the cultural themes. The school curriculum includes conventional and seasonal themes, such as Halloween, Remembrance Day, Christmas, Mothers Day, animals, plants, transportation, and others. Look for cultural themes that relate to the conventional topics. For example, compare modern transportation to the traditional transportation of the Aboriginal culture, such as canoes, dugouts, sleds, horses and travois for hunting, compared to power boats, trucks, snowmobiles, ATVs, and bicycles of today.


  • Halloween masks and traditional masks
  • Thanksgiving and potlatches/giveaway
  • Leaves and medicinal plants
  • Remembrance Day and Memorial ceremonies/dealing with grief
  • Insects and Grandmother Spider stories
  • Christmas and creation myths/childbirth stories
  • Dinosaurs and endangered animals
  • Valentines Day and Native jewelry
  • Teddy bears and Bears
  • Birds and mythic messengers
  • Mother’s Day and Mother Earth
  • Zoo animals and local animals

“We wanted to teach three different languages and to teach the children the preparation of our traditional First Nations food and the value of this. We wanted to have the children learn respect for Elders, respect for parents and first of all, respect yourselves. I think this has been well implemented by all those that are involved in the program.”
- Margaret Adkins: Past Elder, Prince Rupert AHS


Personal Development Themes

Many Parents and Elders worry about young people losing their respect and values. It is important to build curriculum that fosters opportunities for children to learn respect for themselves, other people, animals and all of nature. The early years are the best times to teach children who they are as Aboriginal people by demonstrating and naming for them the personal qualities that are valued by their community. Respect and reverence for all of creation is taught to Aboriginal children around the world.


  • Look for universal spiritual qualities in others and name them. Some examples are respect, kindness, honor, thankfulness, friendliness, honesty, generosity, thoughtfulness, love, compassion, responsibility, creativity, courage, determination, enthusiasm, gentleness, helpfulness, forgiveness.

  • Reframe actions into the value that is trying to be expressed; this gives us a positive way of dealing with student behaviour. For example, a child’s insistence at staying at one activity expresses his innate gift of determination (rather than stubbornness). He needs guidance to learn to control that strength, and to recognize when it’s time to cooperate with others. Some hyperactive children have gifts of enthusiasm, humour and curiosity, which are valuable when used responsibly and with respect for others.

  • When recognizing the children’s personal qualities, connect them to the culture. Some families and programs will relate the behaviours to those of animals that live in their Nation. For example, a teacher might say that a child who is very playful and mischievous has the ‘trickster’ spirit of coyote or raven.

  • Who I Am can be an ongoing theme throughout the year as part of circle time. Personal identity and self-worth is developed by learning one’s name and heritage, identifying one’s body parts and gender, and by hearing one’s natural character traits named. This can be taught in the Aboriginal language as well as in English, Even infants understand at a non-verbal level when you speak to their spirit.

    “Learning the culture… makes the children feel special… It makes them proud of who they are and the things they know.”
    - Jaclyn Reyes: Parent & PAC Chair, Eagle’s Nest AHS


  • Social skills are developed when children address each other by name and learn to greet and thank each other. Children growing up in cities often meet with racist attitudes. AHS aims to affirm and foster children’s knowledge and pride in their cultural identity. Differences and similarities can be talked about in an informal way that encourages children’s curiosity, enjoyment and empathic awareness of cultural differences, while addressing the values of acceptance and tolerance.

    “I learnt social skills... I really didn’t have that many friends, so when I went to Head Start I met new friends. I still have friends from preschool now.”
    - Cassandra Westrand: Former Student, Power of Friendship AHS


    “Head Start prepared me for what’s going to be going on as I got older… I made lifetime friends.”
    - Nicole Fusta: Former Student, Prince George AHS

Attached are three sample seasonal curriculum themes from our AHS programs.


Using Themes for Healing

ECE teachers are sensitive to the needs of the children in their programs. It may be valuable to continue a theme that addresses their emotional development in order to give the children time to adjust to hearing a new language or adapt to new situations. They find comfort in repeated patterns and can grow in confidence and healing.


“No matter what is happening at home, they can come to school, it’s a safe place, they can enjoy their time and their faces light up.”
- Candice Harris-Rivera: Bus Driver & Childcare Worker, Eagle’s Nest AHS


One parent said she had been puzzled when her son came home from preschool with Halloween stories and pictures for several weeks that fall. When she asked about it, the teacher explained that the ‘scary’ theme and stories gave several children an opportunity to express their fears by telling their own scary stories of their home situations. Her son’s class had needed a longer time than most for this kind of healing.


  • Here is a sample theme outline to use for planning your own cultural curriculum.

  • Seeds of Empathy is another program for schools that focuses on compassionate learning in young children. A mother and her infant visit the class on a regular basis throughout the year. The interaction between the young children and baby focuses on ten themes that are built on the baby’s development, such as sleep, friends, greetings, love, protect, and imagine. The process encourages emotional literacy and connection with others. More info and classroom support is found at www.seedsofempathy.org

  • A Virtues Chart on the wall provides a list of 52 qualities that teachers can name when they see them demonstrated in the students. Write the Native words for a similar virtue alongside. This chart is available from http://www.virtuesproject.com/ or make one of your own.

  • Non-violent Communication (NVC) skills are another valuable resource for teaching children how to recognize and communicate their feelings, needs and requests. Their website www.nonviolentcommunication.com offers tools for every member of the community.