What’s so special about kindergarten?
Kidsfirst is over 100 years old, and was one of the first kindergarten associations in New Zealand. Over the years, many other forms of early childhood education have been established here with different philosophies and focuses, and some people don’t realise that ‘kindy’ is something altogether unique. “There are many things that set us apart,” says Kidsfirst Chief Executive, Sherryll Wilson, who has run the organisation for more than 20 years.
“Our strong values, the depth of our commitment to biculturalism, the belief in the value of mixed aged groups and small group sizes. And the fact that all of our teachers are fully qualified and registered, just like primary school teachers are. So there is a real focus on that grounding, professional development, and the academic foundations of the work.”
Ms Wilson says the other very clear difference is the kindergarten philosophy, Learning Through Play.
“It can sound to some people like a bit of a contradiction to say our professionalism and academic grounding makes us different and then talk about the importance of play,” she says, “but both matter. The evidence is clear that tamariki learn best through their own interests and at their own pace when fully qualified and registered teachers can help them extend those interests at just the right time.”
The physical environments of the kindergartens follow on from this focus on teaching and play. So, when you visit a Kidsfirst kindergarten, you’ll notice there are a lot of resources – and a whole lot of space.
“Our indoor and outdoor areas are loaded with resources and inspiration to encourage children to get curious, explore, engage with creativity and nature and ideas, and grow in a whole lot of different ways. You’ll hear us talking about our ‘Great Big Backyards’ – most of our kindergartens are many years, sometimes decades, old, so they have beautiful, well established settings that enable tamariki to really engage with nature, all year round. So there are chickens, vegetable gardens, flowers, sandpits, water features, spaces for trikes and bikes…everything you can imagine a child needing to really get lost in their imagination and the freedom to explore.”
That freedom is very much at the heart of the kindergarten tradition – along with the watchful eyes and guiding hands of teachers like Kidsfirst Mckenzie teacher, Marilyn Gray.
“We don’t ‘teach’ in one particular way. It’s a holistic approach that relates to Te Whāriki, the early childhood curriculum. We look at the whole child, where they’ve come from, what they’re interested in. Sometimes they take the lead, sometimes we do. The professionalism of the teachers and our ongoing training allows us to identify when those times are right.”
Marilyn says the goal of kindergarten goes beyond academically based school preparedness, which is a key focus for some models of early childhood education.
“Our goal is to encourage tamariki to learn for themselves, to think for themselves, to challenge themselves, to have a feeling of self worth and to be competent, confident learners. We want them to have a strong sense of themselves and to be able to take some responsibility for themselves and for other people as they head off for school. But the main thing I would say that matters is just that love for learning and that carrying on throughout their educational years and throughout their life.”
You’ll hear kindergarten teachers talk a lot about the importance of helping tamariki develop, and practice, life skills.
“This is the age we can teach them how to be a friend, how to take care of themselves and how to care for each other,” says Justine Fogarty, a teacher at Kidsfirst Isleworth. “These aren’t skills they’re going to learn when they get to primary school – they can learn to read and write and so on when they get to primary school. And we can teach them here, now, how to care for one another, respect one another, and that’s the grounding for learning.”
Kidsfirst Vickery Street teacher, Julia Saunders, agrees.
“This is a place to practice being a really good person. This is where you learn to be with other people, trust other adults beyond your parents, you learn how to negotiate with other tamariki. It’s about the bigger picture.”
Kindergarten tamariki also get an important grounding in biculturalism and te reo Māori – foundations they will take into the rest of their lives. As New Zealand’s longest standing early childhood education provider and a 100% kiwi owned, not for profit organisation, Kidsfirst is strongly committed to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, its principles, and the importance of our tamariki having a deep sense of knowing and belonging to the culture.
“Children need a strong personal cultural identity, and before they can move forward with their own cultural identity, they need to have a strong understanding of what’s gone before,” Kidsfirst Sunbeam Head Teacher, Neroli Gardner, explains.
“All cultures have a lot to learn from Māori traditions, customs, and concepts like whanaungatanga (the importance of community) and manaakitanga (caring). These teach us how to care for one another and how to respect where we have come from, as much as where we are going. It helps to make children more well rounded.”
For many of our teachers, like Kidsfirst McKenzie’s Jane Hughey, the commitment is a lifelong and personal one – and it runs deep.
“It’s important for us to do what we can to make te reo Māori stronger. It’s an official language of this country, it’s the treaty underpinning everything we do. I grew up in an environment where I had a lot of access to te reo. At high school most of my friends were of Māori ancestry but most of their parents didn’t speak te reo, some knew te reo but didn’t use it. English was their first language. It was a huge event for them, and I remember how excited they were, to learn about their whakapapa and their language in the third form. That’s always stayed with me. “
Māori culture is front-and-centre in our kindergartens, but there are many others celebrated and welcomed across the network every day.
There are more than 55 first-languages spoken across the Kidsfirst network, and such a rich diversity of backgrounds. Most months bring a special day, week or occasion as a focus, and it’s a great way to celebrate the multicultural nature of our communities.
Kidsfirst Trengrove’s Munira Sugarwala says the mix of cultures she sees reflects wider society – now and in the future.
“It’s what the world is going to be like – it is multicultural, it is diverse, we do all look different and children need to be able to accept that. And they are adaptable – within our kindergarten we have some amazing friendships between tamariki, even when they don’t even speak the same language. You’ll have two children – one who speaks Spanish, one who doesn’t know a word, but they just nod and get along. The children just get on with it and language is not even an issue for them.”
Jenna Stone, Head Teacher at Kidsfirst Vickery Street says like many things, the sense of acceptance that tamariki show wears off on their whānau.
“They see their children showing it, so acceptance just develops. That’s the beauty of kindergarten, the sense of welcome when they come in, the karakias, the friendships they’ve made. Whānau come in at around the same time every morning, they get to know the other families and the children their children are hanging out with, and it does grow their appreciation for diversity because they see everybody’s the same. Everyone’s connected. It makes for a really lovely, community based environment. Everyone deserves to have that feeling of manawhenua, that sense of belonging.”
Adrian Batt, Relieving Head Teacher at Kidsfirst Woolley Street says a sense of interconnectedness is something he sees across the network.
“There’s a great sense of community in all the Kidsfirst kindergartens, and it’s like a second home to many families. They get to know all the whānau, children form great relationships and often they see the friends they play with at kindergarten out and about. So for families who have come to New Zealand who are missing some of that extended whānau it can be like having a surrogate family.”
You’ll see a lot of creativity going on in kindergartens – and it’s no accident. Somehow, it all gets cleaned up neatly and tidily by the end of the day. But in the meantime, this is a place where kids really do get to be kids.
“Because we’re all individuals and we’ve all got different strengths and abilities, creating a space for children to be able to create in lots of different ways to build on their interest.” Adrian says.
Another kindergarten difference whānau will notice is that tamariki are not separated into specific age groupings. This echoes the way things happen at home and means every child gets the same opportunities in an age appropriate way.
“Every child should be able to experience everything that we offer at kindergarten,” says Kidsfirst Cromwell Head Teacher, Torey Burns.
“We don’t have a four year old programme that is just for four year-olds, for example. We provide the same activities for all children to experience and explore at their own level and where their interests are at.”
This ‘whānau grouping’ of tamariki also offers older children the opportunity to take on leadership roles and act as role models for the younger ones.
“They get to show them the ropes, and the older children thrive on that responsibility. They want to be helping others and nurturing them. We have some children who love setting up the beds in the afternoon for those who may need a little extra sleep. They want to help get nappies out of bags when it’s changing time. And the younger children develop a sense of belonging quicker because they can see they have these older children, role models looking out for them as well.”
One of the key things that sets kindergarten apart is also one of its most fundamental: it’s not for profit status. While commercial organisations have an obligation to deliver a return to shareholders, kindergartens’ only beneficiaries are tamariki, whānau and community. It’s something that is important to Jane Hughey.
“Personally, I think our reason for being is different. I think we have a different drive, a different reason for getting out of bed in the morning. It’s about doing the best we can for our families and our children. We’ve retained a strong sense of being about who we are, why we’re here, we haven’t got lost along the way in all of those years.”
Kidsfirst services, two year-old children (or younger, if it’s one of our early learning centres) play and learn alongside children of all ages. This ‘whānau grouping’ echoes the family and community-based structure that human beings are wired for.
As the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, and with our lives getting busier, faster and more complex – that’s never been more true, as Pip Reilly from Kidsfirst Kendal Avenue explains.
“Tamariki today miss out on having a ‘village’ because they are living much more in isolation. Often, they don’t know their neighbours, the person at the end of the street or over the road. Grandparents sometimes live overseas or are working and unavailable, so when families come to a Kidsfirst kindergarten, they get their own village.”
Pip says creating a home-like structure at kindergarten positively reflects real life.
“You don’t really have set age classifications anywhere else you go. Perhaps in the primary school years, but even then, there are always children with varying abilities, regardless of age.”
“At kindergarten, right from the beginning we help children understand the importance of tolerance and compassion for others, caring for others, listening, and all those other key life skills. It’s manaakitanga in action.”
Village disconnection is something more children are experiencing even in their preschool years. There is a trend occurring that segregates children into age-specific grouping with tailored activities. Many preschool centres now have ‘four year-old’ programmes, they promote as being preparation for primary school.
Preparation for life begins the moment we are born, preparation for school doesn’t magically start the day children turn four.
It’s something that is part of every day learning under the kindergarten philosophy, and in many more ways than sitting at a desk being taught letters and numbers.
Our Kidsfirst Kindergartens have resisted the “four year-old programmes” model, for good reason. But ask any new entrant teacher whether kindy kids are just as well prepared as other children for school and the answer will be a resounding ‘yes’. There’s also strong evidence that a mixed-ages model provides emotional, social and educational benefits.
Parents sometimes worry that the younger children are detracting from the experience of the older ones, Pip adds, “nothing could be further from the truth”.
“The younger ones may be more demanding and noisier, but the life skills that children learn through a whānau approach outweigh any drawbacks.”
“For example, an older child won’t demand the same things of a younger one than they might of their own peers. They learn that the little ones are not ready yet. The older children may be impatient with friends, but not with the younger children. It’s about learning a gradient of tolerance, respect, caring and sharing within a mixed age group. The children are developing the core social behaviours and understanding of manaakitanga. This value comes into play all the time.”
Older children also have the opportunity to learn leadership skills and feel a sense of pride in helping those younger than themselves.
“They are fabulous role-models, their empathy and compassion really shines through. The younger children look up to them and if there are things they want to do but can’t quite yet, they know the older ones will help.”
Kidsfirst Kendal Ave Head Teacher, Jackie Cooper, says a great deal of informal learning goes on just from younger ones watching, and aspiring to be like the big kids. Jackie says she sees the greatest confidence in tamariki who start kindergarten at the age of two.
“They’re listening to and watching the others all the time, so they take in language and behaviour, and also physical activity. The younger children watch the older children on the monkey bars and they always want to try and be like them.”
“We have a lot of children who have been here for a good two or three years already, and they become very settled. Because they are so settled and their well-being is great, their confidence is also amazing. They project and role model it to everyone around them.”
Older children learn to be patient with their younger peers. The watchful eyes of teachers also means that every difficult situation becomes a developmental opportunity.
“We will often say ‘Remember how the two year olds are still learning. They didn’t mean to knock your building down. Maybe you could help them rebuild it. Can you remember when you were two? You were still learning too.’ Right there – that’s your empathy and compassion growing.”
The lessons go both ways, with the younger children gaining new understanding, too.
“Two year-olds just do that kind of thing, and they don’t even think about it. They’ll say, ‘Oh, look what happened!’. We don’t make them feel bad about it, but we do draw their attention to what they’ve done so that it’s a positive experience, and so that everyone helps fix things.”
Jackie says that kind of approach looks straightforward, but takes a lot of patience.
“It takes time and energy, but the benefits are amazing. I just think that when they leave to go to school, those older children have gained a variety of wonderful skills that they never would have received if they hadn’t had the younger age group.”
Every Kidsfirst child has their own individual learning plan with goals and aspirations. Kindergarten’s small class sizes mean that every child can be known and responded to as an individual.
Pip Reilly explains, “For example, if we’re doing group mat time and we’ve got a mixed age group, some children won’t be able to concentrate for as long because of their age. So they can choose activities of interest. We don’t expect them to be involved for as long as a four or four-and-a-half year-old can.”
Children are still encouraged to do what is right for them at their age and stage of development. Again, the learning is multi-layered.
The emphasis that kindergarten places on connection and community adds richness to the lives of tamariki, says Jackie.
“Whānau and caregivers know that they’re safe and happy and welcome. They know that they belong and that goes straight back to the New Zealand curriculum, Te Whariki, really. It’s all about the community and the family and having those links with people all the time.”
“Tamariki bring different things, and so do their whānau – aunties, uncles, mothers, fathers, grandparents. Everybody at this kindy knows that they are welcome, anytime.”
How mixed age groups contribute to quality ECE in “High Quality Education and Care – an Overview.” Education Review Office, https://www.ero.govt.nz/publications/quality-in-early-childhood-services/high-quality-education-and-care-an-overview/