Exploring the connection between Kaupapa Māori, outdoor play, and children’s wellbeing

Yasmine Slater (Ngāti Kahu and Te Arawa), Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington

When I think back to my childhood, so many of my memories are defined by outdoor play. My dad was a forester, and while this led to us moving around a fair bit, the one constant thing was the forests that surrounded us. Spending my childhood immersed in nature has led me to have a deep appreciation of the whenua (land) and a strong belief in the reciprocity that exists between the wellbeing of the whenua and of people. Māori have long understood this relationship, and it is something that has been identified within the research of many. However, as an early childhood teacher, I have noticed the increasing disconnect that many tamariki (children) have from the whenua and the impact this has on their wellbeing. 

These concerns are also supported within the literature review of my PhD. The reported increase of mental health problems and the rates of childhood obesity, asthma, heart disease, and diabetes have all been identified as being linked to children’s disconnection from the outdoors.  However, the research shows that a possible remedy for many of these issues is for tamariki to play outdoors. Within my literature review, outdoor play was found to support several areas of wellbeing, including physical, mental and emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing. 

How outdoor play supports children’s wellbeing

From a traditional Māori perspective, the spiritual significance of the environment is evident through the intertwined relationship of the whenua and tangata (people) through our whakapapa (genealogy) connections to the land. Similarly, Western academics discuss the innate connection many tamariki feel towards the whenua and the way in which it can strengthen children’s spiritual wellbeing. 

Western perspectives suggest that playing outdoors fosters social wellbeing by promoting prosocial behaviours, nurturing respectful interactions, supporting conflict management skills, and providing space for young children to deeply concentrate in their play with others. Te Whāriki, the New Zealand early childhood curriculum, reinforces the importance of te ao Māori and outdoor play in supporting children’s social wellbeing. The curriculum recognises the whenua is of fundamental importance to many Māori due to their relationship with various aspects of the land through whakapapa. 

Outdoor play was identified as supporting young children’s mental and emotional wellbeing by reducing their stress and anxiety levels, while promoting self-regulation and problem-solving abilities. For whānau Māori, outdoor play was found to foster wellbeing through the development of knowledge and understandings of te ao Māori, which in turn supported their sense of identity and belonging.

Physical wellbeing was supported through the higher levels of physical activity that typically occurs when children are playing outdoors. This can support children’s healthy growth and development, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and contribute to the quality and quantity of children’s sleep (see also here). For Māori, physical activity can strengthen the connection to the whenua, provide knowledge about rongoā (medicine), nourish and sustain the tinana (body), and foster kaitiakitanga (guardianship) (see here, here, here, and here).

A framework for understanding kaupapa Māori, outdoor play, and children’s wellbeing

Upon completion of the literature review, and after much reflection, the following conceptual theoretical framework, entitled He tamaiti, he taiao, he ora, emerged.

He tamaiti, he taiao, he ora (Kopeke-Te Aho & Slater, 2019)

He tamaiti, he taiao, he ora recognises that the tamaiti (child) and their wellbeing are of central importance. The child’s tupuna (ancestors) are present and are guiding them on their life’s journey. The maunga (mountain) and awa (river) are symbolic of the child’s whakapapa (genealogy / history), and along with the ngahere (bush), represent the vital role of the environment in the child’s life. 

The whare (house) is both representative of the four dimensions of wellbeing from Durie’s (1998) Te Whare Tapa Whā, as well as symbolising where the child’s whānau are waiting. As the metaphor of the whare suggests, each of the four dimensions of Te Whare Tapa Whā is necessary to provide support and balance for the child’s holistic wellbeing. Although the world is ever-changing, a whare is generally static in its positioning, and the stability that this permanence can offer is seen to provide a sense of belonging from knowing where you are from and where you belong. 

The stars in the night sky are Matariki and her tamariki. Each of these stars serve a particular purpose in promoting wellbeing and acknowledge the fluidity and changing nature of the whenua.

Around the outside of the diagram, the principles and strands of Te Whāriki encompass the conceptual framework and recognise how this curriculum embodies early childhood teachers’ practice and pedagogy. Incorporating elements of this curriculum within the He tamaiti, he taiao, he ora framework recognises teachers’ current practice and pedagogy and builds upon their existing knowledge and experience with Te Whāriki

He tamaiti, he taiao, he ora recognises how interwoven each of the above aspects are in enhancing children’s wellbeing and supporting their learning and development. The framework reinforces the necessity for young children to play outdoors and for early childhood teachers to embed te ao Māori within their practice.

What next

It is with much anticipation that I now begin my data collection and explore how kaupapa Māori and outdoor play can support young children’s wellbeing. If you’re interested in following my study or have any patai (questions), you’re welcome to email me at yasmine.slater@vuw.ac.nz.


Yasmine Slater is an early childhood teacher who has taught in a variety of early childhood settings in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia.  Yasmine left teaching in 2019 to commence full time doctoral studies, where she is exploring the connection between kaupapa Māori, outdoor play and young children.  

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