Kaitiakitanga and the multicultural strands of Te Whāriki

Devika Rathore, University of Waikato

Aotearoa New Zealand Early Childhood Education (ECE) is becoming increasingly multicultural. In addition to Māori and Pākehā, a large proportion of culturally diverse migrant teachers bring with them their culturally oriented notions of care and respect for the natural environment into the Aotearoa New Zealand ECE context. They further enrich early learning teaching and practice especially with reference to environmental and sustainability education or kaitiakitanga (defined as environmental stewardship in Te Whāriki).

Kaitiakitanga and Te Whāriki

In Aotearoa New Zealand, respect for the natural world and kaitiakitanga are integral to Te Whāriki, which is grounded in the Māori worldview that acknowledges strong spiritual connections to land and place. The development of an environmental identity is acknowledged and encouraged for children and teachers alike. In various ways, Te Whāriki makes explicit and implicit connections between children’s learning, their relationship with the natural environment, and their place of being. Te Whāriki online emphasises the importance of the development of an environmental or ecological identity in the early years. A strong environmental identity determines children’s positive orientation towards the natural world, enables them to be proactive, and helps them identify more personally with wider global issues.

Kaitiakitanga and the role of Kaiako in Te Whāriki

The role of kaiako in facilitating the development of children’s environmental identity and nurturing their sense of kaitiakitanga is also highlighted in Te Whāriki. The document lays out considerations and guidance for kaiako in the form of examples of practice that promote learning about the environment and sustainability as well as questions for kaiako to help reflect upon their kaitiakitanga-related pedagogies and practices.

In order to be able to initiate and sustain such a reflection, it is important for kaiako to understand what kaitiakitanga means for children and their whānau in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand. As migrant teachers pursue an ECE qualification and begin to practice in the host cultural setting, what might this demand of and mean for them?

  • As ECE teachers, an important task is to learn about, understand, and be able to put into practice Te Whāriki, the early childhood curriculum framework.
  • Like all developmental and educational components, environmental and sustainability aspects too are woven into the curriculum, but the teachers are responsible for interpreting and applying it in their ECE context.
  • This becomes a complex, dynamic, and multi-layered process that begins at the start of their ECE qualification and remains ever evolving as they practice in the Aotearoa New Zealand ECE context.

Migrant teachers’ perceptions of kaitiakitanga within Te Whāriki

For my doctoral research, I explored one group of migrant ECE teachers in Aotearoa New Zealand. As a cultural insider, I looked at Indian teachers’ understandings of their culturally embedded and negotiated environmental identities where the environment may hold different meanings and places in their home and adopted-country cultural systems. An environmental identity can be described as one’s beliefs about their association with the natural world and how this association is mediated by their sociocultural and personal history. One aspect that I focused on is how migrant Indian teachers use their cultural lens to view, understand and interpret the environmental aspects of Te Whāriki, and how this impacts their environmental and sustainability related teaching philosophy and practices. The participants in my study interpreted the environmental components of Te Whāriki with a focus on the complete document as well as specific curriculum Principles and Strands. Preliminary findings show the following key themes,

Kaitiakitanga and Te Ao Māori

From a broader perspective, participants made links between kaitiakitanga, identity, Te Ao Māori and bicultural aspects of Te Whāriki. They talked about how Māori values are an important part of the curriculum framework including respect for Papatūānuku and Ranginui. From their perspective, like every other aspect of learning and development, the natural environment and kaitiakitanga are woven into all aspects of Te Whāriki.

Significance of place

In terms of practice, teachers viewed environmental aspects of the curriculum being implemented by way of excursions and field trips to places of natural and historical significance. It was important for teachers to share with the children the historical significance of the place, the story of the land or place, as well as knowledge about the flora and fauna they would be exploring. According to the teachers, the significance of such trips was to enable the children to go beyond the gates and have real life experiences and direct contact with nature.

Connections to land and nature

Teachers also interpreted the environmental aspect of the curriculum through the Belonging and Exploration strands. Children and their whānau associated with Papatūānuku through respect for and a deep connection to land and the natural environment. Younger children were encouraged to explore and experience the natural world around them through sensory perceptions and experiences such as touching the grass, feeling the clover, touching the sand, holding the leaves, observing the sky, and listening to the birds.

Developing a sense of kaitiakitanga

The teachers saw significant potential in taking children to neighboring parks and bush as a way to encourage among them a sense of environmental awareness and care for their place. For instance, taking children to a park next door enabled them to experience and learn about the bush, the birds, their sounds, their food and develop a sense of kaitiakitanga where once they got to know the place, they wanted to look after it as their own. Children had begun to see themselves as explorers, able to connect with and care for their own and wider worlds. Thus, experiences in the natural surroundings encouraged a sense of place, care and responsibility among children which is considered integral to environmental identity (see here and here).

Humans as part of rather than separate from nature

Teacher participants interpreted the environmental components of the curriculum as being part of the Relationships and Holistic Development Principles. They talked about the importance of learning about the community and immediate natural environment for children. They considered this part of their holistic development where children would develop an understanding about how they were a part of nature too. This was evident through specific practices such as children caring for farm animals, using natural produce such as eggs from the chickens, and developing an understanding of where food comes from and what nature does for us.

Concluding reflections

In these ways and more, the participants voiced insightful interpretations of the environment and sustainability elements within Te Whāriki. They also shared a conscious awareness of the bicultural foundation of Te Whāriki and its implications on aspects of kaitiakitanga in ECE. The teachers were cognisant of the critical role they can play in this process and how their own environmental identities influence children’s environmental identities.

Te Whāriki provides much scope for the inclusion of environmental and sustainability elements into the early learning curriculum. Migrant teachers develop an understanding of Te Whāriki and kaitiakitanga, which they interpret through their cultural lenses. To these understandings, they then add their diverse sociocultural as well as ecological histories, identities, and experiences, and then put them into practice in the local context to facilitate children’s environmental identity development.

Devika Rathore is a doctoral candidate and teaching fellow with the Division of Education at The University of Waikato, New Zealand, where she is also involved in research projects. Her research interests include environmental/nature-based/sustainability education, cultural identity, researcher identity, teacher education, ECE, visual dissemination of research, and picturebooks.

Cover Image Credit

Poster composed by Devika Rathore as her entry for the Images of Research Exhibition 2023. Te Whāriki image in poster sourced from https://tewhariki.tki.org.nz/en/key-documents/te-whariki-2017/the-whariki/

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