Building hope through the arts

Issue: Volume 100, Number 14

Posted: 3 November 2021
Reference #: 1HAQve

A classroom-based resource to help primary school teachers and ākonga find a sense of normality following Covid-19 lockdowns has been downloaded nearly 400,000 times in around 140 countries. It will once again be useful as schools in Tāmaki Makaurau prepare for an eventual return to school.


Te Rito Toi is an online resource providing arts and research-based classroom support for teachers when tamariki return to school. It was developed during the first Alert Level 4 lockdown in 2020 by a group of academics, artists and educational practitioners.

Managed by the University of Auckland, the project identified a need for teachers to have research-informed resources to shift their curriculum and pedagogy in response to the extraordinary circumstances.

A central pillar/pou of Te Rito Toi is that arts-informed curricular approaches are powerful for individual and community recovery after disaster; strengthening social support and building hope.

“We know from years of international research into what the arts do, that they qualitatively shift the kinds of talk that happen in classrooms,” says Professor Peter O’Connor, director of the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation at the University of Auckland.

“It’s a very gentle way back into schools. At one level, coming back to school will be so important for children in so many different ways, but we shouldn’t leave it to chance, the research tells us this is a really powerful and useful way for primary schools to re-engage with children,” he says.

Peter says the concept of Te Rito Toi has been very popular. The lesson plans feature different mediums of expression and provide ways for children to build relationships, explore and describe emotions, engage with possibility, and reimagine the world.

“I’ve done webinars with over 40,000 teachers around the world on Te Rito Toi. They’ve created similar resources in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Hungary and they’ve been using it in the US and Canada. It’s been picked up all over the world – I think the key is that return to routine is important, but it’s not enough.

“What Te Rito Toi does, and why it’s unique, is that it’s a classroom-based curriculum resource post-crisis. There’s no luxury for schools post-disaster to just go back to normal routines as if nothing has happened. They actually have to address with children the fact that the world has changed,” explains Peter.

Professor Peter O’Connor and his team at the University of Auckland have carried out years of research into the impact of the arts in supporting schools after disasters.

Professor Peter O’Connor and his team at the University of Auckland have carried out years of research into the impact of the arts in supporting schools after disasters.

Layers of trauma

Last year the University of Auckland team carried out a research project with eight schools around Aotearoa about the impact of Covid-19 and the use of Te Rito Toi in schools.

“What they talked about is that Covid is just another layer of trauma along with multiple traumas which are happening. Especially in areas where Covid has hit and where there are a lot of existing traumas such as poverty and and dislocation, those issues are magnified,” says Peter.

When children are busy working with their hands, teachers observed that it was easier to have meaningful one on one conversations about their worries and concerns.

“The arts provide a space for really safe dialogue with the adult teachers about ‘will my grandad die? What will happen if he does?’ All those big questions you don’t necessarily want to have in whole-class discussions.”

Peter says coming back to school to the excitement of painting, drawing, dancing and moving was really important.

“Teachers decided to put aside those more formal kinds of structures to excite kids about being back at school.”

The power of stories

Many of the activities in Te Rito Toi are linked to picture books, providing teachers with a safe way to engage children in big issues.

“That’s the power of fiction, and we’ve always used fiction as humans to better understand our own world,” says Peter.

“For example, if you use Aroha’s Way – A Children’s Guide Through Emotions [by Craig Phillips and Rebekah Lipp], you can safely talk about anxiety without talking about your own. You can help name all the feelings that Aroha has and safely talk about the things she could do to help herself. You can have that level of conversation in a classroom and it’s not so personal.”

the arts

New improved version

Feedback from principals and teachers has led to significant changes to the original resource. Some suggestions were: including more culturally diverse perspectives in lesson plans, some resources in te reo Māori, more visual art resources, and resources that directly address poverty issues. The revised version also includes videos with advice about resilience and leadership during crises.

One of the first new resources added was by Tongan artist and Sylvia Park School deputy principal Dagmar Dyck.

“She produced a beautiful Pasifika visual arts resource where they make traditional lei – that work is centered in Pasifika ways of making things in communal spaces. It’s a highly structured group activity which also creates something really beautiful for them to share with their families. Hope and beauty are really important in Auckland at the moment,” he reflects.

The revised version of Te Rito Toi ( link)) was launched in mid-2021. It has the backing of the New Zealand Principal’s Federation, NZEI and Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga.

“They are 100 percent behind the idea that when primary schools come back, they use Te Rito Toi. We are going to be doing a series of webinars for teachers from the beginning of term 4, hosted through the Principals Federation and NZEI. Last year when we did one, we had 3,000 teachers online,” says Peter. 


A little kindness

Tu Meke Tuatara

Tu Meke Tuatara

Assisted by the University of Auckland, the Sir John Kirwan Foundation developed Mitey, a whole-school approach to mental health education for Years 1-8 that enables schools to deliver effective mental health education as part of core teaching and learning.

As a separate piece of work to support ākonga returning to school following lockdown, the team at Mitey developed a Level 1-4 unit of work called A Little Kindness Goes a Long Way, built around the book Tu Meke Tuatara by Malcolm Clarke and FLOX.

Using literacy and the arts, and building on themes of friendship and kindness, ākonga are given the opportunity to explore their feelings and re-establish where they belong in their classroom, whānau and community, as well as understanding the importance of reconnecting together and helping each other.

A Little Kindness Goes a Long Way’ is available on Te Rito Toi(external link) and from link) 

For more stories and a research article about Te Rito Toi.  

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:06 am, 3 November 2021

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