Hamilton school embraces learning through play

Issue: Volume 100, Number 7

Posted: 10 June 2021
Reference #: 1HALhZ

With its bright, modern buildings, Te Ao Mārama School in Flagstaff, Hamilton, still has a new-school vibe. But beneath the gloss is a carefully thought out, play-based curriculum, with the ‘why’ and the ‘who’ planted firmly at the centre.

Te Ao Mārama School

Te Ao Mārama School opened its doors in 2019 with around 100 students and has experienced rapid growth ever since, with its roll now sitting at 400, and 30 different nationalities represented.

The school was gifted its name Te Ao Mārama – which means the world of light and understanding – by the school’s local iwi Ngāti Wairere. Principal Tony Grey says it is ‘a pretty huge name’ and is considered a real taonga in their school community.

Right from the establishment phase, the school has enjoyed a strong relationship with mana whenua. As well as informing a rich cultural narrative throughout the school, their relationship has helped shape the design of their curriculum, with te reo Māori and tikanga Māori interwoven throughout.

Te Ao Mārama School

Learning through play

Also threaded through the school are their values for learning – the five Cs: creative, confident, curious, community-minded and collaborative.

The school has adopted a strong ‘learning through play’ philosophy which integrates the values for learning with the curriculum.

Deputy principal Sally Grylls-Thomas describes how they explored the research around play-based learning, looked at what other schools were doing, and did a lot of work together as a staff before they opened.

“And what it boiled down to for us, with all of the visiting, the talking, the research, the readings, everything that we did, it came down to what learning needed to be like for our learners,” says Sally.

Play-based learning in action at Te Ao Mārama School. Photo credit: Anna Pratt.

Play-based learning in action at Te Ao Mārama School. Photo credit: Anna Pratt.

“We wanted learning to be collaborative, particularly with our collaborative learning spaces. We wanted learning to be authentic and meaningful and personalised for each of those learners.”

The learning through play approach is applied right across the school. The different learning areas of the national curriculum – reading, writing, maths, science, technology, and so on – are all woven into play, says Sally.

“It looks quite different with our five-year-olds than it does with our children in Year 6.”

Each learning space has a big makerspace area with lots of room and tools for messy play for younger students or scope for problem-based or project-based learning for older students.

“We have sewing machines, 3D printers; we’ve got robotics, the Lego Mindstorms – all of that kind of creating, tinkering stuff that’s there for children to learn with,” says Sally.

Tony emphasises that the technology and equipment in the makerspaces serves little purpose unless carefully applied to the curriculum design. He is a big believer in Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle model with the ‘why’ at the centre, the ‘how’ wrapped around that and the ‘what’ as the outermost circle.

“To me, some of those gizmos – virtual reality, the 3D printers – those are just ‘whats’ in the outer circle that would make little to no difference if they’re not based on some very clear vision and your values and key beliefs around teaching and learning that drive that.”

Learner agency in action

Sally gives the example of a group of students who wanted to help boost the number of gifts under the school Christmas tree as part of a charitable initiative the school was running to support Women’s Refuge late last year.

The students decided to draw on the skills they’d learned with the sewing machines and made scrunchies to sell for the cause.

“They researched, and through trial and error, they came up with a really good design. They took orders from the kids and then they got into a little production line in the classroom and made these scrunchies and sold them. And then with the money they bought more gifts to put under the tree.

“That’s authentic learning. You’ve got your technology, you’ve got your social science, you’ve got your literacy, your mathematics – all of that tied up in there. And when you can see children driving their own learning in those really meaningful ways, that’s gold for us,” says Sally.

Another example emerged during Covid-19 when a group of students grew curious about why some countries were mandating face masks. They researched the science behind it, and then decided they would make face masks, looking up the materials and the design they’d need.

One of the challenges is trying to measure learner agency, says Sally.

“We’re on a bit of a journey this year with assessment for learning. We really want to make sure that our learners can articulate where they are in their learning. How will they know what it looks like if they’ve achieved that goal? And can they articulate their next step?”

Principal Tony Grey and deputy principal Sally Grylls-Thomas stand proudly in front of their school's pepeha.

Principal Tony Grey and deputy principal Sally Grylls-Thomas stand proudly in front of their school's pepeha.

Keeping the ‘who’ at the centre

One anticipated challenge was the reaction from parents and whānau to the learning through play approach to the curriculum, but the parent community has embraced the school’s approach, says Tony.

“We thought we would be getting lots of questions and concerns, but really it was a beautiful non-issue. Our families love it. They get it, they understand it.”

Parents are invited to be part of the class programme each morning and afternoon, so they feel included in their child’s learning, he says.

“During lockdown in Covid we really missed our parents. We could not wait to go back to Alert Level 1 to have our parents come back in.”

Building an inclusive culture is important at Te Ao Mārama School. The school’s whakataukī is ‘Whiria te tāngata’, which means ‘Weaving people together’.

They operate a heavily distributive model; they don’t appoint team leaders or curriculum leaders.

“All of our teachers are leaders in some way. And they all have strengths and interests and passions. And we have really tried to foster leadership and lots of different areas across the school,” says Sally.

“I’m not a great believer in titles and we don’t want to look nor feel like a hierarchy,” says Tony.

“If you’ve got your staff loving coming to work and loving what they’re doing and genuinely collaborating, if they have every possible condition to thrive and enjoy it, they will then in turn look after the needs of our students’ wellbeing and achievement,” he says.

Holding firm to the vision

The biggest challenge for Te Ao Mārama School, as it continues to grow at a rapid rate, is to sustain what they’re doing and take it to the next level. They are keen to remain a ‘new’ school, even as time ticks on.

“One of the goals is planning for that growth,” says Sally.

“We have to continually be responsive to the needs of our kids, the needs of our community, the interests of our staff, and the passions and the strengths that they bring here.

“The development of our curriculum will continue to be ongoing and how that looks in the classroom space. And I guess what supports we can give to teachers to really bring that alive, in an authentic way,” says Sally.

Tony says they often refer to the GIF with Mel Gibson from Braveheart saying “Hold!”

“In the face of any challenges, it’s about really holding firm to our vision, and our values and key beliefs around teaching and learning,” he says. 

Cooking is a popular learning activity at Te Ao Mārama School.

Cooking is a popular learning activity at Te Ao Mārama School.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 8:28 AM, 10 June 2021

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