Tī kōuka leaves energise exploration in early learning

Issue: Volume 102, Number 8

Posted: 22 June 2023
Reference #: 1HAaWC

An Auckland early learning service has been rewarded for its mahi exploring the regenerative learning potential of an everyday natural material – the leaves from tī kōuka (cabbage trees).

One year old William joyfully experiments with a tī kōuka leaf.

One year old William joyfully experiments with a tī kōuka leaf.

The Kererū team from Kids’ Domain Early Learning Centre has won a 2022 NEiTA (National Excellence in Teaching Awards) Seed Award and a $10,000 professional development grant in the awards, which received a record number of almost 2,000 nominations from across Australia and New Zealand.

Kererū is one of two sensory-rich spaces for infants and toddlers aged between three months and three years.  

With Pukekawa/Auckland Domain on the boundary, tī kōuka leaves fall into the grounds of the Grafton early learning service. Prior to embarking on the inquiry to explore the learning opportunities of the leaves, staff would clear the leaves away.

They decided to observe more closely the interactions between tamariki, kaiako and materials and by dividing into rōpū, kaiako gained a deeper understanding of each age group. They were able to observe and learn how children connected with the cabbage leaves in their own unique ways, which helped to inform an approach to co-research and tailor experiences to meet each group’s strengths and interests.

Focus on space

“We had engaged in multiple inquiries that have served as the foundation for our practice in understanding children, their learning processes, and how we respond to their everyday needs,” explains Kids’ Domain director, Bridgette Towle.

 Kaiako Amita Khanna has a playful encounter with a tamariki in Pukekawa/Auckland Domain.

Kaiako Amita Khanna has a playful encounter with a tamariki in Pukekawa/Auckland Domain.

“These previous inquiries, ‘embracing the spirited toddler’ and ‘open-ended materials’, have helped us deeply understand our tamariki and their unique ways of connecting to their environment and the people around them.”

The concept of space at Kids’ Domain emerged as a response to:

  • A desire to respond thoughtfully to tamariki in a holistic way that includes the interactive elements making up their environment – people, places, things and everything in between.
  • The importance of adapting to the ever-changing and diverse dynamics and characteristics of infants and toddlers.
  • Helping kaiako to create the conditions for an age group experiencing rapid developmental changes, while navigating everyday care routines and fostering positive interactions among tamariki.
  • An influx of new children following the first Covid lockdown.

“Space is a big concept and initially when we were looking at space, it wasn’t physical – space is more about relationships between everything. We wanted to look at space but it’s too broad, so it really made us hone in on something in particular to actually see the possibilities,” says Laraine Tuaputa, who was head teacher of Kererū during the year-long inquiry.

Parent  Phyllis Phukubye-Johnson explored the potential of tī koukā leaves at a whānau night.

Parent  Phyllis Phukubye-Johnson explored the potential of tī koukā leaves at a whānau night.

“We hosted a whānau night where families came in and played with cabbage tree leaves and they offered other perspectives of how they might weave in their own stories and creativity into our space with the cabbage tree leaf. We are a very diverse community. From that whānau night we got to see their creativity, but that also gave us ideas,” she explains.

Soon, tī kōuka leaves could be found entwined between resources. These experiments provided valuable insights into children’s engagement, curiosity, and exploration.

Connecting through lockdowns

The inquiry took place in 2021/2022 after the first nationwide Covid lockdown and during further lockdowns in Auckland. Through games, stories and art, pēpi and toddlers learned that tī kōuka has a circular life force (mauri). Together with whānau, they learned about connection, resilience and their own place in an interconnected world.

“We took cabbage tree leaves out to the Domain and put them around our different spaces. The cabbage tree leaves came to the fore along with the tamariki, again, looking at those connections in relation to material and space,” says Ripeka Page, current head teacher of Kererū.

“Just before lockdown we were all buzzing with this amazing energy around this leaf and around each other. The most important thing during lockdown was to keep that energy alive.

“From that we went into lockdown, and thought ‘how as a team can we creatively engage with our whānau and tamariki at home through the cabbage tree leaf?’ We used StoryPark and created ‘The big cabbage tree leaf hunt’.

“We were very surprised to see how many cabbage trees there were around Auckland, and we learned so much more about the cabbage tree leaf as a material, even its history, just from interacting with our families. We feel very connected .to the cabbage tree leaf!” laughs Ripeka.

Empowering teachers

Tī kōuka leaves became an object of investigation and generated energy for kaiako by creating momentum and transformation and strengthening how they collaborated as adults.

“Considering our learning process got teachers to think outside the box; it stretched their capacities to see themselves as co-leaders. We’re trying to ignite the passion, centre-wide, for thinking and inquiry and everyone’s ability from a non-hierarchal and inclusive perspective to share in this process; that it’s not top down, but everyone’s involved.

“This was an extraordinary experience in a very hard year where the whole group of teachers became empowered and energised,” says Ripeka.

Kids Domain kaiako, clockwise from top left: Ripeka Page, Eileen Smith, Ritu Khanna, Amita Khanna, Laraine Tuaputa.

Kids Domain kaiako, clockwise from top left: Ripeka Page, Eileen Smith, Ritu Khanna, Amita Khanna, Laraine Tuaputa.

Through the process, the notion of conscious collective energy emerged and was actively woven throughout the inquiry. This energy was described as the shared intentions, ideas and knowledge that kaiako, tamariki, and whānau created together.

Future thinking

In 2022, the encounter with tī kōuka saw the focus shift to the potential of Pukekawa/Auckland Domain. Now that inquiry has finished, attention has turned to internal spaces in 2023.

This year’s inquiry question is, ‘How can we curate our space for tamariki to ignite new potential?’ Using the knowledge gained from past inquiries, kaiako are curious to continue to learn about the unique characteristics of pēpi, in-betweeners and toddlers.

“We’ve brought everything that we’ve learnt from Pukekawa and everything we’ve learnt from our pēpi-to-toddlers group into how to create spaces that are transformative and fluid for this age group. We’re back where we started but we’re looking at it through a whole new perspective.

“Now that we know a bit more about what space means to us here, we are looking at it quite holistically. We’re not just looking at the physical elements of our environment, we’re looking at connection,” concludes Laraine. 

Learning outcomes

Looking at the principles of Te Whāriki the learning outcomes of the tī kōuka inquiry included:Cabbage tree leaves

  • Mana Atua: Tamariki were empowered; their potential was harnessed, and they developed a sense of confidence as they discovered and developed their own capabilities in their own time and space.
  • Mana Aotūroa: The process of inquiring with just one material in fun and playful ways harnessed the creativity and imagination of tamariki. Kaiako saw the multiple ways children came to know tī kouka well and saw new and different possibilities of how to create opportunities for further interaction.
  • Mana Reo: The inquiry tapped into the pedagogy of relations. Tamariki deepened their understanding and developed meaningful relationships between themselves and people, places and materials as they explored the cabbage tree leaves.
  • Mana Whenua: By having different opportunities to explore one material in different spaces, tamariki developed a rich connection and understanding through investigating the properties and potentials of tī kouka. These interactions deepened their understanding of the natural world and sense of connection with their environment.

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

Posted: 11:40 am, 22 June 2023

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