Professional Resource

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Down Under and Over

by Donna Ruhland, Senior Subject Matter Expert-Professional Development Systems, National Center on Early Childhood Development, Teaching and Learning

“A child is a treasure to be nurtured, to grow, to flourish.” —from Te Whāriki

As an early childhood professional for 35 years, engaging in a study tour of quality programs in other countries has been at the top of my bucket list for at least the last 15 of those 35 years. In March, I was able to fulfill this wish when an opportunity arose to visit early childhood programs in New Zealand, along with ZERO TO THREE colleague, Kathy Reschke, as part of a week-long study tour facilitated by Harvest Educators Collaborative.

After a total of 17 hours in the air, Kathy and I arrived in Auckland a day ahead when we’d left. I lost track of what time (or day) it might be “back home.” We left Ohio at the end of winter and arrived in New Zealand at the end of their summer. Scents of flowering plants perfumed the air, and a seemingly ever-present breeze moved us along to find our hotel and a café before heading out into the city. We arrived a day ahead of the start of the tour, which gave us enough time to explore the Auckland War Museum to begin immersion in the history and rich culture of the Maori, or native New Zealand, people.

We met the rest of our group Sunday morning at the iconic Sky Tower in Auckland. The 32 members of the group were then transported to the park where we would be staying. Next, we attended orientation to each start our personal journeys in experiencing early childhood education (ECE) in New Zealand. The uniqueness of this New Zealand experience is that there is a national support for early childhood, a national ECE curriculum (Te Whāriki), integration of the Reggio Emelia philosophy (from Reggio Emelia, Italy), and infusion of the Maori and inclusion of other cultural groups in New Zealand.

“At all the programs, I observed children moving freely from the indoor program space to the outside play areas.”

During the next five days, we visited a dozen early childhood centers. Common among these programs is a sense of freedom, respect, and individualism within a unified context. At all the programs, I observed children moving freely from the indoor program space to the outside play areas. Staff remained engaged with children in both the inside and outside play areas. Patio doors and windows remain open to the outside, making whole areas pleasantly accessible and attainable. Maori words and books are present; songs sung by the children in Maori welcomed our group. In New Zealand, English is the primary language, however Maori is commonly infused into every area of the programs along with languages, such as Japanese, that reflected the families served.

A teacher at one of the sites shared with me that their program had “layers” which included Te Whāniki, Maori culture and language, Reggio Emilia, in addition to with their specific philosophical beliefs. These layers are present in the freedom the children have to explore the environment and follow their interests, in the documentation the teachers carefully make and share with families, and in the interesting hands-on materials and aesthetically prepared environments. My impression of these sites is of harmonious integration of philosophical and pedagogical layers.

“As she finished, I thought how the lovely braided vine truly reflected the harmonious integration of the pedagogies and philosophies of the New Zealand people into a harmonious whole.”

Evenings found us debriefing and discussing our experiences and diving deeper into the pedagogy, practice, and/or history of the culture, people, programs, and curriculum. We heard from local speakers including program leadership and local experts. We discussed topics, each from our own perspectives and backgrounds. We had tour members from across the United States and Canada including program leaders, college instructors, teachers, and family child care providers. One participant from Hawaii braided some of the flowering vines that grow profusely in the park itself. As she finished, I thought how the lovely braided vine truly reflected the harmonious integration of the pedagogies and philosophies of the New Zealand people into a harmonious whole.

Our group as well remains as a braided, harmonious whole. Discussion among members continues for our “chat group.” We send pictures back and forth, update each other in what we are doing, and share photos of our trips home. This experience has touched us all. The harmonious braiding of lives, beliefs, philosophies, and pedagogies is possible. Providing experiences for children reflective of their families’ cultures, languages, beliefs, and philosophies is not only probable but critical for the harmony of the whole.

Editor’s Note: Do you have a professional development experience that has had a significant influence on your journey working with or on behalf of infants, toddlers, and their families? Share your experience on Member Connect!

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