University of Waikato’s Dr Lesley Rameka noticed that a lot of New Zealand early childhood education centres were adopting international philosophies and practices that bore little cultural relevance to the attending children.

“Actually some of the practices grated with many people,” reflects Rameka, “So there was a need to develop more culturally located theory and practices for infants and toddlers.”

“The constructs of ECE, values, learning and behaviour are all different. We need to look at how we can integrate Māori and Pacific perspectives in early childhood.”

So with the support of a Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI) grant, Rameka set out to research what practices might benefit very young Maori and Pacific children in ECE.

The research took three phases. The first was reclaiming traditional practices.

“We went back to our elders and our communities and asked what were some of the practices you remember that were really important as a child.”

Cultural tools like artefacts and practices started to emerge.

The second phase was about reframing those traditional practices into ECE. Some practices couldn’t be reframed; Rameka gives the example of mouth feeding, where caregivers pre-masticated their infant’s food. Others, like waiata, or the Cook Islands pareu lavalava, could successfully be reframed into an ECE context.

The third phase was putting these things into practice and evaluating the effectiveness.

One of the key things that came through was the importance of connectedness for Maori; connectedness to mana whenua and iwi and wherever they are.

It recognised that whānau and community contributions are fundamental to culturally located practices.

It found that tuākana/tēina partnerships – when a more expert tuākana (traditionally an older sibling or cousin) guides a less expert tēina – are essential for learning. Tuākana/tēina learning is a culturally responsive pedagogical approach and compatible with mixed age early childhood settings.

Rameka says recognising the spiritual connection is important too, as this is linked with identity and belonging, which are, in turn, critical to learning.

“We need real attempts to actually connect children to their cultural roots – to their people, to their land, and their spiritual connection.”

Rameka says their research gives time and space for people to really articulate this for themselves in their centres.

“And that’s empowering,” she says, “Once they’ve taken that on board it becomes who they are.”

Staff involved in the project have become very passionate about it, says Rameka.

“It becomes the philosophy of their centre. They feel like they’re doing what they should be doing and what they want to be doing and they just want to take it further.”

Rameka says it’s only just the beginning. The research has opened up a whole range of possibilities.

“Truthfully there are not a lot of people doing it well. It’s not easy. You have the cultural norms, but how do you reframe those cultural practices into early childhood contexts?” she asks.

“It’s big and ongoing.”

Dr Lesley Rameka spoke at the Early Years Research Centre Conference  at the Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research (WMIER), University of Waikato last month about the implications of her research.

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