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  • A research project funded by a Marsden grant explored what belonging looked like in ECE. This case study, written by educators, tells the story of how they incorporated belonging into their centre’s programme, with links to promote science learning.

    The Carol White Family Centre is situated on a secondary school campus and caters for refugee families and their children. This is an intergenerational programme supporting infants, toddlers and young children as well as their families/whānau. The programme provides for up to 150 adults and students. We have three teaching teams – a New Zealand qualified early childhood team, a bilingual team supporting languages and cultures of our families and a pastoral care team supporting refugee families with their day-to-day living in Aotearoa New Zealand.

    Food as a shared experience

    Food has always played an important role in our centre with many well established rituals ongoing for the past 16 years – for example, traditional end-of-term shared lunches where we all come together to celebrate successes across the term. Students prepare and share their dishes from home. Adults and children come together, share a blessing and share food together. This ritual lets everyone know that school holidays are coming. We are celebrating the end of the term, the end of hard work.

    Birthdays are another ritual. These days, there is a lot more variety around these occasions, with many families celebrating in homes. A father told us that he enjoyed birthdays, how he didn’t know his own birthday and how he enjoyed these milestones of his young daughter. “There is another side of this,” he said. “Sure we celebrate these birthdays, more importantly we celebrate another year of life of a child.”

    Root cakes come regularly as parents celebrate baby’s first step. Sometimes it’s a bowl of nuts and seeds celebrating a good luck story. Bolani (stuffed flatbreads) turns up all over the place as a gift or as an offering to invite a conversation. Other food offerings include green tea salad, milky rice, dhaal, chutneys, semolina, naan, phirni, chicken biryani rice, osh, dumplings – the list is endless. Anyone and everyone contributes, whenever they wish.

    These events are a celebration of life and allow our community to create a local curriculum together.

    Robyn Gerrity and Liana Hardjabuntara, Carol White Family Centre

    Our kitchen manager is from Africa, and she shares her expertise and kindness with all. She conducts masterclasses where anyone interested can attend. Our staffroom becomes the classroom, and using her daughter-in-law as her right hand, they prepare and bake the croissants, baklava and cinnamon rolls. Families join and are proud of their culinary accomplishments. Sometimes, families bring their fresh chillies, mint and coriander from their home garden for a chutney-making session. Planned or unplanned, they are always welcome. These events are a celebration of life and allow our community to create a local curriculum together.

    Our journey

    Cuisine from the Home is an extraordinary cooking programme in our centre. We noticed that, for a long time, families had shared their special dishes from home. We wanted to grow this contribution and to acknowledge and honour these gifts more formally. We talked to our bilingual staff on what this might look like. They were slightly apprehensive. However, they could see the value and appreciate the contribution this would make in our centre. We decided to start small. We left the organisation in the hands of the two bilingual team members, asking them to think about what recipes they would use and what ingredients would be required. We offered to cover all expenses and to shop for the ingredients on their behalf. We wanted to make this as easy as possible. To have a happy outcome for them and for children and families, this needed to be a fun and enjoyable experience with no wrong way of doing things.

    The cooking team took this all on board, insisting on providing their own ingredients and cooking equipment, such as a pasta maker and manual food processor. We could see ownership of this programme had already begun as children queued to use the tools, showing off their culinary skills using real knives to slice leeks, garlic and chives and using herbs and spices. They talked with their teachers in their first language. We could see the children as experts with their knowledge from home. Older children were happy to share their skills with babies, who eagerly waited for their turn to use the equipment.

    The cooking was done on the dining table using our electric frying pan, and children watched on, tasting the food and admiring their teachers. This turned into a weekly occasion with the bilingual team having complete control of the process and inviting other culturally diverse families to contribute. These days, there is no surprise when families arrive with ingredients and staff announce, “Excuse me, Aunty is here with the ingredients and wants to cook osh.” (Osh is an Afghani dish like noodle soup with beans and delicious herbs.) Teachers are documenting these processes in the first language including photographs, and these contribute to children’s portfolios.


    Both belonging and empowerment suggest bravery and courageousness as well as other dispositions like playfulness because you are confident, you’re brave, you’ve put yourself out there and you’re doing this – children as well as adults.

    Robyn Gerrity, Carol White Family Centre

    Te Whāriki reminds us that children belong and have a true sense of trust and connection to others when they are respected and when their cultural knowledge is held in high regard. We believe that this programme has supported this goal. Belonging links to the empowerment principle of Te Whāriki, which is about giving away and sharing power, helping to make children strong and eventually enabling children to guide their own lives. This takes courage, making change and sharing leadership. Developing our Cuisine from the Home programme has grown children’s and families’ confidence, it has empowered them to take ownership and it brings their lives to the centre. It has strengthened their identity – they are proud to be able to share.

    Science in the early years

    Engaging in the preparation and cooking of food provides a range of opportunities to support children’s development of scientific skills and knowledge. Simple tasks around measurement, volume and timing build their experience and confidence.

    Mixing, reactions between ingredients and heating allow for observations, explanations and discussion. Young children can be encouraged to use a range of senses to describe different food and the changes that it undergoes. The Science Learning Hub has a topic about food and articles on sensing food to support teacher awareness of the rich opportunities and language for science learning.

    Simple taste tests are a good way to support children to start thinking and talking scientifically.

    Related content

    The other teacher projects involved in this research give a rich array of insights, strategies and tools that will inspire and generate ideas for teachers.


    This article was written by teachers Robyn Gerrity and Liana Hardjabuntara from the Carol White Family Centre as part of a Marsden-funded research project Refugee families in early childhood education: Constructing pathways to belonging.

      Published 20 June 2021 Referencing Hub articles
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