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  • Professor Linda Mitchell, Director of the Early Years Research Centre at the University of Waikato, provides an overview of projects concerned with the role of early childhood education in supporting belonging in Aotearoa New Zealand for immigrant and refugee families.

    Belonging | Mana whenua is a strand of Te Whāriki, a domain of mana and empowerment that is portrayed as a springboard for participation in society. Te Whāriki describes it as “Belonging | Children know they belong and have a sense of connection to others and the environment. Mana whenua | Children’s relationship to Papatūānuku is based on whakapapa, respect and aroha.” Belonging | Mana whenua is a particular challenge for immigrant and refugee families, who are transitioning from their home country to a new country and culture. It has not been well articulated, understood or supported in multicultural contexts.

    Projects to support belonging in ECE

    In 2018, our team of researchers from the Early Years Research Centre was awarded two research funding grants for projects concerned with the role of early childhood education in supporting belonging in Aotearoa New Zealand for immigrant and refugee families. Strengthening belonging and identity of refugee and immigrant children through early childhood education was the title of our 2-year Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI) project (Mitchell, Bateman, Kahuroa, Khoo & Rameka, 2020). Refugee families in early childhood education: Constructing pathways to belonging was the title of our 3-year Marsden project. We argued that, through a focus on Belonging | Mana whenua, early childhood education provides unique opportunities for addressing challenges in refugee and immigrant settlement. Most important, early childhood practices that build on concepts of mana whenua from kaupapa Māori theory can strengthen a sense of bicultural belonging and identity for refugee and immigrant families, and practices that incorporate key cultural constructs that families bring with them would cement that strength.

    This resource for teachers originated from the TLRI project and focuses directly on informing teaching and learning. It encapsulates some of the theorising, strategies and tools used and researched by participating teachers. The content was developed by members of the research team and teachers from Pakuranga Baptist Kindergarten, Hillcrest Kindergarten, Crawshaw Kindergarten and Iqra Educare, who were participants in the TLRI project, and the Director of the Carol White Family Centre, who is participating in the Marsden project. We worked to produce the resource in a 2-day workshop facilitated by Andrea Soanes and Greta Dromgool from the Science Learning Hub, University of Waikato.

    Creating unique centre approaches

    Well, we are researchers, academics … working in collaboration with teachers … We see that model as really valuable because we bring our research expertise, our theoretical understandings, the teachers bring a very deep practice understanding and understanding from their qualifications as early childhood teachers. So in combination, we make a very good team.

    Professor Linda Mitchell, Director, Early Years Research Centre, University of Waikato

    In each setting, teachers and researchers working in collaboration explored a range of arts and play-based strategies and episodes, interviewed families, video recorded curriculum events, talked with children and gathered documentation for the research. Each team designed their own unique approaches and strategies to supporting Belonging | Mana whenua suitable to their context. We came together in workshops to discuss what we were finding out. We met with setbacks along the way and found solutions. As Jacqui Lees and Olivia Ng from Pakuranga Baptist Kindergarten wrote when confronted with challenges, “Being flexibly minded allowed us to come up with other options.” Most of all, the project was rewarding in the new and deeper understandings gained and in the ways in which we all worked together to form closer connectedness. Writing of their project, Amanda Cloke and Louise Treweek from Hillcrest Kindergarten said, “This research experience enhanced our enthusiasm and passion about what we are doing and brought new direction, ideas and possibilities to share cultural experiences within our kindergarten community in order to create a sense of belonging for our immigrant families. It strengthened our partnership with parents, and teachers gained more knowledge about our children and their families.”

    One significant aspect of teachers’ work in this project was their willingness to learn and to try out new things. Digital storytelling, as told by Iqra Educare teachers, was one method that enabled teachers to reflect on their identities as teachers and their notions of belonging and coming to belong in Aotearoa New Zealand. It was also a powerful mechanism for sharing their stories with family and community and shifting to a more balanced relationship between teachers and families.

    Inspirational centre projects

    What teachers present here is a rich array of insights, strategies and tools that we hope will generate ideas for other teachers and offer thought for managers and policy makers too. The titles of the teacher projects give an idea of the wide-ranging focus of each:

    It is not that we want to copy from one setting to another, but we hope the examples will offer inspiration for teachers who are working particularly with refugee and immigrant families. In a culturally diverse society where immigrant and refugee families coming to Aotearoa New Zealand hold diverse beliefs about education and child rearing, our questions of bicultural belonging in Aotearoa New Zealand and belonging in homelands are especially relevant.

    Key messages

    Key messages for policy emerge from this work. Our research shows that teachers are better able to create a local curriculum when they are open to finding out and inviting contributions of community, families and children. Teachers can be supported through teacher education, professional development and research partnerships to think and act critically with reference to family funds of knowledge, children and society and to experiment with teaching and learning practices in creating a fairer bicultural world. This is demanding emotional and intellectual work. One policy challenge is how to offer opportunities and access to resources for all teachers to develop as informed, critical professionals.

    TLRI summary information

    For more information about this research project, refer to the following resources in downloadable PDF format:

    Science in the early years

    A sense of belonging supports dispositions such as playfulness and curiosity. These dispositions are essential for science exploration. The New Zealand Curriculum states that children need to form connections to science and to see themselves in it if they are going to participate as “critical, informed, and responsible citizens”.

    Teachers can use a range of simple strategies to support children’s development of science understanding and attitudes. This can include providing time and space for exploration, using thoughtful questions and engaging in conversations about science and scientists. Some simple ideas for exploring the world around us can be found here.

    Useful links

    Gain more insights into exploring the concept of belonging in an early childhood setting from the following resources:

    Te Whāriki Online provides a local curriculum design guide along with design steps and examples.


    This article was written by Professor Linda Mitchell, Director of the Early Years Research Centre at the University of Waikato, as part of a Teaching and Learning Research Initiative-funded research project Strengthening belonging and identity of refugee and immigrant children through early childhood education.

      Published 20 June 2021 Referencing Hub articles
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