Māori Language Week: What early childhood education providers can learn from Kōhanga Reo

Kōhanga Reo translates to 'language nest'.
Kōhanga Reo translates to 'language nest'. Photo credit: Getty Images

Māori children were once beaten for speaking Te Reo at school. Now there are hundreds of places around the country where they're encouraged to do just that.

Kōhanga Reo, a development initiative and charitable trust, is an alternative early childhood education system that cultivates Māori language and culture in the country's young children. 

Organisers say it could teach New Zealand's mainstream education system a thing or two. 

Almost 40 years after the birth of the initiative, there are more than 460 Kōhanga Reo throughout New Zealand. They're also in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and even London.

Kōhanga Reo translates to 'language nest', a fitting description of the kind of close-knit community it creates. 

Daniel Procter, co-chair of the Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust board, should know - he was one of the very first children to receive such an education.

"We were the guinea pigs," he told Newshub. "There was no plan, no model."

The first centre in Wellington was created in 1982, five years before Te Reo was made an official language of New Zealand. 

To right the wrongs of the past, Procter says it's essential for Māori kids to be taught their culture is valuable and useful. 

"Our culture has a spoken history," Procter told Newshub. "We learn the stories of our ancestors, continually re-establishing that connection. You can't take the child out of the context of their whanau. The elder is the link to the past, the child is the link to the future."

The structures of Kōhanga vary widely. New Zealand-based programmes run five days a week as an alternative childcare option, while the London Kōhanga Reo holds regular meet-ups, often at New Zealand House in St James's.

"Our expectation is total immersion, but we appreciate sometimes that's not possible," Procter says of the overseas centres. "All we really ask is building vocabulary, even if it's one word or phrase a day. How to say you're buttering bread, tying your shoelaces - the basic foundations of language."

While the Trust has no formal relationship with the international Kōhanga, they supply them with Te Reo resources and support them in their endeavour to preserve Māori culture around the world. But ultimately, Procter says, the overseas initiatives act as a stopgap. 

"We hope they return home," he says. "I consider our Australian whanau not indifferent from New Zealand urban dwellers, disconnected from Maori culture… Kōhanga is really a story of disconnection. A tree without roots falls over."

A few years ago, Kōhanga Reo was in trouble. Centres were closing and fewer and fewer parents were enrolling their children. 

The Trust lodged a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal that the Crown was undermining the movement by treating it like a mainstream early education provider, failing to recognise its unique strategies and needs. The Tribunal found in favour of the claim. 

Procter says Kōhanga feels pressured to "fit a box" set by the dominant system. 

"We've moved forward as a country, and recognition should follow that trend," he says.

The current Government is open to change, and Procter says they're 18 months into discussions.

In response to the 2011 claim, Kōhanga Reo received a funding bump in July, with $32 million from the Budget going towards lifting wages, paying volunteers and repairing buildings. 

Associate Education Minister Kelvin David acknowledged the programme's "crucial role" in the revitalisation of Te Reo. 

"Te reo Māori is a tāonga," he says. "We have a duty to protect it and kōhanga reo are essential to its survival and the first responders to teaching te reo Māori to the next generation."

The programme is currently under review and restructuring to make sure it's "fit for purpose" moving into the future. There will be changes made to how staff are trained, without sacrificing any of the Kōhanga values.

At present, Kōhanga operate quite differently to a daycare or other ECE. They tend to follow a 9am - 3pm structure rather than an eight hour day so kids can spend more time with their family. It's not unusual for parents to stay at the centre the whole day, learning alongside their child.

"We encourage parents to stay with their babies," Procter says. "Our model serves developing the whole entire family, strengthening the whanau."

He says pressing concerns like Oranga Tamariki child uplifts show the need for the family unit to be nurtured in a uniquely Maori way. 

This communal spirit could be lacking in mainstream education, to the detriment of both students and their teachers.

Procter says the practice of teachers being assigned a new class every year means they have to "continually re-establish a connection". Just when they've formed bonds with a group of children and got to know their skills, weaknesses and dreams, they have to say goodbye as a fresh crop moves into their classroom. 

"In Kōhanga, teachers move with the children throughout their five years to help keep aspirations accountable," Procter explains.

He says most teachers are grappling with huge classes, furthering their sense of isolation from the pupils. Kōhanga operates under a 1 to 4 ratio, allowing teachers to focus on individual kids and form closer bonds.

"We value connection, we value close friendship," Procter says.

Kōhanga teachers are encouraged to treat the kids as their own, and recognise that "mokopuna belong to a sacred royal lineage"," Procter says. 

"A family has aspirations for their child when enlisting them in Kōhanga. It's like when elders design a destiny for a newborn child."