What Māori can teach us about early childhood development

E kore au e ngaro, he kākano i ruia mai i Rangiātea.

— Māori proverb, meaning:

I will never be lost, for I am a seed sown in Rangiātea

Rangiātea is the origin of Māori migration, representing the wider world, and marking the start and the end of the journey of potential. The concept of he kakano portrays the child as a seed ready for growth, development and expansion. A person, like the seed, is linked to previous generations, belonging to someone or something and cannot be isolated or detached from those connections.

New Zealand is a highly developed country, full of opportunity. For some.

It also has one of the worst rates of educational inequality in the world. It has the highest youth suicide rates in the OECD. And its children are more likely to be victims of violence than almost all other OECD countries.

It has high, but varying, early childhood education rates. While 98% of Pākehā (New Zealand-European) and Asian children are enrolled, those numbers are lower for Māori (95%) and Pacific children (93.4%), meaning by the time they start school, those children are already on track to do less well than their peers.

Like all countries it has deep-rooted and complex issues. And like all countries, it has people trying to change things for the better.

A group of people stand huddled together under the high roof of a large wooden hut painted white and red.
© UNICEF/New Zealand/2018/KnowlesRepresentatives of Kōhanga Reo, UNICEF NZ, UNICEF Pacific, and Dr Pia Britto, Chief of Early Childhood Development, UNICEF outside Waiwhetu Marae, Lower Hutt, New Zealand.

New Zealand’s inspirational Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has made that a priority for her Government. As just the second world leader to give birth while in office, and the first to take paid parental leave, Prime Minister Ardern is living UNICEF’s advocacy.

Her Government has increased paid parental leave for new parents, increased financial support for young families and children, and announced massive support for its Pacific neighbours. On a personal level, she and her partner are sharing parental responsibilities, maximising breastfeeding and bonding opportunities, and raising young Neve in an environment rich with love and learning.

But Prime Minister Ardern is aware she is an outlier. Not every woman or parent has the same opportunities she does.

Her appearance alongside UNICEF’s Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, at the Social Good Summit during the UNGA in September was a chance for her to speak on the world stage about how this future must be achievable for every child, wherever they are.

She expressed her desire to see governments and businesses make changes so that every mother can provide the maximum support to their child.

She practises “the politics of kindness, and inclusiveness” — an aspirational statement, but one that I believe this vibrant young country can live up to. Being surrounded by their own culture is vital for the optimum development of all children, but for many Māori and Pacific children in New Zealand, it has been missing for too long.

Almost four decades ago, Kara Puketapu had the idea to develop Kōhanga Reo (literally: “language nest”) — early childhood centres for Māori children, guided by the Māori philosophy that a child is the sole responsibility of an entire community. Within them, children are enveloped in their language and culture, and provided a safe environment where they are nourished, stimulated, and cared for.

Eat, Play, Love. Or, he aroha, he takaro, he kai are UNICEF’s words, that this movement has been living by for decades.

An elderly gentleman and a lady stand together with a red back drop behind them.
© UNICEF/New Zealand/2018/KnowlesTe Ati Awa Kaumatua (tribal elder) Ihakara Puketapu and UNICEF’s Dr Pia Britto at Waiwhetu Marae, Lower Hutt, New Zealand.

I was there to meet a group of people who have been preaching that message for decades.

Seated within the warm, cavernous marae, with photos of ancestors and notables alike decorating the walls, we were introduced to the struggle, and the efforts taken by Kara, and by inspirational women like Peggy Ngāheke Luke and Kararaina Calcott-Cribb. Each came through Kōhanga Reo as children, and each now devotes their working life to improving results for children.

The Kōhanga Reo movement is credited as the most significant and effective initiative undertaken to secure Māori language and traditions. There are now more than 460 Kōhanga Reo catering to over 9000 mokopuna (children). And with 8 per cent of New Zealanders having Pacific heritage, the Kōhanga Reo concept has also led to before-school initiatives in Pacific languages, with similar, positive results.

There is great hope for the future of New Zealand’s children and families, and other children and families living in similar conditions around the world. Kara and his people have been trying to make a difference for decades. And it seems the public mood to tackle the hard issues matches the political will.

As we drove back along Wellington’s rugged coastline I learned more of New Zealand’s complications and challenges, its troubled history, and its complicated present. I also learned of the work underway to right those wrongs, and make good on its Prime Minister’s aim to be “…the best place in the world to be a child.”


Dr. Pia Britto is Chief and Senior Adviser, Early Childhood Development, UNICEF.

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