Growing kaitiaki to care, connect and protect

Published on Tuesday, 08 June 2021
Last updated on Monday, 07 June 2021

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Across the world Indigenous ecological knowledge has been receiving increased attention to tackle the devastating impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. New Zealanders are fortunate to be able to draw on the Māori worldview of sustainability, which offers a holistic view to engage young children in deeper layers of positive connection, community and conservation.

In 2017, early childhood education lecturer Christine Vincent-Snow published Bicultural approaches to sustainability within early childhood settings in Aotearoa in the ECE online journal He Kupu.

In the article Christine explores and identifies the value of a bicultural perspective to support young children’s learning about how they can care, connect and protect the natural world.

In an interview for New Zealand Tertiary College, Christine stated: “Sustainable practices need to be built on an ethics of care, where our care for nature is intertwined with nature’s care for us.

The deep connections Māori have with nature as whakapapa and their role as kaitiaki (guardians) ensures this longevity of care and comes under the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.”

“The role of kaitiaki is also found within the Belonging and Exploration strands of Te Whāriki, where teachers are required to support children in their love, care and guardianship of the land. When they care for the natural environment, children develop skills and knowledge that support them in caring for nature throughout their lives.”

Christine noted the international focus on sustainability: “The United Nations has recognised the importance of teaching sustainability to young children, as their influence is not only long term, but spreads across families/whānau and into the communities they live in.”

Christine says that no matter where an early childhood setting is located, there are opportunities to promote caring, sustainable practices as children learn and explore kaitiakitanga (guardianship and protection).

The Māori worldview - te ao Māori

The Māori worldview considers everything living and non-living to be interconnected.

Whakapapa describe these connections and tell the story of how people, the landscape, plants and animals came into being. People, plants and animals are all descendants of Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatuanuku (the earth mother) and their children, which means humans are therefore, intrinsically linked with biodiversity.

The concepts of mauri (life force), mana (authority/power), tapu (sacred and restricted customs) and wairua (spirit) are important to consider in relation to both people and nature.

The tangata whenua (people of the land) have a role as kaitiaki (guardians) to preserve the mauri, wāhi tapu (sacred sites) and natural taonga (treasures) in their area.

Kaitiakitanga includes active guardianship of the land, with Māori traditionally having their own system of resource management to sustain people and natural resources for the future.

The notions and practices of kaitiakitanga have developed over generations of use and the active, sustainable guardianship of natural resources. When young children learn kaitiakitanga, they learn to respect, care for, and protect people, places, and things. When they care for the natural environment they develop skills and knowledge that support them in caring for nature throughout their life.

Practices for early years education

Integrating the Maori worldview within your practice should include consultation with local iwi to help planning, ensure authenticity and avoid misrepresentation. Through this interaction, educators can also gather suggestions on how to involve children in traditional Māori views around Kaitiakitanga.

Educators may also need to deepen their own understanding of the Maori perspective, what sustainability means, and how they can integrate a bicultural approach to sustainability within early childhood education in meaningful ways. This could involve professional development strategies, such as training, workshops or mentoring, reflecting on creating a nature-focused environment, and mindful selection of resources to support educators, families and the children.

Promoting joy and fun can elevate learning. Engage children with rich cultural traditions of language, storytelling, and songs that teach children Maori values of kaitiakitanga and sustainability. Christine Vincent-Snow highlights the legend of Rata and the Waka, as it portrays the importance of respectful and mindful actions and interactions when engaging with nature, providing children with an understanding of nature and their strong connections to the land.

Experiential learning by engaging with nature in the local area can also facilitate deep learning through real time connections with nature. Place based learning, within the child’s immediate environment, also supports their sense of connection relationship and responsiveness to the land, including its rivers and streams (Kelly & White, 2013).

Sustainability is more than a checklist of practices and requires continuity and embedding environmental principles in all aspects of service operations. Promoting children as kaitiaki needs to be reinforced by building on their connection and respect for the sea and land, and how to care, nurture and preserve the natural environment. Relevant activities and projects can include:

  • Tree planting and care
  • Planting watering and maintaining a water-wise garden that nurtures biodiversity
  • Set-up composting and a worm farm
  • A native plant project to increase children’s recognition and care for native flora
  • Children can discover their garden’s green score by completing the Department of Conservation’s garden checklist
  • Build a bug motel
  • Provide access to nature and time in nature for play, place based experiential learning and exploration
  • Put in place sustainable practices at your early childhood centre – recycling, reusing, solar panels and other energy efficient initiatives
  • Explore the local community, visit local nurseries
  • Promote active participation for sustainability in local community projects
  • Create a second-hand children’s book or clothing exchange for families

In her conclusion the author states: “Teachers within early childhood settings have a unique and powerful role in connecting children to the people, creatures, and land that forms their identity.

By promoting children as kaitiaki who care for their land and all within it, a rich, authentic, clean, green environment assures the land is protected and nurtured as the taonga (treasure) it is.”

References and further reading:

Te Whariki: Environmental Education for Sustainability

Science Learning Hub: Understanding kaitiakitanga

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