Yesterday I had the privilege of attending an Enviroschools Award ceremony at Newcastle Kindergarten in Ngaruawahia. They had won a bronze award for their sustainability efforts and focus at the centre. During the powhiri the children performed waiata with confidence and listened very politely to the speeches of the adults. We then had the chance to tour the small but flourishing orchard, the grey water system they are developing, and the strawberry beds. I asked how many strawberries managed to fully ripen before they were picked and the teacher said, none! They also have a vegetable garden and a beautiful pizza oven. The Centre also features a huge sandpit well covered from the sun and a lovely play house with elegant carvings on the exterior. A taonga at the Centre is the kauri tree planted by The Maori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, which is now towering over the boundary.
The 40 children at the Centre are 40% Pakeha and 60% Tangata Whenua. Staff are concerned that more Tangata Whenua families should have access to the kindergarten and they have identified transport costs and building relationships with whanau as key issues to help improve access. It was clear at the award ceremony that parents and local organisations such as the Lions Club support Newcastle Kindy as well as the kaumatua, the Enviroschools representative, and local Councillors who attended the event.
The most enjoyable experience for me was seeing the children with space to roam outside and the strong commitment of the adults to continued improvements towards greater environmental sustainability. They told me that their long term plan is a garden with many more trees and rocks so that the children can be closer to natural things. The Centre has a computer for children to use but that is not why they won an award.
Right now the politics of early childhood education (ECE) is fraught with conflicts over qualification issues, funding cuts, and group size. There are concerns from some of us that the narrowing of the primary school curriculum could well be extended into an attempt to narrow the focus of Te Whariki, the much acclaimed early childhood curriculum. Alongside Te Whariki, the Enviroschools programme offers much to ECE with a strong cultural focus via Kura Taiao Maori content and a commitment to the most vital literacy of all, our connection to the earth. The Waikato region is home base for Enviroschools and the programme continues to develop. The Green Party is proud to have a long association with this inspirational and practical initiative and early childhood centres such as Newcastle are critical leaders who deserve full marks for their work.