When only three families turned up to an event at Papakura’s Community Kindy Marne Road, teachers’ hearts broke. Centre manager Katrina Hunter says the evening, designed to allow families to share their aspirations for their children, was a flop.

“We were so disheartened. But building a strong relationship is really important to us, and we knew we had to continue focusing on it.”

The kindergarten tried again, this time offering supper to everyone who attended.

“We had a 100 per cent turn-out. So for other early childhood services giving this a go, don’t be discouraged, just get to know your community and try again.”

Hunter says the kindergarten strives to create a “continual link” between home and school. “Once you break down those barriers, you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.”

She says the more a family is involved, the more a love of education is reflected back into the home. “Parents are interested and contributing and we understand the funds of knowledge that those children bring with them.”

The kindergarten now holds portfolio evenings twice a year, inviting parents and whānau to share their aspirations. It also uses the online education tool Storypark, where teachers upload photos and stories. Parents can only access information about their own children and can invite extended family to join in too.

“We have a Chinese family that are relatively new to New Zealand. They’ve invited their whānau back in China to the website and it allows them to still be a part of their life.”

The kindergarten has found Storypark is invaluable for parents who are not involved daily with their children. “For our single parents who can’t be there physically, this allows them to feel like they are a part of what is happening, and they can see that their child is happy and well cared for.”

The website is non-invasive, allowing families to take part in their own time.

“Once a parent gains some confidence, they can contribute. We’re not putting them on the spot during pick-up or drop-off.”

Reciprocal relationships

Big River Educare in Balclutha also uses Storypark to build relationships with families.

Teacher Philippa Geary says family members often write stories or share videos about what happens at home. “We even have an aunt who lives in Poland who comments and adds to stories frequently.”

Geary says it is important to foster reciprocal relationships between home and school. “These conversations are vital. They allow both parents and the centre to know about the child’s wellbeing, to see them holistically, to learn more about what they bring with them.”

Having families involved in learning also ensured children saw the value of learning, she says. “It shows the children that they care. They know their child best and we need guidance from them too.”

She says strong relationships help to build a strong sense of belonging. “Parents need to be involved. They need to feel safe and comfortable, so their children can too.”

Strengthening ties

Paikea Kindergarten in Whangara, north of Gisborne, uses a range of tools to involve families.

Head teacher Rowena Chaffey says whānau are invited to share long-term aspirations. Individual learning goals, often co-constructed with the children themselves, are also shared.

“The implementation of these is often a shared process. We’ve had a child whose plan was to ‘learn more about growing things’ and they brought in seeds to plant from home. Another child wanted to learn how to make pasta, and their mum came in and made it with us.”

The neighbouring school, community, and the land are also “vital elements” to the kindergarten.

“We are continually looking for ways in which we can strengthen these ties and keep us connected. For us, engagements and relationships are not limited to who we are, they are also about where we are.”

Regular excursions, supported by families, provide a “fantastic opportunity” for engaging whānau, says Chaffey.

“Sharing more about ourselves, and them with us, allows us to get to know whānau and tamariki in a new way. These excursions are opportunities to share the stories we tell of Whangara and place them into context for our tamariki.”

She says sometimes this is new information for families and becomes an opportunity to share local taonga. “And sometimes we have opportunities to learn from whānau who share with us their own stories.”

The kindergarten places relationships at the centre of its teaching philosophy.

“Whānau are trusting us with their taonga and we view whānau as the first and most important teachers of their children. Tamariki come to us already with gifts: talents and skills perhaps inherited and certainly enhanced by their whānau.”

Chaffey says establishing strong relationships between home and school are hugely beneficial for children.

“The more knowledge we have, the more power we have to work together to provide the best environment.”

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