Tara O’Neill was attracted to work at Haeata Community Campus because she could see the new Haeata Curriculum design mirrored the curriculum success she had initiated at her previous school. Haeata’s curriculum is designed around students’ personal needs and interests with teachers supporting ākonga to achieve learning outcomes through learning opportunities that reflect their own passions.

“When I was teaching in Te Karaka Area School I had an ‘aha’ moment where I realised (my students) were just writing to please me. That’s when the idea of play-based learning came to mind.”

Tara, along with the support of Karyn Gray, who was principal at the time (at Te Karaka Area School) and is now in the senior leadership team at Haeata, started a play-based classroom in 2014, similar to the learning model currently in place at Haeata.

“We saw accelerated learning, and we’re just starting to get to this place now at Haeata,” says Tara. Haeata has a self-directed learning model, which for Year 1 to 13 focuses on child-directed learning and inquiry based on their interests and passions, focusing equally on academics and well-being, and works hand-in-hand with achieving New Zealand curriculum standards.

After speaking at ‘Educational Unconference’ in 2015 about the success in developing foundational skills through play before academic learning, the Facebook group ‘Learning Through Play’ was conceived. Since then, researchers, teachers and academics from around the world have connected to discuss this pedagogy and their learning to improve their practice. The page now boasts over 9000 members.

The idea of learning through play to improve writing outcomes came out of extensive research and professional development, and has continued to develop over her years of teaching.

“Play is really inquiry learning for younger kids,” Tara explains.

This type of learning sets students up for success in many ways. It provides a context for child initiated learning, which is shown to be the most effective type of learning according to years of international research. Play opportunities also allow children to develop their foundational skills to prepare them better for explicit learning instruction and it provides authentic opportunities for selfmanagement and building great relationships with ākonga and teachers.

How the teachers set up the environment for learning through play is crucial, says Tara.

“It’s set up on purpose to support learning, and the way the teachers are involved with it is really important. It takes skill to know when to get involved and when not to get involved”.

However, making significant changes in the curriculum and gaining support of the local community hasn’t come without challenges. Although the teaching pedagogy is not a new practice, many of the community have been unsure about Haeata’s curriculum model.

“After a lot of extensive learning and development of children and adults alike they are starting to see that progress at Haeata,” says Tara.

“Now that children have the basis of these foundation skills that they have learnt through play, we can see in the literacy lab that kids are wanting to learn”

The Haeata teachers use the literacy lab to teach traditional reading and writing skills, with the aim for them to then bring these skills back in to the child initiated play.

“We are starting to see an increase of culture of wanting to read and write…We’re just starting to get to this place now at Haeata, it is such a fertile school for learning.”

Tara wants to inform the community about the different developmental stages, and to support our children to develop their own learning identity.

“Through Learning Through Play, our ākonga lead the learning, and studies show that this type of learning is the most effective.

“If we always do what we have always done, we will always get what we have always got,” says Tara.


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