What a difference a day makes to a child turning 5 in New Zealand.

Children at work.

This is what children look like when they are at work.

Watching children engaged in meaningful, unstructured play is a sight to behold and is something that needs to be valued and encouraged more, in our schools. But for some strange reason, from the moment a child starts school, we deem it inappropriate for them to continue with ‘play-based’ learning – the learning model that is the foundation of the New Zealand early childhood curriculum.

I have come to the conclusion that our education system, as it currently operates, puts too much emphasis on formal learning, too early on. But not only that. I think the system is too rigid and narrowly focused, and does not give children the comprehensive education they need and deserve. In a desire to create smart, intelligent learners, we have inadvertently ignored the human and creative aspects of learning that will help children be resilient and emotionally prepared for the post-school world.

Our school system needs to be designed to fit around the needs of students rather than requiring students to fit into the system. A play based education system that is fun and encourages creativity, is the foundation of effective learning. Play is a means by which children are able to develop their physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and moral capacities. And I would suggest that this approach to learning applies equally to people of all ages – not just young children in their early schooling years.

What may come as a surprise to some, is that there is a mandate for making learning broad and focused on the holistic needs of children. The two curriculum documents that are the basis for the NZ education system are exemplary in the way they take a broad and humanistic approach to learning. Unfortunately, the introduction of National Standards has not helped because now, all year 1-8 students are required to be formally assessed in the three core subjects of reading, writing and mathematics. The introduction of these standards has added a layer of complexity and contradictory pressure on teachers. Nonetheless, I still believe that we can manage those pressures. In fact, it is essential that we do.

As a matter of interest, while the majority of children in New Zealand start their formal education at 5 years old,  in Finland, formal education starts at 7 years old. That does not seem to stop their students still managing to rank highly in international student survey rankings. Go figure!

So, what is developmental play, why should it be encouraged and why will I make sure that the children in my class get lots of opportunities to play?

Play is an essential part of early childhood. Exploratory play and inquiry based learning encourages children to learn, develop and grow whilst they have fun. Through play, children are encouraged to explore, investigate and develop ideas and hypotheses. They can test their ideas and find new ways of building, creating, drawing, thinking. The use of open ended resources promote exploratory and investigative play as well as inquiry based learning. Creativity and imagination is developed through new ways of thinking. Social skills are learned through collaboration with others and language and communication skills improve. Perseverance is developed as children keep exploring and investigating their surroundings. Children will become more confident and develop a stronger sense of identity through play.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

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Check out the article below from the World Economic Forum. It argues for the need for kindergarten age children to be playing.


22 thoughts on “What a difference a day makes to a child turning 5 in New Zealand.

  1. That’s great, sounds similar to Rudolph Steiner’s philosophy. I’ve always been intrigued by the Steiner schools. A Dr at work went through the Steiner system until about year 10, I think. I’m sure you’ve probably read about him before. I used to have the book ‘You are your child’s first teacher’. Think I lent it to Megan. Should get it back for you to peruse. http://www.rudolfsteinerfederation.org.nz/steiner-education



  2. Thanks for the Steiner comparison. A Steiner school is unavailable physically and financially for most people so why don’t we just bring some of the Steiner philosophies to the mainstream – for everyone to benefit. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain. I have had nothing but positive feedback from parents.


  3. Does this apply to all New Zealand primary schools in general? Any schools with better teaching philosophy or practices that you will recommend?


    • Hi exmiss, Thanks for following Ease Education and joining the conversation. I am just reflecting on my observations of the NZ education system via my position as a teacher. I can express an opinion about NZ schools but I would not suggest you interpret my opinions as advice. Generally speaking, NZ schools throughout the country will look and operate the same. But of course schools are impacted by the social and economic circumstances of its community. And being that teaching is (or at least should be) a human endeavour, you will find that there are differences in how individual teachers run their classrooms. I think we could learn a lot from Steiner schools. I also like the Montessori and Reggio Emilia pedagogies. There is a Steiner school in Auckland http://www.rudolfsteinerfederation.org.nz/steiner-education but it is private, may have a waiting list, and may not be near your home. NZ schools have many quality attributes but they could also go a long way to providing a better deal for all students. The narrowing of the curriculum is not helping the situation.


      • Thx for your tips.
        I think we can’t afford private schools and can only enrol our kid to public ones.
        Is the ERO report a good reference?


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  5. Thanks for the links.

    Do you think NZ education system tends to be like the UK / US ones? I used to think here schools emphasize more on quality than quantity, students can develop according to their own pace. Is it still true for public schools?


    • I can’t compare because I haven’t taught in any of those countries. I do think the 2 NZ curriculum documents are very good in that they offer lots of flexibility and seem to be genuine attempts to put the child first. But it’s like that’s been lost in translation. However, experience tells me that you can survive the system of you provide your child with the right guidance. Learn to ‘navigate’ the system. But remember that schools are not a good representation of the real world.


      • I see. I was just wondering if the NZ system is an exam-oriented system or one which allows students to develop in their own pace and still can have choice to study further or leave schools to have vocational education, etc.


  6. If you are referring to secondary school, then yes, school is exam based. The NCEA system is similar to the assessment system used by NZ universities. But I am not sure if that is what you were actually asking???


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