Identity, language, and culture

Tōku toa, he toa rangatira.

My bravery is inherited from the chiefs who were my forebears.

Key ideas

Te Whāriki affirms the identities, languages and cultures of all children, whānau, kaiako, and communities from a strong bicultural foundation. All children are given the opportunity to develop knowledge and understanding of the cultural heritages of the partners to Te Tiriti o Waitangi | Treaty of Waitangi. Each ECE setting’s curriculum whāriki recognises the place of Māori as tangata whenua of this land.

There are an increasing number of migrants in New Zealand, and, as in any country with a multicultural heritage, there is a diversity of beliefs about childrearing practices, kinship roles, obligations, codes of behaviour, and the kinds of knowledge that are valuable.

The integration of kaupapa Māori concepts (Māori values and philosophy) and te reo Māori (Māori language) supports cultural, linguistic, social, and environmental diversity and enables all peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand to weave their perspectives, values, cultures, and languages into the early learning setting.

From a bicultural foundation, the early childhood curriculum supports the identities, languages, and cultures of all children, affirms and celebrates cultural differences, and aims to help children gain a positive awareness of their own and other cultures.

Stories of practice

Two children

Partnering with Māori children, parents, and whānau

In a TLRI project, teachers in eleven kindergartens partnered with two academic researchers to explore ways partnerships with Māori children, parents, and whānau might be improved through better communication. This involved exploring ways of generating dialogue with children and their parents and whānau.

Teachers found that their understanding and empathy was deepened when they made time to sit and talk with parents and whānau. Whānau feedback attested that, by doing this, the centres reflected the unique place of Māori as tangata whenua and the notion of partnership inherent in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Children, and their parents and whānau, experienced Māori ways of being and doing as normal, affirming their identities and aspirations. Whānau reported their strong sense of belonging, feeling welcomed and comfortable. The teacher-researchers in the study actively followed the principles of whanaungatanga and manaakitanga, showing concern for the wairua (spiritual well-being) of all those present. They realised that, for true partnership, they need to actively and deeply listen to the children, parents and whānau in their centres.

Adapted from:

Ritchie, J., & Rau, C. (2008). Te Puawaitanga: Partnerships with tamariki and whānau in bicultural early childhood care and education. Summary report. Wellington: Teaching and Learning Research Initiative.

Child smiling

A curriculum embedded in iwi values, stories, and reo

The Maniapoto Trust Board has developed its own curriculum around their eight pou (posts), each of which represents an ancestor important to their iwi. Each pou depicts an expertise and skill that is woven into each of their centre’s curriculum. They are also guided by five key curriculum components: whānau ora, whanaungatanga, taonga tuku iho, te taiao, and he anga whakamua. Everything is done from a Maniapoto base, weaving a curriculum specific to their area. They use the stories, waiata and language from Maniapoto to drive learning. All three centres under the Trust Board follow this curriculum and staff from these centres meet and share ideas to extend children’s learning. They have gardens for the children where they share and work together using traditional practices. The centres by the sea bring kaimoana to share with others. They celebrate Matariki and other celebrations important to Maniapoto and Māori as a whole, rather than Western celebrations such as Christmas. Local whānau, hapū, and iwi decide what knowledge should be available and how it should be made accessible.


Mitchell, L., Meagher-Lundberg, P., Davison, C., Kara, H., & Kalavite, T. (2016). ECE participation programme evaluation: Stage 3. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.

Four children playing

Monolingual teachers in multilingual centres

The Mangere Bridge community is culturally, linguistically, ethnically, and economically diverse. The philosophy of the kindergarten in this community highlights the importance of forging partnerships between teachers, children, whānau, and the community and the provision of an inclusive environment. At the time this TLRI research was conducted, there were 26 languages spoken in the kindergarten community, with some children confidently speaking three or more languages. Parents worked hard to sustain home languages. In the kindergarten, teachers were monolingual and spoke only English. The children communicated mostly in English but on occasion in their own home language during play.

Teachers’ practices reflected the principle of additive bilingualism, believing that parents had enrolled their child in an English-medium centre in order for their child to add English language to their home language. This approach was consistent with the kindergarten’s philosophy to work inclusively with children’s home languages and cultures to foster strong relationships.

When the research explored parents’ aspirations however, it became apparent that parents wanted their children to have support in learning multiple languages and for children to get to know and value each other’s language/s.

Teachers reflected on these findings and subsequently altered some practices. For example, they changed children’s portfolios to include spaces to prioritise the child’s language(s) and cultural identities. They also found ways to incorporate more of the children’s languages in the kindergarten, asking parents to help them learn words and phrases. They used cards and artefacts with pronunciation prompts at group times and let children show expertise by advising them on accurate pronunciation too. From these experiences, children’s heightened awareness added complexity to their understanding of difference and inclusion.


Hartley, C., Rogers, P., Smith, J., & Lovatt, D., with Harvey, N., & Hedges, H. (2016). Multilingual children, monolingual teachers: Mangere Bridge Kindergarten. In V. N. Podmore, H. Hedges, P. J. Keegan, & N. Harvey (Eds.), Teachers voyaging in plurilingual seas: Young children learning through more than one language (pp. 98–115). Wellington: NZCER Press.

Podmore, V. N., Hedges, H., Keegan, P. J., & Harvey, N. (2015). Children who learn in more than one language: Early childhood teachers afloat in plurilingual seas. Final report to Teaching and Learning Research Initiative. Wellington: NZCER.

Child and teacher

Reflecting a multicultural community

Pakuranga Baptist Kindergarten is a multicultural centre that reflects the changing demographics of the local community. They made the conscious decision to employ staff who share the cultural backgrounds of their community. The use of the children’s home languages and English is encouraged. Children are able to use different languages in response to the person they are talking to. Children “observing and listening” are seen as valid strategies for learning. Kaiako used this idea as a lens to analyse learning episodes and to explain learning strategies to others, finding it had particular relevance to second-language learners. They employ strategies for the intercultural exchange of ideas within the teaching team and with parents, whānau, and children, which include asking children:

  1. How do you feel when someone speaks to you in their own language?

  2. Who do you play with?

  3. How do you feel when you meet someone who doesn’t speak your language?

Kaiako took responsibility for finding out about family values and catering for these within their practice, identifying and using strategies when core values differed.


Mitchell, L., Bateman, A., Ouko, A., Gerrity, R., Lees, J., Matata, K., . . . Xiao, W. (2015). Teaching and learning in culturally diverse early childhood settings.

Lees, J. (2016). One centre’s approach to supporting cross-cultural understanding and contribution. Early Childhood Folio, Vol 20, No 1, pp. 15–19.

Three children

Museums as a resource for learning

Does the opportunity to interact with a range of cultural taonga deepen children’s understanding of the bicultural heritage of Aotearoa New Zealand? This research question was explored by an early childhood setting with a prime location close to Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand. This proximity enabled multiple visits to the museum and built children’s learning incrementally alongside their growing sense of pride and identity as New Zealanders, which was shared with others. Kindergarten routines and practices were rethought to incorporate more Māori concepts and rituals. Documentation of the visits and books of drawings by children have further helped strengthen understandings.

Other settings might also make use of local museums to enrich children’s learning about local history from multiple perspectives and encourage a deeper understanding of the history and partnership brought by Te Tiriti o Waitangi.


Clarkin-Phillips, J., Paki, V., Fruean, L., Armstrong, G., & Crowe, N. (2012). Exploring te ao Māori: The role of museums. Early Childhood Folio, 16(1), 10–14.

Tūrangawaewae: giving children a place to stand at Te Rourou Whakatipuranga O Awarua

The kaiako and whānau at Te Rourou Whakatipuranga O Awarua discuss the uniqueness of their community and reflect on the ways the early childhood setting’s connectedness to the community supports children’s identity, language, and culture.

Reflective questions

Use these questions in team discussions to guide you through the process of developing and maintaining a Tiriti-based, culturally responsive curriculum.

  • What are the aspirations and goals of the local iwi? How do we find out? How can the setting contribute to these?
  • What do we know about the local iwi, history, and physical features of the region and the protocols, stories, celebrations, waiata, karakia, and whakataukī of the people? What more do we need to know and where can this information be found? How can we use this knowledge in practice?
  • Where can the setting access support with te reo Māori? How can we use increasing amounts of te reo Māori in practice?
  • In what ways do we work together to achieve the goals of the setting in terms of weaving a Tiriti-based curriculum whāriki? What else can be done?
  • How does the setting’s Tiriti-based whāriki provide the foundation for all cultures to stand?
  • How are we responsive to culturally diverse parent, whānau and community aspirations and expectations for children’s learning in the setting’s whāriki?
  • How do we find out what supports a sense of belonging for all children and their parents and whānau?
  • In what ways do the environments and practices in the setting reflect the identities, languages, and cultures of the children who attend?
  • How might we work with tensions that can arise between differing cultural norms, roles, responsibilities, and rituals?

Implications for leadership

One of the most significant implications for pedagogical leadership is the “how to” of weaving a Tiriti-based curriculum whāriki that provides the foundation in which to affirm and strengthen the identities, languages, and cultures of all of the children, whānau, kaiako, and communities of the ECE setting.

A Tiriti-based curriculum that truly reflects the cultural context of Aotearoa New Zealand is one where te reo Māori, tikanga Māori, and an understanding of Māori perspectives is clearly visible. Leaders need to support kaiako to draw on and use a range of knowledge, strategies, and practices, including developing reciprocal relationships with Māori iwi and communities; implementing respectful practices; engaging in independent research and inquiry, using te reo Māori whenever and wherever possible; and working collaboratively to achieve their aspirations. This may require accessing professional learning and development opportunities.

A thoughtful leader will facilitate the development of an overarching strategy to increase the use of te reo Māori and guide other adults to envision a whāriki for their setting where a Tiriti-based curriculum is implemented.

The increasing complexities and diversity of families in Aotearoa requires consideration and reflection by leaders to ensure all whānau identities, languages and cultures are visible and supported. Kaiako can engage with communities, including participation in cultural events, strengthening relationships, knowledge, and understanding. Engaging in research and inquiry will also help kaiako gain a better understanding of the children, families, and communities of their setting, and their backgrounds. Leaders should ensure that curriculum experiences and resources are sensitive and responsive to the different cultures and heritages among the families of the children attending that service.

The provision of respectful, responsive practices may include initiating celebrations, sharing food, and projects that focus on the values and stories of their communities. Using community languages in the ECE setting acknowledges Te Whāriki as "a place for all to stand".

Connections to the principles

Empowerment – Whakamana

Promoting and protecting the mana of children is critical to their learning and development. The ways in which whakamana is understood and reflected is embedded within cultural perspectives and the ways these perspectives are expressed. By respectfully acknowledging and being responsive to the identities, languages, and cultures of the children who attend their services, kaiako create an environment where children develop self-esteem and confidence about who they are and their place in the world.

Family and Community – Whānau Tangata

The identities, languages, and cultures of whānau and communities influence child-rearing patterns, beliefs and traditions, and the ways different knowledge, skills, and attitudes are valued. Children’s learning and development is enhanced when there are connections across the settings in their lives, including their homes. Fostering culturally and linguistically appropriate ways of communicating with whānau, parents, extended family, and community is an important feature of this connectivity.

Holistic Development – Kotahitanga

Identities, languages, and cultures are important aspects of children’s lives and their relationships with their worlds and others. Cultural understandings influence perceptions of the cognitive, social, cultural, physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of human development. The ways in which these dimensions of children’s lives are interwoven is therefore shaped by the identities, languages, and cultures of children, whānau, and kaiako.

Relationships – Ngā Hononga

The development of culturally and linguistically appropriate ways of communicating with parents, whānau, and community supports the development of meaningful, trusting relationships. These relationships may acknowledge the past, present, and future, the importance of place and land, and engagement with people, places, events, and taonga. It also requires understandings of, and respect for, whānau aspirations for their children.

Further resources

Agee, M., McIntosh, T., Culbertson, P, & ‘Ofa Makasiale, C. (Eds.) (2013). Pacific identities and well-being: Cross cultural perspectives. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press.

Carr, M., Lee, W., & the Early Years Wisdom Group. (2010). Learning wisdom: Young children and teachers recognising the learning. Summary report to Teaching and Learning Research Initiative. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Cooper, M., Hedges, H., Lovatt, D., & Murphy, T. (2013). Responding authentically to Pasifika children’s learning and identity development: Hunter’s interests and funds of knowledge. Early Childhood Folio, 17(1), 6–11.

Cooper, M., & Hedges, H. (2014). Beyond participation: What we learned from Hunter about collaboration with Pasifika children and families. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 15(2), 165–175. doi:10.2304/ciec.2014.15.2.165

Chu, C., Glasgow, A., Rimoni, F., Hodis, M., & Meyer, L. (2013). An analysis of recent Pasifika education research literature to inform improved outcomes for Pasifika learners. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.

Education Review Office. (2012). Partnership with whānau Māori in early childhood services. Wellington, New Zealand: Author.

Education Review Office. (2015). How do leaders support improvement in Pacific early childhood services? Wellington, New Zealand: Author.

Forsyth, H. & Leaf, G. (2010). Te Tiriti o Waitangi and biculturalism in early childhood education. In B. Clark & A. Grey (Eds). Perspectives on early childhood education: Ata Kitea Te Pae – Scanning the Horizon. (1st. Ed.). Auckland: Pearson.

Jenkins, C. (2009). Bicultural meanings: What do practitioners say? New Zealand research in ECE, Volume 12, 2009.

Mauigoa-Tekene, L. (2006). Enhancing teachers’ questioning skills to Improve children’s learning and thinking in Pacific Island early childhood centres. NZ Journal of Teachers’ Work, 3(1): 12–23.

Mitchell, L., Bateman, A., Ouko, A., Gerrity, R., Lees, J., Matata, K., . . . Xiao, W. (2015). Teaching and learning in culturally diverse early childhood settings.

Ritchie, J. (2007). Thinking otherwise: ‘bicultural’ hybridities in early childhood education in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Childrenz Issues: Journal of the Children’s Issues Centre, 11(1), 37–41.

Ritchie, J. & Rau, C. (2006). Whakawhanaungatanga: partnerships in bicultural development in early childhood education. Final Report from the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative Project. Wellington: Teaching and Learning Research Initiative.

Ward, S. (2016). Te Whariki: Early childhood curriculum from Samoan teachers perspective (Master’s thesis).

Williams, N., Broadley, M-E & Lawson Te Aho, K (2012). Nga taonga whakaako: Bicultural competence in early childhood education. Ako Aotearoa National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence.

Pasifika Language Guidelines

Available from: Pasifika Languages

The New Zealand Curriculum Online