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Story of practice: Punavai o le Atamai, South Dunedin

Key points

  • Using the centre walls to make Pacific cultural values visible
  • Weaving of Pacific values and the principles of Te Whāriki from the first meeting with ‘āiga (family)
  • Showing the links between Pacific values, experiences for tamaiti (children), and Te Whāriki


If you visit the Punavai o le Atamai, you cannot help but notice what the kaiako refer to as culture walls. They use the walls of their centre to mount big displays to make cultural values from across the Pacific visible. Alongside these displays sit the principles of Te Whāriki. These have such an impact on ‘āiga that kaiako say the walls talk. Pacific values and the principles of Te Whāriki are intentionally woven into everyday practice and it starts from the very first meeting with the ‘āiga.

Punavai o le Atamai is a Christian based early learning setting in South Dunedin. It is located in the grounds of the Ekalesia Faapotopotoga Kerisiano Samoan Church. It was started in the 1970s by a group of women. They wanted to establish strong connections to their Samoan heritage by immersing their tamaiti in Samoan language, culture, and everyday activities.

Pacific values and ngā Kaupapa whakahaere

The philosophy of the Punavai is founded firmly on Pacific values. Kaiako, Marcel Taani, says, “Our philosophy and the way we teach is founded on alofa (love), tautua (service), and, fa’alaoalo (respect). These are tied to the Kaupapa whakahaere – the Principles of Te Whāriki, and our commitment to ensure Pacific tamaiti succeed as Pacific. We want to make Pacific cultures visible.”

E le sua le lolo i se popo e tasi

It takes more than one coconut to produce a substantial amount of oil

This Samoan proverb has become very important to the kaiako at the Punavai because it reminds them of the value of collaborating together with their community. Marcel says, “One of our mentors shared this proverb with us and it is now one of the ideas that motivates us: Together we can make a difference and show how our values can be part of what we do on a daily basis.”

Everyday, Pacific values can be seen, heard, and even felt. Kaiako draw from a wide range of lotu (prayers), pese (songs), and art experiences to create a rich learning environment that starts by acknowledging how people are connected to one another by their cultures.

Pacific values and ngā Kaupapa whakahaere intentionally woven from the first visit

For all the team, the principles of Family and community | Whānau tangata and Empowerment | Whakamana, lay the foundations for a strong sense of belonging and wellbeing that starts during the ‘āiga transition from home.

During the first few visits, there is a purposeful focus on whanaungatanga: Relationships | Ngā hononga, through kanohi-ki-te-kanohi, (face-to-face) interactions with ‘āiga and tamaiti. Body language is as important as kōrero.

Marcel says, “We can see the nervousness in their shoulders when they first arrive. ‘Āiga are often full of concern about their child. They are also concerned about how their beliefs and values will be upheld. But, like I was walking around with a new parent and then we stopped in front of the Tongan wall and there was this audible ‘Ahh’ and I saw her relax. There in front of her, on display, were images that connected to her cultural values and her spiritual beliefs.”

Walls of the service – each wall shows a separate Pacific culture by items and artworks.

The environment of the Punavai complements conversations by reflecting the diverse cultures of the tamaiti attending the Punavai. The culture walls (their term) act as a resource and create opportunities for the kaiako to talk with ‘āiga about how spiritual beliefs and values are embedded into everyday experiences through lotu, pese, dance, and art. The walls also reflect the diversity of different Pacific cultures. Marcel says, “If you can see yourself amongst others, you gain a sense of identity and belonging.”

Pacific values and ngā Kaupapa whakahaere in everyday practice

One example of how the kaiako built Pacific values into their everyday practice began with storytelling. After a talanoa (discussion) about traditional storytelling, kaiako invited one of the elders to a fono (the word the centre uses for mat time) to share the story of Sina. This story is about a beautiful girl and an eel. It is also about the origins of the coconut tree.

The story grew into a full scale production. Parents got involved by bringing in resources that could be used to make props. Kaiako and the children made a coconut tree.

The Kaupapa whakahaere | Principles: Family and community | Whānau tangata, Empowerment | Whakamana, Relationships | Ngā hononga, and Holistic development | Kotahitanga were apparent in the discussions kaiako had with one another and with ‘āiga. It was clear that the story and production strengthened relationships with family and community and was empowering for the tamaiti.

Kaiako used the storytelling experience to talk with ‘āiga about holistic learning – they were able to show links between what they were teaching, how they were teaching, and what children were learning.

Marcel says, “We know about the strands and learning outcomes, and we write about these in our profile books, but out in the Puna, we talk about holistic development.” For these kaiako, holistic development is linked to the Church values and the cultural values. He says. “We also talk about other Pacific cultures and te ao Māori too – that adds another dimension to what holistic means.”

This holistic approach was empowering for tamaiti, kaiako, and ‘āiga who could see and hear connections between Te Whāriki, cultural values, and spiritual beliefs.