Whakamaru School’s Play Pedagogy: Cultivating Creative Thinkers for Life

Longworth Education has embarked on a journey to show of Play Pedagogy from Aotearoa New Zealand on the world stage. Play Pedagogy is a way of integrating children’s play experiences with curricular learning, giving akonga (students) the flexibility to find their own solutions to both new and existing problems.

School Information

  • Current School Roll: 94
  • Rural Primary Kura/School
  • Full primary (Years 0 – 8)

Physical Environment

Primarily single-cell classrooms and ‘older’ style buildings

whakamaru Building School Shed
Building School Shed


The majority of our families (75%) are part of a large farming community, as farm workers in big farm cooperatives, rather than farm owners themselves. In addition, 20% are labourers at large companies in our community, and 5% are business owners.   Our school roll comprises of 53% Maori, 30% European, 10% Filipano, 5% Asian and 2% Pacifika. We have 5%-10% of our students living with their grandparents. Our equity index is 511.

In the heart of New Zealand’s educational landscape, Whakamaru School embarked on a transformative journey in 2017, embracing play-based pedagogy and developmentally responsive practices as cornerstones of their approach to education. Through dedication, innovation, and the support of the Ministry of Education, Whakamaru School has witnessed remarkable changes in student learning outcomes and teacher practices. In this article, we delve into their experience and explore the challenges they’ve encountered and overcome, while also peering into their promising future.

The Journey Begins: 2017 and Beyond

The journey toward play-based pedagogy and developmentally responsive practices at Whakamaru School commenced in 2017. Initially, these innovative practices were introduced in the junior school, with educators attending workshops organized by Longworth Education. However, it wasn’t until 2021, when the school secured regionally allocated Professional Learning and Development (PLD) funding from the Ministry of Education, that they were able to expand this approach across all year levels.

Impact on Student Learning Outcomes

One of the most notable achievements at Whakamaru School since implementing these practices has been the emergence of independent and resilient learners, referred to as ākonga. These young minds have not only embraced problem-solving but also become adept at self-management. The impact of this transformation is reflected in a significant reduction in behavior management incidents and a surge in student engagement with learning.

Empowering Teachers

It’s not just the students who have undergone a transformation. Whakamaru’s educators, known as kaiako, have shifted their focus from teacher-driven pedagogy to responsive practices. They have honed their skills in interactive settings, adeptly identifying opportunities for explicit teaching within the play environment. Moreover, they have adopted a more language-rich approach and embraced student feedback as a catalyst for deeper thinking and learning.

Navigating Challenges

As with any innovative approach, Whakamaru School faced its fair share of challenges. Building teacher confidence in the potential of a play environment to enhance learning across the curriculum was a significant hurdle. The school also had to address misconceptions that developmentally responsive pedagogy conflicted with the teaching of literacy and numeracy.

Balanced Pedagogy

Whakamaru School has successfully integrated explicit acts of teaching into the play environment, ensuring that students receive targeted instruction while enjoying the benefits of play-based learning. Shorter, focused learning sessions in smaller groups complement the play environment, allowing teachers to provide tailored support.

Addressing Literacy and Numeracy Concerns

The school has no concerns regarding literacy and numeracy achievement levels. The explicit learning sessions within the play environment have proven highly effective, with students eagerly returning to play after focused instruction. To further support student development, Whakamaru School has implemented supplementary programs to assist priority learners while continuing to foster learning through play.

Looking Ahead: A Future of Creative Thinkers

Whakamaru School’s motto, “Growing Creative Thinkers for Life,” serves as a guiding light for their pedagogical journey. Looking forward, the school aims to enhance teacher responsiveness to student engagement within the curriculum. This includes identifying higher-level thinking opportunities and expanding play-based learning into senior classes, up to year 8.

To realize this vision, Whakamaru School is transforming its physical environment, creating flexible spaces that cater to various learning opportunities. These spaces will accommodate activities ranging from cooking and experimenting to art and building, both inside and outside the classroom.

In conclusion, Whakamaru School’s commitment to play-based pedagogy and developmentally responsive practices is not just a revolutionary approach to education but a testament to their dedication to cultivating creative thinkers who will thrive throughout their lives. Their journey serves as an inspiration for educators seeking innovative ways to nurture the potential of every student.

for more info James White Principal – [email protected]