COI Kidsfirst Kindergartens Bush Street: Centre of Innovation 2006-2008

Publication Details

This report describes the New Zealand Early Childhood Centre of Innovation research project at Kidsfirst Kindergartens in Bush Street, Rangiora.

Author(s): Kay Henson and Helen Smith, Teacher Researchers, Kidsfirst Kindergartens Bush Street and Elaine Mayo, Research Associate, University of Canterbury.

Date Published: April 2010

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This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  To view the individual chapters please refer to the 'Sections' inset box.  For links to related publications/ information that may be of interest please refer to the 'Where to Find Out More' inset box.

Chapter 1: Introducing the project, kindergarten, authors and key ideas

1.1  Introduction

This report describes the New Zealand Early Childhood Centre of Innovation research project at Kidsfirst Kindergartens in Bush Street (Bush Street), Rangiora. Two teachers (Kay Henson and Helen Smith) took on the role of 'teacher researchers' from 2006 to 2008. The teachers were supported by research associates: Ali Wegner (2006) from Christchurch College of Education, and Elaine Mayo (2007-8) from the University of Canterbury.

The research project explores an innovation around the use of story. Like many early childhood educators, we use a range of stories in many ways as a core aspect of our teaching practice. Unique to our use of story is the creation of a character that exists for the ten weeks of a term, around which we can focus our story times and which we use to link activities and events that arise in the daily life of a kindergarten. We use the label "central character" to describe the role that this character will take in the life of our kindergarten for a set time. The excerpt below gives a glimpse of a story time at our kindergarten.

Imagine a sunny day, children sitting in a circle at mat time, some dress-up clothes in a large suitcase, an attentive teacher, and a parent acting out how she puts her child to bed. Imagine the children watching and comparing what happens here with what happens in their house: they comment, the teacher comments, the parent explains something, the child in the bed grins and pretends to be sleeping. Imagine a couple of other parents watching – and learning. We know this happened in term 3, 2007 because learning about going to bed became a part of the Mother Goose story.

We can remember that time without looking up our research notes because it was part of the "Mother Goose" story which played out during that term. The teachers introduced Mother Goose as a central character: she became part of many events; she provided continuity within the curriculum; children dressed up as Mother Goose and shared stories; imagination was fostered; social issues were addressed by talking with Mother Goose or her friends; the teachers had the tool (an ongoing character) on which to hang aspects of their curriculum; visitors to the kindergarten became part of the story through the skilled and creative inventions of the teachers and the parents knew about the central character and could easily strike up conversations with their children,  beginning with a question "What did Mother Goose do today?"

Mother Goose and the whole cast of central characters that have been created serve a critical role in how we deliver the curriculum at Bush Street. This report tells how the central character concept is used, the thinking that underpins it and the rich learning outcomes we see from this kind of early childhood experience.

We are writing this report for a mixed audience and trying to write in a way that is both conversational and informed. Throughout the report we include material that practising teachers can call on in their work and we also show how this project has impacted on the learning of the authors. Each of us, Kay, Helen and Elaine, sees this project as personally life-changing because of the ways in which we have been able to work together and explore ideas about teaching and researching.  

The importance of story in early childhood (and other) settings is discussed in chapter 2 and ways that story is used in other centres are recognised . As we investigated the many ways story is used we identified three significant aspects of story that are driving forces for central character stories but which are arguably true in many other settings. Material that is common to most storytelling is discussed.

In chapter 3 we talk about what makes central character stories innovative and different from other uses of story. During our investigation of central character, we have come upon a number of challenging questions. We discuss these, how we have investigated them, and our collective learning about them in chapter 4.

Chapter 5 is one of our most important chapters: in it we describe the learning of children and the relationship of central character story to Te Whāriki. We call on ideas from our earlier writing and focus specifically on the learning of children.

We believe that the sociocultural underpinning of Te Whāriki, He Whāriki Matauranga mo nga Mokopuna o Aotearoa (Ministry of Education, 1996) (referred to simply as Te Whāriki henceforth) has been echoed in the ways we have acted as researchers. The research processes we have undertaken are grounded, not in individual interpretations of what is going on, but in our collective learning as our ideas emerge in the hurly burly of our daily lives. Our research processes are discussed in chapter 6 .

In the final chapter, chapter 7 , we discuss children's learning within a wider sociocultural environment with a particular focus on how central character story supports the learning of parents and community.

1.2  Introducing Kidsfirst Kindergartens Bush Street

Kidsfirst Kindergartens Bush Street (Bush Street) is one of 62 Canterbury Westland Free Kindergarten Association kindergartens operating under the name Kidsfirst Kindergartens. The kindergarten at Bush Street in Rangiora services a wide geographical area and rural and town families from a wide range of generally middle-class socio-economic circumstances.

The kindergarten is licensed for a total of 30 children to attend each session. The centre is always full: there is a continual flow of children and their families through the centre. Parents are welcome to stay during the sessions and trainee teachers are often present as they complete their studies. At the time of the project, children started coming at about 3.5 years. The kindergarten is licensed to be staffed by two fully trained and registered teachers. The research project received funding to employ an additional teacher to provide release time.

Each session revolves around the routines of children arriving, gathering together as a group, having morning/afternoon tea, putting things away and going home. Between these routines children are able to engage in their own choice of play, inside or outside and are supported to extend their ideas and be involved in a wide range of experiences. Children and teachers together construct the curriculum. As part of this process children are invited and encouraged to share personal stories from home by means such as talking about the family trip to the beach, sharing photos of family outings or pets, telling of the excitement surrounding the arrival of a new baby or showing the toy brought that day.

With the older children in the morning session, personal stories often become the springboard for stories we share together through the use of a central character. The central character stories are emergent stories which build on children's interests, current issues, family experiences and teachers' ideas. Such stories are a part of the shared morning routines.

1.3  Te Whāriki, curriculum and story

The central character concept flourishes within the framework of Te Whāriki. Te Whāriki is not a prescriptive curriculum; neither is central character a prescribed way of implementing the curriculum. Both are interpretive, influenced by their contexts, and the values and beliefs demonstrated in the stories of the people, places and things in each setting.

Te Whāriki

The weaving of strands and principles.
The weaving of strands and principles. (Te Whāriki, p. 13)


Te Whāriki
was implemented in early childhood centres in 1996. Te Whāriki's central metaphor of weaving points to holism in learning, with a whāriki or mat being created, as Tamati Reedy has translated "for all to stand on" (Te One, 2003, p. 33, quoting May, 2002).  Te Whāriki conceptualises learning as the weaving together of principles and strands. This metaphor can also be applied to central character stories where, through mindful weaving, the teachers create a Whāriki that includes the stories shared by children and their families.  Families, community and teachers come together through a central character and his/her story.

Central character stories provide a means for teachers to voice aspects of the curriculum in a way that brings into action the lived histories of people, places and things. Over the weeks, the diverse stories woven into the central character story sessions stimulate listening, questioning, thinking and learning.

1.4  The path to becoming a Centre of Innovation (COI)

Kay's interest in story evolved as a distinctive aspect of her teaching. When Helen joined the kindergarten in 2002, she was introduced to Kay's storytelling concept and was "captivated and amazed."  Within a few months, she became an active partner with Kay in the creating and ongoing development of their storytelling practices.

In 2004 Kay enrolled in a storytelling course as part of her studies at the Christchurch College of Education. While sharing her story practice alongside other teachers, she became aware of the unique way in which she had been using story in her teaching. The tutor, Bertha Tobias, noted and encouraged Kay's enthusiasm, passion and creativity.

In 2005 when Bernie Atger was the Kindergarten Practice Manager for Bush Street she suggested that the teachers apply to be a Centre of Innovation, on the basis of their unique story practice. This suggestion led to an application being made late in 2005.

1.5  The research collective: Children, parents, whānau, community

Children, parents, whānau and community have been at the heart of the research project and day-to day interactions at the kindergarten.

The research project is a collaborative process, supported by networks of people (e.g., parents, visiting teachers, other visitors) who may not normally be seen as part of the research team. Communication with them in various contexts allows various perspectives to be considered.

This process is aligned with our sociocultural theories of knowledge and learning which emphasise the "collective rather than the individual" (Fleer, 2003, p. 257) and the complexities which arise from this. We view our learning as we view the children's learning. We believe that if we are to walk the talk of Te Whāriki and the principles which underpin it, we need to live by the principles, not just quote them (Meade, 2006, p. 2).

1.6  The culture of adaptation and the research process

The culture of ongoing change that we face in teaching creates uncertainty, new ideas and questions. Whilst the Web of Values (see insert 2.2, p. 9 ) that underpin our practice have been consistent, they are refined and adjusted in ongoing process adaptation to new events.

When we started to focus on questions rather than answers, we began to find positive ways to move forward. We were able to ask ourselves what was really important here for children, for families, for teachers. We then began the task of exploring possibilities.

Children ask questions. As teachers, we notice, and respond to these questions. We see children as researchers as they explore possibilities and develop their working theories to complement their learning. Teachers ask questions too. They ask questions of themselves as they notice and respond to children's learning.

1.7  Research questions

We started the study with three research questions:

  1. How do children learn through story and what impact does this have on families?
  2. How does story evolve?
  3. Where does story come from and what directs it?

Over time we came to realise that this project concerns the learning of adults as well as children and that our research questions needed to be broader and also link more closely with the innovation of central character story.

Research questions

  1. Where does central character story come from and what directs it?
  2. How does central character story evolve?
  3. What do children, families and teachers learn through central character story?
  4. What has this kindergarten community learnt through investigating the use of central character story?

We found that central character stories actively involve children and adults in each others' lives, living and learning together through acting as a pivot for questioning, and mutual exploring of all the possibilities that emerge in response. For example, through the Mother Goose central character story (summarised on p. 17 ) night time routines could be explored through personal stories and shared questions.

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