It was the perfect start to a day. About ten Te Wharau School kids and I filed into the classroom, past the hand lettered sign at the door, “Kimi Hā” reminding us to find our breath. Inside we sit cross legged on the mat, warm with morning sun.
Even if the sun had not been shining, the room would have had an innate warmth or glow to it. Gentle music, potted plants, treasures foraged from nature and hand drawn pictures and diagrams depicting breathing techniques and workings of the brain, leave no doubt as to the intention of this room, this is a safe space.
A couple of years ago Maiko Lewis-Whaanga approached Te Wharau School leadership with an idea. Having been delving into mindfulness practices for herself and her own whānau, Maiko was inspired to create spaces in which those learnings could be shared with our young people.
Recognising how much hard work it can be for adults to rewire neural pathways that have been forged over decades of stress, anxiety and trauma she could see the power in our tamariki having mindfulness practices alongside numeracy and literacy in their kete. Especially in those formative years, when brains are like sponges and are so busily building those pathways.
Te Wharau’s principal, Mark Harris agrees that in these times “mindfulness learning is more valuable than ever”. He sees the increasingly busy lives being led by whānau and tamariki and the stresses and worries of today’s challenges at the heart of that need.
Te Wharau School endeavours to provide their learners with the opportunity to be well rounded in all areas of their life and Mark sees their mindfulness programme as sitting across all of those areas. “Not only capable academically but socially equipped people with strong values, who are nurturing and resourceful, are active and creative, and continue to remain culturally connected.
“We see mindfulness as a tool for life across all of these areas of learning and we see value in developing strategies to manage yourself and your emotions in all situations, while finding solace and connection in our natural world”.
During the course of the one hour session, Maiko leads the tamariki of Room 13 through a series of practices which variously connect the learners with their different senses, their breath and emotions, such as gratitude. As they move, explore, listen, watch and share, it’s clear that these kids aren’t strangers to any of these concepts, frequently adding to the kōrero with examples from their own days and lives.
Outside the sun is shining after a night of heavy rain, and the kids are keen to show me the school ngahere. As we take our mindful walk across the steaming grass and through the school māra, the students focus on what they sense around them. Mint is picked and tasted, oranges collected off the ground along with other natural treasures to take with them into the ngahere. Birds are calling through the trees and the creek is rushing along its course. A mural depicting the nature of different native trees accompanies our descent, which is another Te Wharau School taonga I was wanting to check out during this visit…
In 2021 Katy Wallace embarked on an art project with senior Te Wharau students through the Creatives in Schools Programme. As a Te Wharau parent who had watched her own kids’ creative progression through childhood, she had aspirations to shake things up a bit.
After consulting with Te Wharau teachers, a project that used art to kickstart the rejuvenation of the school ngahere was decided upon. Students jumped in for an initial clean up and amid some fixing up of fences and pathways, Katy came up with an approach that would enable fun and messy art exploration for the students, and a meaningful role in the transformation of their school environment.
Over the course of the project Katy worked with seven different classes for three and a half days each. Each group was led through a process from idea conception through to the production of artworks, which would furnish the bush in different ways.
Katy loves to see kids’ own unique craziness expressed in their art, and so the initial part of the process used warm up exercises to encourage play and experimentation, helping kids to move beyond wanting things to look a certain way, and getting too precious about their work.
It was fast-paced Katy says, but “so much fun”, with the kids exploring creative methodologies of abstraction and transcribing, as well as being introduced to new mediums along with the associated materials and tools to bring the works to fruition. At the end of each week they needed to have created a piece of work that would withstand living in the bush. While some of the works ended up in the School hall, such as a map of the Matariki Constellation, made of solar prints, the pieces that are installed in the ngahere allow visitors to experience the landscape more deeply.
Our descent into the gully is marked by a mural depicting resident rākau, expressed via abstracted markings. We scan for the birds filling the gully with birdsong and metal forms dangling from the trees catch our gaze as they swing in the breeze. Someone remarks at the way the forms are becoming a part of the bush as the metal oxidises, turning the same colour of the trees that they hang from.
We sit around a circle of tree stumps, marked with different patterns from our surroundings. One by one each of the tamariki stand up to place treasures they’ve picked up on the way, into the centre of the circle. As each child places their object in relation to those that have been placed already, they share aloud the things they are grateful for. Thanks are given for whānau and for friends. Someone expresses gratitude to their pets, another; yummy kai, “especially hāngi”. Another little guy is effusive “everyone in the whole world”.
We leave the treasures in their mound on the ground for the birds to peck at, the wind to carry away or to decompose into the soil. Back up in the classroom it’s a little breathwork and yoga, before we all set off on the rest of our days, lighter and yet more grounded somehow.
I’m really grateful that we live in a time in which the importance of mindfulness is more widely understood; that more holistic approaches are being taken into education, which kids can then share with their whānau. I’m stoked for programmes like Creatives in Schools, which recognise the unique skill sets creative practitioners possess; and enable creatives to open up new worlds of seeing and doing for tamariki.
I’m glad for passionate locals such as Maiko and Katy who are driven to create opportunities like these for our tamariki, and to go after them. And big ups to Te Wharau School for seeing the possibilities and leaping in.
Thanks for having me Te Wharau!
Maiko Lewis-Whaanga is a Toihoukura graduate, and will be exhibiting in ‘Pick and Mix’ opening July 9 at the Tairāwhiti Museum. She is performing as a part of the Sound Collective at the Dome Birthday Party this weekend and is hosting a Mindfulness Workshop at Gizzy Local on Monday 20 June, 4 - 4:45pm. Bringing together origami, movement and breath work for kids and adults alike. Kids $5, adults $10 Book your spot at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Katy Wallace has a long career of designing and creating. She has a Master’s Degree in Art and Design and has taught at Unitec and AUT. Her furniture works are held in numerous collections and museums and have been exhibited around Aotearoa. You may have checked out the Caravannex at Te Tairawhiti Arts Festival 2020, which Katy designed and built with partner Paulus McKinnon. Katy is one of the curators of NOise VACANCY.
Story & photos Sarah Cleave