Ako: The little bush school in the big city

by Sarah Stewart / 15 March, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Tech kids

The newest school in Auckland is play-based and outdoor-centred. Its director - or "chief dot connector" - says it fills a gap that's missing in mainstream education: the crucial element of play. Is it possible to let children direct their own education while balancing learning outcomes? Sarah Stewart went to Ako to find out.

Four mischievous boys are launching themselves down a makeshift mudslide like gleeful surfers, whooping as their bare feet give way and they tumble to the ground. They are sludge-covered, grass-spattered and absolutely sodden. Are they bunking school on this Tuesday morning? Far from it. Not far away, their teacher watches, giggling.

“Go Ari!” she calls, as the boys begin to forward roll down the slope, jostling each other in a puddle at the bottom.  “Nice rotations there!”

“I made it!” he shouts back. “I MADE IT!”


Welcome to life at New Zealand’s newest primary school, Ako. Based at Awataha Marae on Auckland’s North Shore, it promises education with a difference: “play-based, child-led, passion-driven and outdoor-centered.” Children here will learn as much from the native bush as they will in the classroom. And yes, there are showers. 

The week’s agenda wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Survivor: fire making, bug hunting, flax weaving and building huts. But it’s not just for kids who want to grow up to be Bear Grylls. The teachers at Ako think this is what school should look like for every Kiwi kid.

33-year-old Sabrina Nagel watches the muddy antics with a broad grin on her face. Beside her, her 5-year-old twins Luca and Phoenix are inspecting the elaborate hut they’ve built from sticks, leaves and ferns. Ako is Sabrina’s vision - and it’s still sinking in that she has managed to open a school. She’s not an educator or a teacher - just a concerned mother. “People thought I was absolutely crazy,” she says.

Sabrina looked at local schools for her girls, but found them too structured, too academic, and with too much time indoors. “Knowing my kids, I could see there was no way that would be an environment that they would be thriving in,” she says. But friends and family - including her own partner - couldn’t see her concerns. “They were like ‘what do you mean? We’ve got amazing schools here - especially where you live. Why would you change something that’s working?’”

The power of play

 Ari slacklining with his hand made flower sticks. Photo / supplied

But is the mainstream education system working? Sabrina thinks a crucial element is missing from many classrooms: play.  Ako’s vision is based on research that children learn best through play, which fosters curiosity, creativity, problem-solving and risk-taking. “Play does not mean it’s a free-for-all and anything goes. Play is defined as child-led, child-initiated,” she says.

It’s why teacher and Ako co-founder Kate Webber is more than happy to watch the kids cake themselves in mud.  “I think the number one thing is that it’s fun - which kind of gets left out of education," she says wryly. She’s seeing them learning to make friends, take turns, take risks with each other - and feel a vital sense of belonging.

But the power of play as an education tool can be hard for parents to grasp. “Most teachers understand the value of play. The biggest pushback is always the parents,” Sabrina says. They see more value in their children learning to read, write and count - but at new entrant level, many children’s brains aren’t developed enough to master those skills. It’s why in most European countries kids don’t start school until ages six or seven.

Sabrina points to the work of child development expert Nathan Wallis, who says how a child feels about their learning, rather than what they know, ultimately determines future success.  It’s especially important for boys, whose brains develop later than girls. “If they’re not ready until six and a half and we start making them [read] at five, what is that going to do to their disposition?” he told RNZ.

“If I start making you do something for a year and a half that’s biologically impossible for you to do, how do you feel about yourself at the end?”

Luca smelling the flowers she picked before finishing setting the table. Photo / supplied

Goodbye National Standards... hello more play?

But that is what New Zealand has been doing. Under National Standards, five-year-olds were ranked after 40 weeks at school. The NZ Principals’ Federation (NZPF) President Whetu Cormick says teachers’ time was spent trying to get students to reach a standard - and, sadly, that often came at the expense of play.

“The challenge we had over the last nine years is we weren’t able to give children that time to experience play and discovery learning because they were being pushed to sitting down, sitting up straight, we’ve got to read now, we’ve got to write now, we’ve got to count,“ he says.

Now the new government has scrapped the system, he expects to see a great increase in play-based learning in mainstream schools. “Thankfully National Standards is gone so we can release teachers and release our young people to get back to what’s really important.”

On a typical day at Ako, the children decide what’s important. School starts at 10am in a circle on the floor. There are 11 kids enrolled so far - the maximum teacher to pupil ratio will be 1:16. They range in age from five to nine, and all learn together. What do they want to do today? “Have a nap!” “Make potions!” “Eat and read!” Five-year-old Raphael already has his lunchbox out and is munching on a peanut butter sandwich. The children are trusted to eat when they’re hungry.

Today they vote on “potions” first, and soon they’re liberally filling containers with flour, baking soda, green colouring, jelly crystals and vinegar. There are excited shrieks of “it’s gonna blow!” as emerald froth erupts over the table and floor. No one is watching the mess, or the clock - they’ll finish when the kids get bored. “It’s really organic,” Kate says. “It could take half an hour, it could be an hour.”  She still has to cover the New Zealand curriculum - it’s just woven into play.

Phoenix mixes a potion. Photo / supplied

Screening out screens

So how far does Ako stray from the mainstream school environment? NZPF President Whetu Cormick says the new open plan “Modern Learning Environments” offer many of the same elements - including messy play. Children are also being given control over their own learning. At Whetu’s school in South Dunedin, students design their own day on their laptops, choosing from a range of activities on offer. He says they are thriving on that responsibility.  

At Ako there isn’t a device in sight - though the older children can use them for projects. Sabrina looks around the classroom, and doesn’t see a need. Before school, an older boy is teaching a younger one chess moves. Another is proudly using a glue gun to construct a cardboard volcano. Luca and Phoenix are mixing a concoction of feathers and flowers in a teapot and serving it to their friends.  “They’re not missing out on anything because they’re so full of imagination and creativity,” Sabrina says.

“We’ve all gone crazy like ‘oh my God we’ve got this skill shortage in technology we need to push it down kids throats’ -  but actually think about what they’re missing out on by having too much screen time and not doing the things that kids should be doing. Things that later on will help their brains understand how technology works and how to use it - I think that’s more important.“

Whetu Cormick disagrees. “We know that the world is changing. We have to get our kids ready,” he says. “Children need to have access to those digital technologies - and the reality is many of our children don’t have this stuff at home.”

Giacomo, Phoenix and Luca drawing. Photo / supplied

Let kids be kids to help them beat bots?

The parents who have chosen to take a punt on Ako include primary school teacher Sally Watson.  “My thing is, how do we slow down the speed of growing up, and allow kids to be kids?” she asks. She worries about the number of teenagers with anxiety - and thinks a grounding in nature could help. But she’s not quite ready to turn her back on the mainstream - her daughter Natasha will only come one day a week.

“I believe in [play-based learning] in theory - but what are the outcomes of it in practice?” she wonders. Would Natasha then struggle to cope with a structured high school system? For now, though, Sally is sold. “She loves it. After a day there it feels like she’s quite centered.”

Rhys Johnston watches his son Bailey as he sits on the floor, methodically constructing a tower of Mobilo. The 9-year-old is not listening to the morning korero, and no one pushes him to join in. “We call it his laser focus,” Rhys explains. Bailey has Aspergers - and state schools have not given him the flexibility he needs. They’re pinning their hopes on Ako.

“When you let him go and have a bit of freedom you see little miracles happen,” Rhys says.  

“The school system was set up to create compliant citizens. A lot of people who have done amazing things around the world - at school they didn’t fit in because they think outside the box. Look at Steve Jobs. Even Einstein was a dropout.”  

Sabrina says in an increasingly automated world, today’s children will have to think outside the box. “We need to get our kids ready for the things machines can’t do - thinking creatively, problem-solving, coming up with new ideas.”  She watches the students playing Poohsticks in the river, inspecting a bees nest, and literally stopping to smell the flowers (nasturtium) - and she’s convinced Ako is the start they need.


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