No one was happier to see the end of the Covid-19 lockdown than Auckland Kindergarten Association (AKA) chief executive Pauline Winter - in fact when she took herself down to her local kindergarten to watch the steady stream of eager "tamariki" (children) passing through the doors.
"It was a lovely sight," she says. "After all those weeks of shutdown, to see our precious tamariki and teams back where they belong was wonderful. I left feeling positive that we were finally moving back to a more familiar way of life."
Winter, who oversees 107 kindergartens, four KiNZ care and education centres, and five Playgroups from South Auckland through to Mangawhai, says the top priority since re-opening has been keeping the 5500 children who attend each week safe.
"Everyone in our organisation - from the head teachers, area leaders through to senior management, teaching teams, board, support staff, and maintenance - has focussed on ensuring safety and security is uppermost," Winter says.
"Our teams have gone above and beyond over the past three months to keep a connection with their tamariki. Teachers have rung whānau regularly to talk to tamariki; some centres have put together learning packs; others have put together online learning modules for those wanting to ensure tamariki learning is supported despite the pandemic.
"It has been a mammoth job, but our whānau and communities have trusted and supported us to do the best we can," she says. "We share responsibility for tamariki with whānau and we belong to the local communities that surround us."
With nearly all now back at kindergarten, Winter and the AKA team of around 1000 professionals are fielding strong interest from new families.
After 20 hours of free kindergarten there is a nominal hourly fee depending on location. This fee helps the not-for-profit charity keep its centres and environments up-to-date and relevant.
"Many whānau are also attracted to us because we employ 100% trained and registered teachers who offer high-quality early learning teaching of programmes that are based on Te Whāriki – New Zealand's national early childhood curriculum," Ms Winter says.
"Tamariki learn best when they are nurtured and extended by qualified teachers who share an understanding of a child's world," Winter says.
"It's a bonus that we are cost-effective and can offer sessions of differing lengths to fit in with what whānau needs. Our Parent Whānau Groups welcome new families locally and from overseas, and our communities continue to be the essence of our organisation - celebrating a diverse range of ethnicities and cultures."
AKA kindergartens encourage exploration of the natural environment and physical play and the outdoors are a vital learning component. Working alongside tamariki, teachers build scaffolds to concepts and techniques covering maths, science, literacy, technology, sustainability, concepts and techniques, and language – all intermingled with play.
"We're an iconic New Zealand institution where tamariki can follow their parents and grandparents into the same early childhood education environment that they enjoyed generations before," Winter says.
"It's heart-warming when families watch their tamariki enjoying the same kindergarten they did as youngsters, and we are proud of the intergeneration participation of whānau, something we've enjoyed for more than 110 years in Auckland. They know we will look after their tamariki, and they trust we can offer quality pre-school education."
Anyone wanting to take a look at what kindergartens can offer in the wider Auckland region are welcome to visit their local centre at any time to talk with the Head Teacher or teaching team for more information.
Go to www.aka.org.nz for a list of kindergartens, KiNZ and Playgroups.