Students design play space around Māori astronomy

A play space based on Māori astronomy and designed by students in consultation with local Iwi has been built at a South Auckland school.

Generally, boards and school leaders manage projects and work with the designers of new facilities. But Papakura Intermediate School principal Bec KauKau decided that students at her school should be given the opportunity to have input into the design of their new play space.

It’s called an interchallenger confidence course, rather than a playground, because it is very challenging. Some of the structures are higher than at most playgrounds, as the students didn’t want it to be too easy. 

The layout is based on Māori astronomy – it is angled astronomically, running north to south, with compass bearings. The course has 22 separate elements, including a flying fox-like challenge called a track ride, parkour balance balls, steering wheels, a fire pole and climbing ropes. 

Learning through inquiry

All signage is in te reo Māori and other aspects of the school’s new direction – learning through inquiry – are incorporated into the site. Their pepeha, given to them by local Iwi Ngati Tamaoho, is accessible via a QR code. A pou carved by a master carver and representing the pepeha is also on the site.

Bec says the inquiry process has involved real-life lessons for the students, including how to collaborate, negotiate, seek and incorporate community feedback, conduct research and apply for funding. 

They raised $120,000 and, in the process, have developed their knowledge in maths, physics and engineering. The new space will also allow the students to do calculations, so it will be a learning environment incorporated into the curriculum.

Combining science, technology, Mātauranga Māori

Bec says all the learning at the school is now through inquiry. “In everything they do, they are getting excited about things, solving problems and exploring new directions. This process has combined science, technology and Mātauranga. As Māori, our history is rich with knowledge of science, use of technology and exploration.”

Partnering with Iwi

Most students at the school are Māori and local Iwi Ngati Tamaoho was a partner in the project, which was kicked off by a challenge given to the students to leave a legacy. The idea to incorporate Māori astronomy came from teacher Shanandore Brown, who is passionate about science and te ao Māori. 

A core group of eight students in her Mātauranga Māori class put their hands up to lead the project and they began by researching other models, including what other schools had done with their spaces. They visited Pasedena Intermediate and Stardome in Auckland, to look at the skies. They also did a presentation to the school’s board for funding, which was successful.

The students drafted a design using a playground design company, The Playground People, and took it from there. As the design evolved in stages, the students talked to and received feedback from their whānau, teachers and other students. 

"Our process was to visit the best, talk to the best, consult the best and always consult mana whenua," Shanandore says.

Student’s names are present, as part of their legacy, in steel platelets tailor-made for them by Fisher and Paykel.

Students empowered

"At the beginning, the children knew what is fun, but not the cost of things, so they have learnt a lot about that," says Blair Sneddon from Playground People. 

"The school has done a great job of empowering them with knowledge they needed, especially about budgeting and how to make choices. We provided the engineering and financial input to their decision-making, but it’s been a great all-round learning experience for them.

"The course will help grow their motor skills and be a great workout for their upper bodies,” he says. 

"It will help with their confidence and be very challenging and it’s designed to last. It will be there for the next 30 years."

Inspiration from the stars

Students inquired into Māori astronomy during Mātauranga Māori specialist classes, looking specifically at stars. 

Some students designed and painted a local Chorus box telling the scientific story of Te Waha a Tama-nui-i-te-rā (The Mouth of the Sun), which became the inspiration for Te Papa Takaro o te Tātai Arorangi – The Astronomical Playground. 

At the centre of the playground is the sun (Tama-nui-i-te-rā). His two wives, Hine-takurua (Winter Maiden) and Hine-raumati (Summer Maiden), are used as points of reference to show us where the sun rises from the north-east in the middle of winter (winter solstice), to where it rises in the south-east in the middle of summer (summer solstice). 

Using their longitude and latitude points and cardinal directions inscribed in to the deck of the middle tower, the playground runs north to south as a giant-sized compass showing us the time of the year, which is key to understanding the environment and actions we must take, such as planting in our maara kai.

Other key scientific features of the playground include Takurua or Sirius, which is the brightest star in the night sky, which navigators identify at 60° north-east from Tama-nui-i-te-ra’s tower; Tautoru or Orion’s Belt, which shows the three stars that point to Takurua.

Ngā Aorangi or the planets are represented by eight colour-coded play platforms suspended around the sun and have names referenced from Ngati Tamaoho karakia. Ngā wāhanga o te tau or the seasons of the year are represented by colour-coded balance balls that have reciprocal designs to the west in the later stages/phases.

"We understand the school to be building a playground, Te Papa Takaro o te Tatai Arorangi, that aligns to Māori astronomical features such as the alignment to Takurua," says Maaka Potini, from Ngati Tamaoho. 

"Takurua is a significant star. There are also planets involved and as Ngati Tamaoho we have our own names for these planets. Advice of these names required a thorough process that took time. My father, Hero, went back in to old karakia to make sure we had the right terms; for example, Jupiter is known as Ranga Whenua."

Living proof

"At P.I. our vision is to be a home to innovative learners and leaders. Our playground brings life to this vision. The playground gives us a bearing of where we stand in the world right now (37°3'56" South and 174°57'12" East) so we can feel at home in it. 

"The playground is living proof that like our ancestors, we too are scientists, innovators and project managers. 

"The fact that the playground is New Zealand’s, and therefore the world’s, first Matauranga Māori astronomical playground, gives truth to the fact that we are leaders – Tū Rangatatira."

Bec KauKau

What students think

"We had a lot to do with technology, engineering and maths in the planning. It made me want to be an engineer." Mark

"It was a good experience to be part of. We wanted an element of risk in the design so that it wasn’t babyish." Ali

"We really enjoyed visiting Fisher and Paykel’s factory to watch our names being carved out of steel by laser. That was exciting." Sativa

Source: Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero(external link)

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