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A sense of place

Written by Jocelyn Wright, CORE Education, April 2011

The early childhood environment can contribute toward a growing sense of belonging in Aotearoa New Zealand for our very young children. Te Whāriki talks about children and families/whānau experiencing an environment where connecting links with family/whānau and the wider world are affirmed and extended.

How often do we think about what it means to affirm and extend connecting links with the wider world? And if we do, do we think about the features of our local area that are of physical and/or spiritual significance?

We need to push the boundaries of our understandings of ‘belonging’ to think about what it means to belong in Aotearoa New Zealand.

All too frequently, our ideas for designing an outdoor play space for infants and toddlers is constrained by notions of safety and the provision of play resources to support growing physical capacities such as climbing, swinging, or crawling. Yes, children’s safety is paramount but do we also stop to think about how we should be promoting young children’s connectedness with features of Aotearoa New Zealand?

As adults, our own personal feelings of connectedness with the wider world may help to rethink the importance of providing an outdoor early childhood environment that offers familiarity with the sounds, textures, tastes, and sights of the wider world around us.

Recently, a friend from England shared her photos of visits to various parts of New Zealand. A strong sense of belonging overcame me as I viewed the photographs. Memories of childhood sprang to mind. It was an emotional response, one of true connectedness with my sense of place and identity. I invite you to view these photographs for yourself in the photostory below. Do they evoke a similar response in you as they did for me?

Use the reflective questions to think about the concept of ‘a sense of place’ in your early childhood environment.

Contribute your ideas

You are invited to upload photographs of features in your environment to show others what environmental connectedness and sense of place can look like in infant and toddler environments. Please go to the ‘photo album’ section and let others be inspired by your ideas.

Reflective questions

Young children can spend a considerable amount of time in early childhood environments. We have a responsibility to make sure that their time with us does not exclude opportunity to connect with Aotearoa’s features, and local fauna and flora.

  • How do you extend infant and toddler’s knowledge and appreciation for the natural world around them?
  • If play spaces are predominantly covered in ‘astro turf’ for safety reasons, when do children physically connect with the ground, to feel their feet on grass or in the dirt? 
  • If we remove plants entirely, due to the way they might attract the bees, when do children discover the amazing transformations that occur in nature?
  • If we avoid having trees that may prove a risk to safety through toddlers attempting to climb, how do children discover the joy of listening to and recognising bird song?
  • In your setting, where can children freely explore and stumble upon the delights and taonga of Papatūānuku?
  • Look around your early childhood environment. How are features of your local environment featured in children’s play spaces? How are you contributing to that strong emotional connection with Aotearoa?

(Download a Word version of these questions, or print them using the 'print' icon at the top right of the page.)

ECE Online - Infants and toddlers 'resource' survey

Kia ora. We want to ensure that the resources we are making available on ECE Online - Infants and toddlers are useful and relevant for teacher practice.

After you have viewed the resource, you could tell us what you think:


  • Maria Thangaraj

    This article is indeed thought-provoking!  As a teacher, I do my best to help children connect with nature within the centre environment.  Our outside environment is surrounded with native trees and plants that help attract birds and insects of all kinds.  As a teacher, I help draw children's attention to the outside world by listening to the singing of the tui, the tapping of a cicada or the buzzing of a bee.  Our childen enjoy exploring and playing with the natural resources we set our environment up with...autumn leaves, driftwood, pine cones, acorns, shells of all kinds, etc.  Other experiences like nature walks, leaf picking, bush walks etc can prove to be very beneficial to  children as it can have a profound effect on their spiritual development.  Such experiences however cannot be undertaken at our centre due to the mixed-age groups of children and the hassles of meeting the adult-child ratios on such trips :-(.

  • Justine Mason

    Kia ora Maria, its great to hear about the ways that you support childrens developing awareness of the world around them by paying attention to and providing resources that represent the natural environment. There can be challenges to providing experiences for children outside early childhood settings however, bringing the environment to you is a great strategy to overcome those challenges.