I made the mistake of walking into the Warehouse Stationary store last Tuesday. Q and I were in search of envelopes for Valentines he was planning to mail. Everyone else clutched school supply lists in one hand and juggled piles of notebooks and pencils in the other. The Warehouse is the kiwi equivalent to Walmart. Their office supplies are housed in neighboring Warehouse Stationary stores (re: Office Depot with 1/3 the square footage). Apparently, that’s the place to do the compulsory back to school shopping.
It’s the start of a new school year—the North American equivalent to August–when the weather is still warm and the days are still long, but the freedom of summer has come to an end. Kids all across the city have met their new teachers, covered their exercise books with glittery contact paper, and taken back to school pictures with their hair slicked down.
The neighborhood bike brigade that welcomed us barefoot and dripping from a water fight upon our arrival in December now rides off to school in the mornings rather than beginning laps around the cul-de-sac. Parents push toddlers in prams down the sidewalk as they walk their uniform-clad older children to school. Even Q joined the masses of little people climbing, painting, and singing at kindy (preschool) this afternoon.
For us, that means the mums’ groups geared toward toddlers and mums or caregivers that meet at the church 3 days a week are in full swing. Twice a week, an outside play group called Happy Feet utilizes the building for art and play and good company. Once a week, I get to facilitate a music group for little people called Mainly Music. Tots and adults alike bang sticks on the floor, rattle shakers, march around the room, and play with a parachute to the tunes of catchy kid music. After which, everyone enjoys morning tea, but usually only the adults drink the tea. The kiddies munch the snacks and then run outside to dig in the sandbox.
We’re trying diligently to navigate this aspect of Similar…But Different by asking tons of questions.
What does karakia mean on the class schedule? What kind of prayer is it? Who are you praying to? What does it mean?
Are shoes not mandatory?
But sun hats are?
Why is this school so different from the one a few blocks away?
How do you know where your child goes next when schools extend to different grade levels?
Where are the school buses?
Who wears a uniform and who doesn’t?
Why do the children always seem to be outside?
If kindy isn’t American kindergarten, then what do they do there? What should they know when they start Year 1?
The list goes on and on. As a part of New Zealand’s socialized effort to encourage early education, every 3 to 5-year-old can attend preschool for 20 hours a week free (a.k.a. paid for by the general public’s tax dollars). Often kindys (kindergartens) have extended days, allowing parents who work full time to pay for the additional time their child spends at the school/child care center. Nearly every kiwi kid attends kindy by the time he or she turns 4.
Each kindy is privately run with a loose association that gives them accreditation and reviews their academic performance. Primary schools, middle schools, and high schools operate in a similar fashion. Each is completely independent from the other. Our neighborhood school doesn’t require uniforms, but the one a few blocks away does. They charge different fees and receive different funding. They do operate under a general New Zealand-approved curriculum and are given a decile rating that denotes both educational performance and demographics. Even start times vary from 8:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. Our neighborhood school runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a 30-minute break for morning tea and an hour break for lunch. Sounds like a pretty good schedule to me. As for school buses—you’ll rarely see them here in Hamilton. Kids who live too far to walk to school hop on one of the many city buses.
The truth is, our learning is just beginning. We’re just scratching the surface of the cultural norms. We’re finding ourselves checking our American presuppositions often and trying not to “get schooled” while we’re at it.