Nurturing and encouraging young children’s identity, language and culture in the early years

Funding year: 
2 years
Core Education
ECE sector
Project start date: 
January 2015
Project end date: 
March 2017
Principal investigator(s): 
Keryn Davis and Ruta McKenzie
Research team members: 
Core Education
Research partners: 
Mapusaga Aoga Amata; North Beach Community Childcare Centre



This project focused on understanding how young children express their working theories about identity, language, and culture. It explored how adults nurture and encourage this learning, and how this in turn impacts on participation in early childhood education (ECE) communities. It also sought to find out more about how teachers can support diversity (and participation), through pedagogy and curriculum design that is highly responsive to all learners.


The project sought to support the identity, language and culture of all learners in the research sites, while emphasising improvement for Pasifika learners and those from low socio-economic communities. The project utilised an innovative, collaborative ‘sister centre’ research partnership to do this and was sited in two early childhood centres in east Christchurch: one Samoan Immersion and one English-medium.
The project and its design reflected broader goals of social justice and equality. The project team believed that by nurturing children's identity, language and culture through a working theories lens they will provide new perspectives of how teachers can work with young children to influence their thinking, actions, and attitudes. The project investigated ways that teachers can help children to make sense of ‘self’ and the social world, and of difference and similarities, issues which are frequently silenced in young children and in learning communities (Brooker & Woodhead, 2008; Copenhaver-Johnson, 2006). The project sought to enable learners to embrace cultures and languages other than their own, with the desire to ensure ECE settings are more able to support learners’ of diverse identities.

Why is this research important?

There is a great deal to learn about how teachers might contribute to realising the vision of Te Whāriki for all learners. Both the Pasifika Education Plan and Ka Hikitia place significant importance on the ways teachers respond to and support children’s identity, language, and culture, through culturally responsive pedagogy and developing their own cultural intelligence.  The findings from this project contribute to understandings of how to strengthening children’s working theories, by focusing on what children are learning as a result of shifts in teacher thinking and pedagogy.

What we did

• Data
The study employed an action research approach. All members of the research team were involved in data collection and analysis. Data took the form of: centre documentation; recordings of discussions, conversations and interviews; children’s work; correspondence; observations; photos; video; researcher notes, comments and reflections; and comments and reflections of members of the project’s extended community of inquiry.
• Analysis
The bulk of the project data was analysed in an on-going way, as well as at the end of each phase of the study, by using a coding system to expose themes. Because this was an interpretive action research study early analysis determined future data collection and analysis decisions. Our overriding goal for data collection was to ensure that data was collected in ways that acknowledge the challenges of bias. By collecting data across the ‘sister’ sites, and in different ways, together with team involvement in the analysis, we avoided exclusive reliance on one method.

Our partners

This collaborative practitioner research project was led by Keryn Davis and supported by Ruta McKenzie as co-researcher, and Dalene Mactier as research assistant (CORE Education). Mapusaga A'oga Amata and North Beach Community Childcare in east Christchurch were the research sites. These early childhood centres had five and ten teachers respectively. All of the teachers participated as teacher-researchers, however, at different stages of the project, some took lead roles. Associate Professor Sally Peters and Vanessa Paki (University of Waikato) were research associates.



Keryn Davis  (



Davis, K. and McKenzie, R. (2016). Rainbows, sameness, and other working theories about identity, language, and culture. Early Childhood Folio, 20, 1. Wellington: NZCER Press.

Peters, S. Davis, K. & McKenzie, R. (in Press).  Children’s working theories as curriculum outcomes. In The child’s curriculum: What is the value of early childhood education and care? edited by Jonathan Delafield-Butt, Aline-Wendy Dunlop, and Colwyn Trevarthen. London: Routledge.


Davis, K., McKenzie, R., Beecroft, H., and Crichton, M. (2017, November). O le i’oimata o le tuagane lona tuafafine: The impact of a ‘sister’ approach to Pasifika-Palagi research on teaching and learning in two ECE communities. Paper presented as part of the TLRI Symposium at the New Zealand Association for Research in Education Annual Conference, Hamilton.

McKenzie, M., Crichton, M., Rose, D. and Sugarwala, M. (2017, April).  Children’s working theories about identity, language and culture. Workshop presented at Kidsfirst Kindergartens Annual Conference, Christchurch.

Davis, K. (2016, October). Coconuts and cultural competence: Children’s working theories about identity, language and culture. Paper presented at uLearn16, Rotorua.

Davis, K. McKenzie, R. and Sugarwala, M. (2016, August). Coconuts and cultural competence: Children’s working theories about identity, language and culture. Keynote address presented at The Gathering, Christchurch.

Davis, K. (2015, October). Young Children’s working theories about identity, language and culture. Paper presented at uLearn15, Auckland.

Davis, K., McKenzie, R., Rose, D. and Saofa’i, F. (2016, July). Nurturing children’s working theories about identity, language and culture. Paper presented at Te Rito Maioha Conference, Hamilton.

Davis, K. (2016, July). Children’s working theories in action. Keynote address and workshop presented at the Whanganui Kindergarten Association Annual Conference, Hawera.

Davis, K. (2016, July). Coconuts, volcanoes and other important working theories. Workshop presented at the Hutt City Kindergarten Association, Lower Hutt.

Davis, K., McKenzie, R., and Gase, M. (2016, March). Children’s working theories about identity, language and culture. Workshop presented at CORE Education Pasifika Leadership Professional Learning and Development Fono. Christchurch.

McKenzie, R and Crichton, M. (2015, July 31). Research project about identity, language and culture. [Interview]. Interviewed by Tala Milo on o le Penina o Samoa Tala Milo Plains FM 96.9.

Davis, K., Beecroft, H., Crichton, M., Rose, D. and Saofa’i, F. (2015, July). Children’s working theories about identity, language and culture. Paper presented at Te Rito Maioha Conference, Christchurch.

Davis, K. and McKenzie, R. (2015, May). Nurturing and encouraging identity, language and culture. New Zealand Association of Research in Education ECE SIG day, Wellington.

Davis, K. (2015, April). Coconuts, babies, and other important wonderings and challenges. Keynote address at the New Zealand Home Based Care Association Conference. Auckland.