This is the first story in the Creative Wellbeing series, a partnership between Creative New Zealand and All Right? that shines a light on the transformative wellbeing and hauora benefits that arts, culture and creativity provide.
A giant woollen wētā is perched beside the window of room 13 at Bathgate Park School, its carapace casting a shadow on the floor below.The insect sits atop an even bigger sweater, which stretches across almost an entire wall in kaleidoscopic patterns of yellow, green, pink, and turquoise.
Every time pupils enter the classroom, they chatter and smile up at the decorations. “They're just so chuffed,” says artist Janet de Wagt. “And that's the whole class. Within that class, 10 of them might be down, or not so happy, and it just lifts everybody.” De Wagt guided the seven and eight-year-old students as they made the wall-spanning artwork, inspired by the Dawn McMillan book There’s a Wētā On My Sweater.
The recent instalment is one of hundreds of art projects produced in de Wagt’s four years running room 13 at Bathgate. It's Aotearoa New Zealand's only member of Room 13 International, a global alliance of pupil-led art spaces.
Academics and teaching professionals say spaces like Room 13 are more important than ever as New Zealand schools slide in the OECD rankings of our students’ reading, maths and science abilities.
In their eyes, practising the arts - or more accurately creativity - is vital for teaching children to grasp those ‘core’ competencies, particularly as they return to class in the midst of a disruptive, and in many cases traumatic, pandemic.
Auckland University professor Peter O’Connor is the founder of Te Rito Toi, a programme aimed at using the arts to smooth students’ re-entry into the schooling system. Over the last two years, he’s done webinars with 60,000 teachers, and resources from the programme’s website have been downloaded 400,000 times.
In a video on the website, O’Connor says Te Rito Toi is about using the arts “not to catch up with work, but to catch up with each other”.
That sits uncomfortably with some critics who feel it’s more important for pupils to catch up on their maths and reading, and see the arts as a kind of educational add-on. O’Connor bristles at that suggestion.
“We have kids at school, whose grandma died, whose grandparents have died, they weren't able to go to the funeral. Now there's an adult in the room with them, and they have an opportunity to talk about how they think and feel,” he says. “I don't think teachers have any other moral choice than to engage with that. Otherwise they’re abdicating their responsibility”
O’Connor’s objections aren’t just ethical though. He argues creativity is a foundational learning skill, more intrinsic to us than maths or literacy, and without it, all the other subjects suffer.
“The primary way by which young people learn about themselves and their place in the world is through the arts, the capacity to pretend to be other than themselves. Children learn to walk by dancing. They learn to talk by singing,” he says.
“The great tragedy of our schooling system is, it doesn't recognise that and replaces it with all sorts of things that don't come close to the natural way by which children discover who they are and the world around them.”
O’Connor points out that when Aotearoa New Zealand led the world in literacy in the 1970s, the curriculum contained a heavy diet of the arts, especially at primary school level. “We chucked the arts out, and what we've done is continue to focus on these literacy and numeracy projects, which have got absolutely nowhere,” he says.
“It's not a 'school should be full of airy fairy, running around being creative'. It's actually if you want kids doing really well at reading, writing and maths, make sure they're getting a really full diet of the arts. Because that is what the research tells us to really make a difference.”
De Wagt regularly gets a first-hand look at the transformative effect of creative education. Several parents have told her that room 13 has given their children a different outlook on school, shifting them from dreading and resisting going to being keen to attend. “A happy child is a learning child, and if a child is unhappy, they don’t learn,” she says.
That’s been true in her own life. She’s dyslexic, and struggled with literacy in school. “I'm dyslexic. I'm this, I'm that. But my vehicle was drawing. I could go on a journey with that and it enabled me to express myself. I may not be able to spell it, but I can draw it.”
Sarah Sinnott, mother of five-year-old Nye and three-year-old Cove, says she wishes more art, kapa haka, music, and drama classes were more embedded in the curriculum.
Children shouldn’t have to go to after-school classes to find activities that enrich their communication skills and support their ability to learn, she says. “Wouldn’t it be nice if ‘extra curricular’ was embedded more deeply in the curriculum? If more schools embraced creativity - which kids have in spades - as fundamental, rather than an add on?”
The idea that creativity fosters wellbeing - and as a result improves learning - is backed by a large body of evidence. A synthesis of 3000 studies carried out by the World Health Organisation in 2019 found the arts play a major role in preventing ill health, promoting health, and managing illness.
A 2019 longitudinal study of 25,000 young people by Auckland University found that students who participated in performing and visual arts programmes had lower dropout rates, improved social skills and higher educational achievement.
Data from the Creative New Zealand’s New Zealanders and the Arts research shows a third (34%) of young New Zealanders say doing creative things makes them feel excellent, and 73% say taking part in arts activities helps them feel good about life in general.
Taking advantage of those benefits is even more important following a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, O’Connor says. He points to the aftermath of the 2011 February earthquake, where Christchurch students were performing better in numeracy and literacy three years after the disaster than they had beforehand.
That was only possible because schools prioritised children’s emotional and physical health over their homework, he says. “If you focus on children’s wellbeing, that’s absolutely the best way back into schools after a crisis. If you go back that way, you actually get back far more quickly.”
Aotearoa is often hailed for its world leading Covid response, which has seen the country record one of the lowest death rates in the world. O’Connor sees Te Rito Toi as another, less appreciated way in which the country set itself apart. It was the only country that locked down that brought students back through the arts and by focusing on their wellbeing, he says. He sees that paying dividends in years to come.
“We can wait 20 years and pour all the money into mental health services, or we can use schools as places where we help young people make sense of a very troubling world now. And that's I think our choice,” he says. “Let’s invest time, money and energy now in schools with these little ones rather than carry the cost in 20 years’ time.”
That investment in students’ wellbeing isn’t just important during a pandemic.
O’Connor sees making children feel happy, cared for, and important, as a fundamental part of schooling going forward. Only when those things are in place will they have the capacity to turn their minds to science, reading and maths, he says.
“My feeling is that schools have changed forever. Not because of technology. I see that as almost an irrelevance. It’s in how teachers want classrooms to be. It sounds really corny, but I think we want them to be more human places, not just places where you drill kids with literacy and numeracy. We want them to be places where kids feel safe, warm and loved.”
You can learn more about Te Rito Toi mahi and programmes here. The Ministry of Education’s Creatives in Schools programme invites schools and kura throughout New Zealand to apply for funding to deliver creative projects in partnership with a professional artist or creative practitioner. Sparklers, developed to support and promote the wellbeing of young Cantabrians has a range of creative wellbeing activities designed for tamariki that can be explored at home.