Yesterday I got to chaperone a camping trip for Charlotte’s Year 5 (4th grade in the US) class. Each year the teachers take their classes to a different camp or retreat center for 3 days of outdoor, teambuilding, and fun. This year, Charlotte and her classmates get to go to Pudding Hill at the foot of Mount Hutt in the Southern Alps.

Charlotte and friends building the second of two dams.

Set in the beautiful Southern Alp foothills, the camp has a main house with bunkrooms and a huge kitchen and eating area. It’s not fancy, but the phenomenal location and well-appointed layout are perfect for large school groups.

The views.

They’ll spend nearly all their time outside; the one full afternoon I was able to be there to help out, they built bivouacs out of nature; did a low ropes course; learned archery; took a hike; played informal cricket and soccer games; played basketball and threw a frisbee; and self-directed the construction of two dams in a stream to create a wading pool.

Learning was messy and body-centered and fun. It was amazing.


When I think about returning to the United States, something I really will miss from New Zealand is the stunning difference in the school systems and focuses.

Do you know how many standardized tests my kids have taken in their 3/4 of a year here?


Do you know how many days they have come home disappointed because their recess was taken away?


Do you know how many times one or more of them have been penalized in a group by having to put their heads down and be silent in the lunchroom?


Do you know how often they watch movies at school?

Hardly at all.

Do you know how much homework they must do before they go outside to play after school?

Barely any. Both girls come home with a small list of assignments they must complete over the course of the week and turn in on the following Monday, but it’s minimal.

Having lunch after a hike.


Don’t get me wrong: our kids have had some great teachers over the years in the states, and they have learned a lot during their school time in Delaware schools.

But seeing what happens in public school here in New Zealand really has me bemoaning a return to the standardized-testing crazed, underfunded, discipline-ridden, homework-piled existence of public school in our state.


Calvin, in Year 1 (kindergarten), has three offical school day breaks. And the school day doesn’t start until 9.

His teacher calls a “fruit” snack break at 9:45. There’s jump-jam, when the teachers put on a couple of fun songs and the kids jump around (outside) and dance together. At 10:30 they have morning tea (another snack and some running around outside). From 12:30 to 1:30 is lunch and recess. Both are outside.

The kids get out of school at 3.

Both girls have one fewer break in the day than Cal (skipping the fruit snack break), but both are outside multiple times a day and recess is a guaranteed right. Unless you don’t have your sun hat with you, in which case you must stay inside.

Evelyn has some homework each week but not more than an hour or two for the whole week. There’s time for enrichment–for example, she signed up for an optional Latin class that meets every Wednesday for an hour, just because it interests her. There’s also room in the daily schedule for creative writing, reading aloud (even in Ev’s class, Year 8), science, history, social studies. It’s not just about math, reading, and academic writing. Charlotte’s in choir. Both participate in whole-school sporting challenges that happen during the day, not on weekends or evenings.

There are quizzes and progress reports, but no testing. Nothing like in the states.

Teachers and administrators are focused on kids’ learning and happiness, their social and physical and academic growth. It’s really hard to measure those things by looking at numbers on a paper.

My kids also have “gym” every day, because instead of having one over-worked phys ed teacher serving an entire school population (resulting in students having one or two gym sessions per week), each teacher does exercise, sport, and outside time with his or her class each day.

New Zealanders who have asked about the kids’ transition from the US educational system to the NZ system have been shocked when I tell them about the absence of significant recess time at my kids’ schools, and about the lack of snacks and time for socializing.

Evelyn, Charlotte, and Calvin are consistently happy to go to school here. And they are consistently tired but happy at the end of each day.

Snippets of things they are learning and doing–projects are much more important here than tests–pop up in family conversation, and I have no doubt that they really are picking up a lot at school.

This is probably one of the top three things I love about New Zealand and is near the top of my list of reasons I’m sad to leave. 

cals first day
Ilam school playground and Charlotte & Calvin on Calvin’s first day of Year 0, November 2015.
Evelyn filling out forms from school, July 2015.
First day of school, July 2015.



2 thoughts on “School Days

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