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Matariki - Celebrating a New Year with an old tradition.

By Filip Lolić Permission from Filip Lolić

When the Plieades star constellation becomes visible in the southern hemisphere's night sky, the Maori - the indigenous people of New Zealand - celebrate the coming of a new year. This is a time to celebrate the gifts of the earth - it is mid-winter and the year's planting, harvesting and preserving is done - all that is left to do is relax and enjoy a feast.

For teachers, Matariki is one of the times when we go that extra mile to embrace the bi-cultural nature of New Zealand and offer more lessons around Maori language and culture.

Maori have a strong oral tradition with lots of stories and songs that have been passed down through the generations. This ties beautifully with the Montessori storytelling tradition.

You can find the story of Matariki on the Te Papa museum website and the Ministry of education website has lots of traditional Maori stories and legends you can share with your students.

Below are two videos of a contemporary Matariki myth you could show you students - the first is read in English language, the second in Te Reo Maori - Maori language.

Te Huihui o Matariki / The Seven Stars of Matariki

Another beautiful link between Maori culture and Montessori is the tradition of tuakana teina which literally means "older sibling/younger sibling' and refers to the teaching and learning relationship between the more knowledgeable and the less knowledgeable . The lovely thing about it is the relationship can gracefully reverse at any time according to which child has the most expertise.

I wanted to really embrace the tuakana teina relationship for our Matariki celebrations this year so I talked to my 9 -12 students about workshops they could run in the 6 - 9 classes.

We settled on two workshops, bone carving and poi making. My children already knew how to make poi from previous Matariki celebrations - I will write about this in a future post.

For the bone carving, we agreed that I would give a lesson to interested children in my class, then they would pass the lesson on to younger children in other classes.

Bone Carving

A selection of pieces from the Hokianga Bone carver.

As Maori did not have a written tradition, their stories were preserved and passed down through the generations within their art. Highly complex wood, bone and jade carvings telling the history of a tribe were passed down from one elder to the next and were believed to take on the spirits of the great leaders and warriors who had worn them. These taonga become sacred objects, and are believed to be a spiritual link between people though time and distance.

Carving actual bone or jade was not a realistic option for my students but I did want to give them the opportunity to explore the traditional shapes and make an artifact that was significant to them. I decided salt dough was the best option to make our own versions of bone carvings.

I love salt dough for several reasons:

  • It is so quick and easy to make that you can keep making more as you need it

  • It is easy to store the ingredients so you can make it whenever you need to.

  • It costs very little to make - which always makes teachers happy.

Scroll the the end of this post for a salt dough recipe and tips.

The great thing about salt dough is it looks a lot like carved bone - you don't even need to paint it!

Each carving has it's own significance, but there are some traditional shapes which are frequently used. I printed off pictures of a few of these shapes and discussed the meanings with the children. They then had the option to come up with their own symbol, or make one based on the examples I showed them.

You can find examples of carving shapes and their meanings here and here.

I also made examples of a few of the designs. I wouldn't necessarily make examples of crafts if I was just making them with my class, I would go more along the lines of looking at some pictures and, hopefully, actual examples of bone carvings and then say something like,

"Let's see if we can recreate some of these using this dough".

This time though, my husband, who is a Cub Scout Leader, had asked me to help him with a Matariki activity for his Cubs. As these children are not from Montessori schools and have a limited time to work with, he wanted examples to show them so I made a few ahead of time and thought I might as well show them to the children in my class. The Cubs, by the way, loved the activity.

My students also loved it. Most created designs based on the examples I showed them and a few came up with their own design completely.

We used clay tools to help us shape the dough in my class but at Cubs we just used kebab sticks which worked fine.

The real magic came when my students went off to teach the younger children.

They went to each class, made arrangements with the teacher, returned at the agreed time and invited children to sign up for their lessons. They then organised the children into groups and assisted them to make a pendant.

After a morning with a lot of coming and going, I went for a wander around the classes to check on my students and found one group giving out the completed pendants, elastic and all, to the children. I was totally amazed as I hadn't even realised they had baked them! They had everything under control, making sure each child had a pendant.

Salt dough recipe - it's very simple:

1 part salt

2 parts plain flour

1 part water

For 'parts' we used a cup measure - one double batch of the above is plenty for a class of thirty or so.

You can add a little lemon juice too, which is supposed to make it stronger but I have never noticed the difference. (I have not done any extensive testing - could be a good investigation for your students!)

Mix it all together to get a soft dough and shape away.

When you are ready, bake in the oven at about 120C / 250F for an hour or two until hard but still white.


  • I find I need to wash my hands every now and then as they get a little salty/ crispy and it becomes harder to work with the dough.

  • Salt dough is not like clay, you don't need to slip and score to join it - in fact, it will go soggy if you wet it, better just to smoosh it together.

  • Don't forget to make a hole for the elastic.

  • Salt dough will not rise or shrink so your baked piece will be the same size as it was before you baked it.

  • Place each pendant on a small piece of baking paper with the artists name on it for easy identification once baked.

Our school always holds a hakari - a feast - to honour Matariki and it made me smile to see many of the children wearing their pendants to the celebration.

Matariki lasts a month, but you could make these pendants and share the stories anytime.

If you do give it a go, please post pictures on my Facebook page.

Happy New Year!

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