Te Kōhanga Reo was begun in 1981 by the Department of Māori Affairs in response to Māori concern to ensure the continuing survival of the Mäori language.
The first Kōhanga Reo, Pukeatua, was opened in 1982 (near Wellington). From 1982 to 1989 Kōhanga Reo flourished in an environment of excitement and celebration. One hundred Kōhanga Reo were established in 1982 and growth continued until 1994 when there were 800 Kōhanga Reo catering for 14,000 mokopuna. Kōhanga Reo were virtually springing forth all over the country and with very little financial assistance from government.
However, in 1990 the responsibility for Kōhanga Reo was transferred from the Department of Māori Affairs to the Ministry of Education. The move of the Kōhanga Reo operations from the Department of Maori Affairs to the newly formed Ministry of Education put greater emphasis on more regulatory controls for Kōhanga Reo. This change had huge implications at the grass root level.
Kōhanga Reo had to come to terms with the regulatory environment and compliances of the early childhood sector and a mainstream department, whilst maintaining the unique kaupapa of the Kōhanga Reo movement. Such a system of measurement often came at a heavy cost to our kaupapa.
Despite this the Kōhanga Reo movement continued to grow in answer to the desperate cry from kaumātua (elders), parents and rangatahi (the young) to save the Māori language from disappearing. The hearts of the people were captured and under the guidance of kaumātua throughout the country the movement flourished.
The language still has a fragile hold in Māori society as a whole, but every year now there are several thousand young children entering the education system already fluent in the language and tikanga (customs) of their ancestors.
This remarkable turnaround was not an accident but the result of a deliberate decision in Māoridom to keep the language alive. These mokopuna (grandchildren), and there are now something like 60,000, are the young "graduates" of the Kōhanga Reo movement.
Te Kōhanga Reo without question has flourished on the realisation that all members of the whānau are extremely significant and valuable in the lives of the mokopuna. They provide a climate that is caring, joyful and secure where the mokopuna learn their language and values. This results in children and whānau who are more confident and proud.
Since its inception the Kōhanga Reo movement has been hailed as one of the most exciting and powerful national initiatives undertaken by Māori people. It has had an impact on New Zealanders, on the government of this country and indeed on the international scene. This success is due to belief in the kaupapa, the unconditional commitment required of the people and the knowledge that 'the child shall lead the way'.