As you enter the Ako School in Auckland, the message on the front door immediately hits you: “Everyone is a learner and everyone is a teacher.”

Ako (pronounced Ah-kor) doesn’t follow the traditional parameters of a primary school, nor does it establish a strict relationship between teacher and pupil.  Founded in February 2018, Ako’s flexible and adaptable programme is play-based and child-led with an accent on outdoors activity and exploration. 

“We believe children learn best through play – they express themselves, process new topics and ideas, and form relationships,” says director Sabrina Nagel. “They are instinctual learners and we are creating environments which inspire exploration, discovery, exuberance and support each child’s confident pursuit of their interests, ideas and projects.”

Nagel says Ako’s philosophy is based on leading-edge research on brain development, creativity, child psychology and parenting. “There’s a big focus in New Zealand on academic skills and pushing children into reading and writing at an early age. Research has shown that this approach does not advantage children up to seven or eight years.

“Let the children play and follow their interests. Let the brain develop with creativity, problem solving and communication and this forms a strong foundation to take on academic learning.’’

Ako School Sabrina Nagel
Sabrina Nagel wanted to create alternative schooling for her twin daughters, Luca and Phoenix.

Communities of learners

Instead of timetabling classes, Ako develops communities of learners which involve parents, wider family and its educators sharing skills and playing an active part in a child’s learning.   

“Our space does not impose adult educational expectations on our children or to demand that they acquire skills at a certain rate – every child can develop and learn at their own pace,” says Sabrina.  

“We focus on developing personal, social and emotional life skills – and this allows children to develop all facets of their personality, body, mind, emotions and spirit. The environment we foster provides opportunities for all subjects such as literacy, numeracy, science and arts to naturally occur during the activities.’’  

The programme is based on the New Zealand Cirriculum and the principles of Te Whariki with its focus on supporting children to develop the capabilities they need as confident and competent learners. Ako’s values are Takaro (play), Manawareka (curiosity), Auahatanga (creativity), Whanaungatanga (community), Whakaute (respect) and Whare Tapa Wha (seeing the whole child holistically – we learn with our hands, head and heat).  

We focus on developing personal, social and emotional life skills – and this allows children to develop all facets of their personality, body, mind, emotions and spirit.”

Sabrina Nagel, Director of Ako

Finding alternative schooling

Sabrina, who has two young twin daughters, started planning the Ako private school after she “couldn’t find any alternative that matched the research” she had read and studied. She met educator Kate Webber at an Auckland Startup Weekend, administrator Bronwyne Bayne at Play and Learn Nature Kindergarten and educator Claudia Gray through a nonviolent communication course.  

Together they opened Ako at the Awataha Marae in Northcote, leasing one of the three classrooms. Inside the classroom there is an area for reading, building objects and completing science tests. Outside is a worm farm, woodworking area, vegetable garden and soccer pitch. The classroom is a safe, five-minute walk to Onewa Reserve and Smiths Bush for exploring and playing in nature.  

Ako’s first intake was 14 children ranging in ages from five to 13, with the majority being new entrants of five and six-year-olds. Ako operates a sliding scale fee structure so parents pay in relationship to their household income, and it hopes to offer scholarships next year.   

Ako is aiming to raise between $35,000 and $50,000 in a five-week crowdfunding campaign on Pledge Me. “It will allow us to pay back some of the loans and get onto a sustainable track,” says Sabrina. “We would like to lease more space at the marae and increase the number of children – and hopefully we can attract some government funding next year.”

Ako School founders
Ako founders from left, Bronwyne Bayne, Kate Webber, Claudia Gray and Sabrina Nagel.

How ATEED helped

Sabrina has always had a strong entrepreneurial spirit. She is the lead facilitator for Auckland University of Technology’s CO.STARTERS nine-week programme and was the Project Coordinator for The Handley Foundation.   

She was also the Marketing and Communications Specialist at Massey University’s ecentre on the Albany campus. While working there, Sabrina met, a business and innovation advisor with Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED).  

“ATEED connected me with like-minded people who were able to provide valuable insights,’’ says Sabrina. “Having an advocate like ATEED made it a lot easier and I would keep them up to date with developments.’”  

ATEED suggested she talk with the group who set up the Waiheke Island Steiner School. ``It was important to link in with them and see what path they were going down and what challenges they faced.   

``For me, the role of ATEED in making connections was so important – this is something that is often under-valued,’’ says Sabrina.  As I leave the Ako School I close the front door and read the remainder of the message: “When you walk through this door you have a right to play and learn, be cared for, belong here, be heard, make choices, take risks and explore. Your responsibility is to help others get these things too.”  

At a glance

Ako’s business: A private school that is play-based and child-led with an accent on outdoors activity and exploration.   

Location: Northcote, Auckland  

Export markets: None  

ATEED assisted by: Making connections and providing advice  


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