Bear Park pre-school, infant and toddler centre officially opened in Hobsonville Point’s historic Mill House in July, to universal acclaim. It’s easy to see why. Founder Sue Stevely-Cole certainly knows what she’s doing when it comes to designing and running early childhood education centres.

Sue opened the first Bear Park in 1986 in St Heliers. Mill House in Hobsonville Point is the 10th Bear Park to open in Auckland, with one other centre down south in St Clair, Dunedin. In 1996, Sue read ‘The Hundred Languages of Children’ which introduced her to the Italian ‘Reggio Emilia’ educational approach. Sue was enormously inspired by the philosophy, and in 1997, she joined a group of American teachers who were visiting the Italian town for a week as part of an international study tour.

“What initially grabbed my attention was the way the teachers viewed children – they truly and authentically valued them for who they were and for the richness of potential that every child has within them,” says Sue. “The values of the Reggio Approach align beautifully with the NZ early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki and my findings in Reggio Emilia helped me understand this more deeply. It has provided me with a lifelong journey of learning and research which I have enjoyed immensely – and still do!”

The four basic principles of the Reggio Emilia Approach at Bear Park are that a child has the right to be actively involved in initiating their own learning; that the environment of the school is significant in terms of what’s available to express themselves (for example clay, design, construction, drama and a multitude of other expressive languages); that the parents or caregivers are contributing participants in a child’s learning as well as the teacher; and that the child’s learning journey is documented in a journal and celebrates the child’s progress within the collaborative educational environment of Bear Park.

Sue is passionate about the high quality of the Bear Park experience. “For all of us here, ‘quality’ refers to our highly skilled teachers, our innovative and thought-provoking environments, respectful relationships with children and their families, and a programme that fully values each child’s individuality and self-worth. All these aspects offer children endless possibilities to grow into competent learners and strong researchers, confident and ready for primary school when the time comes.” Teacher-child ratios at Bear Park that surpass national standards as well as staff that are well supported and highly valued also play a part, no doubt.

Mill House in Hobsonville Point is the perfect place to realise Sue’s vision. Designed by architect George Tole in the early 1930s, it was home to Royal New Zealand Air Force trainees, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and nurses. An enormous old Moreton Bay fig tree and the beautiful façade of this historic home are equally impressive on arrival. Inside is a cosy domestic scenario full of purpose-designed wooden furniture where children can play and learn. Outside are wide views across the upper reaches of the Waitemata Harbour and a spacious natural environment that needed very little to embellish it, according to Sue.

There are currently some places open at Bear Park but they are filling rapidly now that it’s open. Contact Centre Director Katie Hoppe at or call to arrange a visit on 09 416 1655.