A consistent response to my inquiries about teaching sustainability in New Zealand is, “Do you know about EnviroSchools?” The Enviroschools program is a nationwide sustainability education effort launched in 2001, funded by the NZ Ministry for the Environment’s Sustainable Management Fund. Participation by schools has grown steadily, now includes one third of all NZ schools, and represents all income brackets. In many ways the EnviroSchools program resembles the various Green Schools networks that exist in the US, especially in efforts to integrate widespread community awareness and involvement with the work of the schools.
I will be delving deeper into the EnviroSchools model in future posts. Today I want to highlight its focus on puna mātauranga, or the collective pool of environmental knowledge that I was invited to witness and join with Otari School yesterday. Each EnviroSchool has a student team that works with lead teachers to investigate and help promote sustainable activities at the school. Several of these teams were invited by a regional EnviroSchools facilitator to participate in a day of activities at Otari-Wilton’s Bush, a native plant sanctuary. The team from neighboring Otari School had students ranging from 10-13 years old, and they were divided and mixed in with younger children, some of whom had barely turned 5. Throughout the day, children were encouraged to collaborate in these mixed-age groups, with older children assisting the younger ones with recording data, using tools, and getting up steep trails.
Seed study started off the morning, with the facilitator leading the group through plant collections featuring different seed dispersal methods.
We ended up beneath a kowhai tree (Sophora sp.), described as New Zealand’s unofficial national flower for its beauty and prevalence in the landscape. The kowhai had dropped a profusion of seeds from its pods, so the kids hunted and collected these, then sanded off a bit of the hard seed coat and planted them in soil to take back to school. Along the way, the facilitator demonstrated some other plants’ characteristics and traditional uses.
Our next stop was the fernery, where the facilitator described some unique traits of non-flowering plants, introduced a few of the most prevalent fern species, and asked the students to do a series of sketches that would be used as the basis for a carved wooden entry arch to the fernery.
While most of the older trees around Wellington were logged in the early 1900’s, Otari-Wilton’s Bush contains two ancient rimu trees (Dacrydium cupressinum) estimated at 800+ years. We walked up to see these, pausing along the way to catch our breath and hear Māori tales of traditional healing plants. The rimu trees stretched so far above the canopy that it was impossible to see their tops, but we could see the massive lower branches loaded with epiphyte gardens.
Our final activity was a study of the Te Mahanga stream’s health. Water from this stream has passed through a number of dams and farmed areas prior to reaching Otari-Wilton’s Bush. Students worked in teams to visit stations to assess water quality: macroinvertebrate diversity, water temperature and clarity, and human impacts.
At the end of this very full day, we all gathered for farewells and final instructions. “Now that you have this knowledge,” the leaders reminded us, “you must take action to share it with others.” We discussed scenarios for how to accomplish this (the 5-year olds insisting that they would be in charge of teaching everyone about hellgrammites), and they headed back to school, with trees to grow and knowledge to share.
What struck me most about this day was the very intentional ripple effect that was designed into it. An EnviroSchools facilitator sets this in motion by coordinating a day of active learning between a community resource partner and a set of schools. The students, teachers, and parents who attend the event continue the outward current into schools and local communities. I believe there is more than a passing chance that, having had this opportunity for environmental learning in a public place like Otari-Wilton’s Bush, those who were directly taught will bring others back into the Bush to share their knowledge – a model of learning that is in itself sustainable.