The foresight of a teacher, some willing parents and a class of enthusiastic five-year-olds was all it took to transform a small, neglected area of bark and concrete outside a new entrant class at Tahatai Coast School into a unique outdoor learning space with seats, blackboards and an edible garden. The children loved it – choosing to spend time there learning and playing.

More and more schools around New Zealand are taking similar initiatives. Planting native trees, plotting out vegetable gardens, and setting up recycling and composting stations are just some of the ways schools are becoming more sustainable and savvy with their outdoor space.

More schools are incorporating environmental education into their curriculum with the help of not-for-profit programmes such as Treemendous School Makeovers, Garden to Table, and Enviroschools.

Over the past three years, East Tamaki School has participated in the Garden to Table programme and has increased the size of its vegetable gardens. The school’s disused swimming pool was removed and the hole was filled with soil, allowing for large gardens. The students enjoy planting, harvesting, cooking and eating the fruits and vegetables. They willingly give up their lunchtimes to sow seeds, thin out seedlings, weed the vegetable garden or just wander through to see what’s growing.

Similarly, the Treemendous programme works with schools to teach children and the wider community about the importance of the environment.

In 2013 Whangamata Area School won one of four Treemendous makeovers, a joint initiative between Project Crimson and the Mazda Foundation, which sees four schools selected each year to receive a garden makeover using New Zealand native plants. The makeover completely transformed a large, unused area of the school into a space that is now regularly used as an outdoor classroom.

Ian Fulton, teacher at Whangamata Area School says environmental education is really important and they always encourage students to get outdoors and appreciate what Whangamata has to offer them.

“The outdoor space provides teachers and students with an interactive learning area they can use across all subjects. We find if you get the students out from behind their desks and using the outdoor classroom you get a greater level of engagement from the students.”

The garden design was inspired by the local landscape, with all plants sourced from the Whangamata ecological district. A pathway that feels like a walk from the beach and into a coastal forest runs through the garden, inspired by the Whangamata landscape.

A second pathway, shaped as a koru, represents the school’s symbol for new life, growth, strength and peace, and the students’ approach to learning. The makeover also included a nursery for pīngao plants and an outdoor classroom for students to observe the natural environment.

Fulton said he couldn’t be happier with the space.

“Before the makeover it was just a big patch of grass that wasn’t used very often. Way back it was used as a dumping ground for the local council so it never really had a nice vibe to it. Now there are kids out there every day playing and learning. Members of the community, such as the neighbouring kindy and walking clubs, have access to the area too so it’s always busy.”

Fulton said applying for a Treemendous makeover is a great educational experience for the students in itself.

“We made a short film about why our school should receive a makeover and students were involved in the entire process. I guided them and made the occasional suggestion but they did the research, came up with the ideas, directed it, and filmed it.

“It was good film-making experience but it also taught them skills such as project management, using their initiative and really sparked their creativity.”

Applications for 2017 Treemendous makeovers open on 5 May 2016.

Source: Education Review

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