Back to nature – and an authentic local curriculum

Issue: Volume 99, Number 8

Posted: 2 June 2020
Reference #: 1HA7s0

An award-winning outdoor learning area – home to native trees and flaxes, insect hotels, a lizard vivarium and pollinating leaf-cutter bees – is a favourite sixth classroom for a small Southland school and is the focus of a rich local curriculum.

When Southland’s Waihopai River experienced severe flooding last year, there was little flood damage to an area of native riparian trees and plants which has been developed by Woodlands Full Primary School since 2012. 

“All the water drained away within a day – and that was due to the riparian planting,” says Aloma Williams, principal of the school, which is north of Invercargill.

The school won Environment Southland’s Environmental Action in Education award, and the Waihopai River won the Supreme Award in 2019 for the most improved river in the New River Awards. Woodlands School’s riparian plantings were noted as playing a role in the improvement of the river.

The school’s outdoor learning area has become a rich focus for the development of local curriculum and pedagogical shifts to ensure the curriculum is authentic, engaging and inquiry-based. The learning opportunities have been endless, says Aloma.

Authentic learning

“Underpinning everything, is that we are trying to get the children to really connect with their world. In our context, that’s rural Southland and this is a really authentic way of connecting to their world,” explains Aloma.

The first riparian planting of more than 300 plants – mingimingi, toetoe, flaxes, tussocks and pittosporums – was in 2012, when Michael Crean began school. He’s now in Year 8; his passions are farming and the outdoors and he’s an enthusiastic kaitiaki/guardian of the area, along with the rest of his schoolmates.

“The riparian plantings have good shelter, use lots of water and help clean the river,” he explains.

There was a school-wide focus on sustainability in 2019 and two classes explored and investigated pest control with the support of Environment Southland and local experts.

“The first thing we did was find out what was down there,” says Michael.

“We used a tracking tunnel and found there were lots of mice and a mustelid – they are stoats, ferrets or weasels – we still don’t know what it was. We now have two A24s (humane rat and stoat traps) and rat and mice traps and are trying to make it a pest-free zone.”

Inquiry-based learning for all

Aloma, who has previously taught at high school, says she is ‘blown away’ by how quickly very young children can learn and articulate concepts and develop technical vocabulary when working outdoors.

“Last year, the New Entrant class was looking at the sustainability of water and one of the problems was that, apart from the stream, there was no water in the outdoor area to wash your hands, or water plants when it’s dry.

“They looked at where to get the water from and decided they could catch rainwater off the shed roof, so they designed how to do it and worked with local builders to make a water storage tank.

“I had five-year-olds who knew exactly what was happening with condensation and evaporation and that they needed a lid on the tank to stop evaporation,” says Aloma.

Exploring passions

The outdoor area allows children to follow their different passions. In term 4 last year, the school worked with Environment Southland to monitor the stream. They found kōura/freshwater crayfish, eels, tadpoles, whitebait and water boatmen.

Michael enjoyed standing knee-deep in the stream ‘about four times’: “It was fun – I caught a crawlie-kōura!” he says.

Katelyn Shaw is in Year 5 and has created activities for younger children such as scavenger hunts and keys to help identify plants. She loves the trees, plants and pest-control.

“We made a lizard mountain [vivarium] for two lizards a teacher rescued from a cat. We built insect hotels and put pine cones and mulch in there for them,” she says.

Engaging boys in education

The project was initially motivated and driven by teacher Heidi Wilcox, who was looking for a way to engage outdoorsy rural boys in schoolwork – particularly writing, says Aloma.

“The outdoor learning area has 100 per cent been a great way of improving their reading, writing and learning skills. Last year I took a group of boys for writing and it became easy. We hopped down there; in the distance, there’s an old flax mill, so we wrote ghost stories.

“We’re talking about active, energetic kids who can’t sit still in the classroom and we sat down there and relaxed and wrote fiction,” explains Aloma.

Pedagogical shift

The outdoor classroom has become a driver for Woodlands School’s local curriculum and has changed the teaching pedagogy towards inquiry-based learning.

“The biggest shift is for teachers to understand they don’t have to know everything. They are learning alongside the students, teaching children how to be risk takers in their learning and facilitating opportunities for them to learn to ask the right questions and then go and find out the information.

“We have lots of questions on the walls of our classrooms – and five-year-olds ask a million questions a day. The teacher might say: ‘I don’t know either, so how can we find out?’”

Kaitiaki for the future

The outdoor area – about half an acre provided for the school’s use by the Waihopai Pastoral Trust – has evolved over the years and is a rich resource for inquiry and problem solving. The $1,000 prize money from last year’s Environment Southland award was used to buy 125 canopy trees – miro, rata and rimu. There was one tree for each of the school’s teachers, 100 students and tamariki from the local kindergarten to plant.

“It’s so rich and so real. When we talk about a modern learning environment, I think ‘this is it!’ It’s the children’s favourite classroom – we never hear complaints. When they are told they are going there, they are full of questions straight away – and wanting to check things.

“Ultimately we want them to learn to be kaitiaki of the environment and understand their responsibilities within that role. I think we are doing that,” says Aloma.

Watch Michael and his sister Melissa talk about the Woodlands outdoor learning(external link) area.   

Environment Southland award(external link)  

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 8:26 am, 2 June 2020

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