Reframing learning in Ōtaki College maara

Issue: Volume 101, Number 1

Posted: 2 February 2022
Reference #: 1HASbQ

Ōtaki has long been a fertile market gardening area, with Ngāti Raukawa trading vegetables with early missionaries, and later, Chinese market gardeners tilling the fertile soils.
Now Ōtaki College is reinvigorating its school garden and plans for its use are burgeoning.

Mike spends one-to-one time in the maara with Year 10 student, Devon.

Mike spends one-to-one time in the maara with Year 10 student, Devon.

When learning support coordinator Kate Lindsay first discovered the overgrown quarter acre orchard and garden at Ōtaki College it was “crazy, weeds everywhere, overgrown, quite marvellous really. I thought ‘wow! here’s the magic’,” she recalls.

The revamped garden has been a work in progress for more than a year, with volunteers spending many hours to develop the maara kai into an inviting and calming open space for rangatahi, staff and the community.

Early in 2021, Kate went to a hui about food security for the Kāpiti District Council, where she met foraging and gardening guru, Mike King.

The rest is history. For the past three months, 20 hours a week, Mike has been helping to knock the garden into shape, as well as doing one-to-one mentoring with ākonga at the Year 7–13 school north of Wellington.

The Ōtaki College garden has been renamed Aho Aho, a name gifted by Rupene Waaka to acknowledge Kīngi Te Aho Aho (a signatory of Te Tiriti o Waitangi), to whom Ngāti Toa allocated the land on which the maara kai sits.

Aho Aho will be used for educational and therapeutic purposes and to connect with the local community.

Magic happens

There’s a sense of calm in Aho Aho, which has vegetable seedlings and plants, mature fruit trees (fig, pear, citrus and feijoa) and bamboo structures made by a science class exploring sustainable building methods. There’s a large tunnel house complete with an old-fashioned blackboard strung from chains, tables made from plywood and tree stumps for seats.

Kate says she works with students who are disengaged in the classroom and often exhibiting negative behaviours. She first decided to try out the magic of the garden with a student who spent much of her time indoors looking at a screen.

“I thought, ‘I’m just going to take her into the garden to see what happens’. It was really hard getting her there, but I got her through the gates and within 10 steps she started to change and by the time she was deeper in the garden she was saying ‘I’m a princess and this is my castle...’ She literally transformed before my eyes – and that’s how it all started,” laughs Kate.

“Being in the maara transforms students from a state of hypervigilance to a state of peace and receptivity. The calming maara environment allows the brain to become more open to listening and learning and discovering a new way of being,” she adds.

Sparking an interest

A calming space: Kate, Mike and Jayden catch up in the Ōtaki College maara.

A calming space: Kate, Mike and Jayden catch up in the Ōtaki College maara.

Mike King is a qualified arborist, landscape gardener and a passionate forager. While he’s been brought on board to help make the school’s vision a reality, he also has a willing band of helpers.

“The guys who come out to me are generally boys who just can’t sit still in the classroom – that was me too, so I can relate to them. I do hear stories about how they act up in class, but when they come out here, there are no problems because it’s just one on one and there’s no one to play up to.

“They will be learning more about plants. So far, they have been helping me renovate which includes painting and construction skills; but my personal mantra is more about sparking an interest in nature,” he says.

Year 7 student Jayden was helping Mike when Education Gazette visited. As we talked, he munched on some freshly picked raw broad beans and commented: “Mmm, these are nice, I’ve never tasted them before. I’m going to take some home, maybe cook them, add some to my dinner.”

Aho Aho is clearly his happy place.

“I help Mike with watering, painting, getting the soil done, I plate-compacted all the gravel. I’m a gaming kid, but I like gardening and being outside,” says Jayden.

“It helps me get more active and not confined in my classroom – it’s good for me too. The classroom is fun but a bit distracting because I have ADHD and I get distracted easily. But when I come out here, I’m just my normal self, not worrying about being in the classroom and that.”

Community connections

The Kāpiti Coast District Council got the ball rolling by giving Ōtaki College $15,000 towards the start-up costs of the long-term project.

The college has recently received nearly $40,000 in funding from the New Zealand Communities Trust, which pays for Mike’s salary and repairs to the substantial tunnel house, compost and tools.

The tunnel house can be used as a classroom, as well as a space to raise plants.

The tunnel house can be used as a classroom, as well as a space to raise plants.

Local businesses and groups have donated materials and services, but more fundraising will be required to keep the momentum going.

A recent kōrero with the Māori Land Charitable Trust may source additional funding to employ a fluent te reo Māori-speaking youth worker to work alongside Mike.

Kate and Mike both see Aho Aho as a way for the school to connect with the community. The ideas are endless: whether it’s a subscription model where people receive a percentage of the harvest, growing gourmet salad mixes, opening the garden to the community on Saturday mornings, or making and marketing a spice from the kawakawa trees on the fringes of the garden – possibly culminating in a kawakawa festival.

The original vision was three-pronged – education, therapy and service, explains Kate.

The service aspect involves rangatahi giving back and sharing what they have learned in the garden.

“The idea is that they go out in the community and connect with the elderly and fix up their gardens, all the while hearing their stories so that rangatahi are giving, but also learning,” she says.

Outside classroom walls

As well as being a space for neurodiverse learners, Kate would like to see all the school’s teachers finding unique and creative ways to use Aho Aho.

“I see the maara kai as offering a little more movement, flow and thinking outside the walls of the classroom. What’s great for neurodiverse students is great for everyone. I would love all the teachers to see this as an extension of their classroom – it’s already starting to happen,” says Kate.

Megan Nelson-Latu is curriculum lead of Year 7 and 8 and her class was to be found in Aho Aho every Tuesday afternoon last year.

“The ākonga have been working with Mike on a range of tasks – making compost, doing some of the soil testing, planting out some of the garden beds, weeding and planting out seedlings,” she says.

Megan was motivated to move outdoors as she found many students were quite hyped up after a Tuesday morning doing options and PE. This was quite stressful for the more anxious students in the class – and Megan.

“It’s a beautiful environment out there. Initially there was a bit of resistance from some of the kids, but actually when we get out there and they get involved, some of the biggest resistors end up doing the most work because they get so engrossed in it and want to see it finished and feel a sense of achievement.

“It’s been fantastic from that perspective, really calming, giving them a focus for the afternoon and giving me the opportunity to pull a few kids aside one on one and touch base if they need it,” she explains.


Kaitiakitanga and maanakitanga

Megan’s ākonga took part in Engineering New Zealand’s Plant Challenge last year, where they learned about optimal growing conditions while growing microgreens. This tied in well with their mahi in the maara.

“It is science out there. Mike has done a lot of talking about growing things – they’re being immersed in it. And now they are seeing some of the things that they planted as seedlings being transplanted into the beds. Then they’ve been able to use some of those in cooking because they’re doing home economics as one of their rotations.”

 The class also learned about kaitiakitanga, learning to respect and look after the environment. Megan says this gave students the opportunity for leadership in a different capacity and resulted in improved behaviour.

“A couple of my students were being mentored by Mike. When the class went into the garden, they were leading by example and the other kids responded to that. It’s giving some ownership and some leadership opportunities so they can go out there now and work alongside people and show them how to do something,” says Megan.


In 2022, Megan wants to develop how she uses the maara across the whole Year 7 and 8 department.

“I think there’s a lot of potential for classes to go out there and have a project to work on, whether it’s their allocated garden boxes or to use it in other ways because it’s quite a calming space. We’ve sat there and done writing. There’s plenty of space to spread out and just enjoy some peaceful, quiet time. It’s giving kids space to be mindful and just breathe.

“There’s so much anxiety in the current environment – I think helping to reduce anxiety levels for students in any way we possibly can is a good thing,” concludes Megan.

Year 8 student Karson thinks it’s all right in the tunnel house.

Year 8 student Karson thinks it’s all right in the tunnel house.

Aho Aho goals in 2022 and beyond

Continue to transform the maara into a healing environment that will act as a catalyst for change for rangatahi.

Bring the community together and provide spaces within the maara that will attract kaumātua and create connection – using restoration planting and food resilience as the point of connection.

Organise instructive and proactive sessions and events, that are both classroom and community led

Develop young people’s skills in tikanga Māori and mātauranga Māori, horticulture and sustainability.

Continue to develop a space in which students can learn from kaumātua and then be of service to others.

Increase the wellbeing and boost the immune systems of at-risk rangatahi, elderly, and all the people in between. 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:35 am, 2 February 2022

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