Toimata: Two decades of education for sustainability

Issue: Volume 101, Number 11

Posted: 31 August 2022
Reference #: 1HAVsd

We’re celebrating the nearly 1,500 early learning centres, schools, kura, and communities involved in Enviroschools and Te Aho Tū Roa, many of which have been on sustainability journeys for several years.
An Education Gazette reporter shares her own memories, and dives into the impressive history of positive change. 

Cromwell Primary School students in Otago put in a huge effort planting over 200 trees at Lake Dunstan.

Cromwell Primary School students in Otago put in a huge effort planting over 200 trees at Lake Dunstan.

Almost a decade ago, when I was 10 years old, I remember helping set up my primary school’s first edible vegetable garden. 

Butterflies flitting in between towering tomato plants. My friends and I chomping on mint leaves and giggling about smelly breath. Taking home the fruits of our hard work spent digging under the sun – carrots, cabbage, potatoes. 

These are my first memories of the nationwide sustainability programme Enviroschools, which has been running for more than 20 years.

Our world is standing on the edge of a cliff – global environmental and social issues are escalating and reaching a critical no-turning-back-from point. It will be the tamariki and rangatahi of today and the future who will have to face these challenges.

But Enviroschools national manager Esther Kirk believes a movement of positive change is also escalating.

“There’s a groundswell of people who are moving from unsustainable, disconnected ways of being, to ones that are healthy, equitable and sustaining for all,” she says. 

The groundwork

Enviroschools aims to empower young people with tools to design and lead their own sustainability projects in their schools and wider communities. 

Esther says they want to support tamariki and rangatahi to be a part of the solution to a wide range of environmental issues, including climate change.

A seed was planted in 1993 in Waikato and by 2001, the Enviroschools programme became available nationwide. Since then, more than 80 percent of local government has invested in Enviroschools, a key milestone achieved since the programme’s inception. Now 120 facilitators work with teachers and communities to support holistic learning and action for a sustainable future.

Enviroschools is guided and supported by Toimata Foundation. Toimata, working in partnership with Te Mauri Tau, also holds Te Aho Tū Roa, a kaupapa Māori programme that works in te reo with kōhanga/puna reo, kura, wharekura, marae and hapori/communities.  

Central government funding through the Ministry for the Environment, and a large network of more than 150 regional partners, enables the reach of Enviroschools and Te Aho Tū Roa. 

Toimata Foundation chief executive Heidi Mardon says there are numerous individuals and organisations actively working to help make a more sustainable world.

“The challenge for us is to harness the awareness, experiences, development and energy that has built in our networks over the last 20 years and maximise it for the coming decades,” she says.

Esther believes the mahi undertaken by the networks helps to address the root causes of climate change and other environmental issues facing us today.

“We focus on positive solutions and approaches that connect people to te taiao and encourage action,” she says.  

Community action

Early learning centres and schools work towards long-term sustainability within their communities. Students learn further skills, which they are encouraged to take out and put into practice in their own neighbourhoods and homes. 

There are more than 1,400 Enviroschools across the country, made up of 400 early learning centres, 800 primary and intermediate schools and around 200 secondary and composite schools.

In percentage terms, 43 percent of all primary and intermediate schools in New Zealand are involved and 33 percent of all secondary schools.

The kaupapa is about creating a healthy, peaceful, sustainable world through learning and taking action together. It’s all about a community working towards the creation of a resilient, healthy future for everyone.

“In the last two decades both Te Aho Tū Roa and Enviroschools have gone from small-scale initiatives into a nationwide network involving hundreds of thousands of people of all ages,” says Esther.

“Each year the network undertakes thousands of projects covering all aspects of sustainability and we mihi to our regional coordinators and facilitators, poutautoko, kaiako and teaching teams who are working hard to effect change.”

Numerous projects have developed over the years.

Enviroschools has been working with schools in Otago to help them transition to sustainable energy sources for heating, which can be a complex process. Currently half of Otago schools still use coal as their energy source.

The Northland Kindergarten Association, working within the Enviroschools framework, has committed to sustainable energy options, such as installing solar panels.

By March 2020, 17 kindergartens were using solar panels and in one year, their electricity bills had dropped by $10,000 from the previous year.

Enviroschools and Te Aho Tū Roa provide frameworks for learning and action founded in the idea of a whole school and community approach, with each participant’s journey being unique.

Heidi says when students feel empowered, they also feel more motivated and capable to participate in other sustainable practices in their homes and wider community.

Students from Palmerston North Girls’ High School working on their food gardens.

Students from Palmerston North Girls’ High School working on their food gardens.

Inclusive and holistic

The frameworks do not discriminate against your age, your ethnicity, your language or the way you learn. Diversity is nurtured and even more so, it’s encouraged.

“This is one of the exciting things about the kaupapa – people bringing together their diverse perspectives to create collaborative solutions. We see kaumātua, pakeke, kaiako, rangatahi and tamariki around the country with different ideas, passions and visions for the future,” says Esther.

“The challenges in each region and whaitua present opportunities for creativity and different solutions. Diversity is what creates richness, and resilience.” 

Esther believes children and young people have unique perspectives which should be listened to and considered as real solutions.

The programmes are holistic and long-term. Esther explains that encouraging sustainable practices involves addressing interconnected issues. 

“The holistic and systemic approach of Toimata is helping learners to look at root causes and root solutions,” she says. 

They are also heart-centred and nurture the creation of strong connections. This is a network committed to making large-scale and enduring change.

Esther says a strong connection to te taiao lies at the heart of learning for all ages taking part in Enviroschools. 

Toimata works to encourage a culture of care and manaaki, meaning people feel supported while they grow through the programme. 

“Empowerment of young people and communities is one key to integrating actions and practices into everyday life,” she says.

“The complex environmental, social, cultural and economic challenges facing us today call for a collaborative response.

“We mihi to hundreds of schools and centres, and our partners who have woven their contributions over 20 years into the vibrant and resilient support model we now have.”

 Noho Taiao o Te Rarawa is a partnership event run by Te Rarawa Anga Mua, Te Aho Tū Roa and other local community groups.

Noho Taiao o Te Rarawa is a partnership event run by Te Rarawa Anga Mua, Te Aho Tū Roa and other local community groups.

Mātauranga Māori

Enviroschools works to develop sustainable concepts embracing New Zealand’s sense of place and its unique heritage, and Esther says participants are encouraged to explore local Māori knowledge.

Wellington East Girls’ College teacher Katherine Haines challenged her students in 2020 to think holistically about the ecological design of buildings, incorporating mātauranga Māori and ideas such as kaitiakitanga and manaakitanga. They demonstrated their knowledge through designing a community centre.

The school has further designed a Year 11 science course that focuses on Māori and Pacific knowledge, and links physics, chemistry, biology and earth sciences to navigation, volcanic studies and climate change.

“Since its inception, Enviroschools has emphasised the importance of understanding that Māori perspectives and knowledge of the environment offer insights unique to the culture with the longest history of human interaction within this country,” Heidi says.

“Including a Māori world view enriches the learning process and honours the indigenous people of this land.” 

Te reo Māori support

Te Aho Tū Roa offers kaiako quality resources, events, project opportunities, professional development and kanohi ki te kanohi support for Māori-immersion environments. It aims to engage a creative, intergenerational network inspired and supported to connect “people to people, people to place” by weaving current actions with ancestral knowledge and practices.

Around 200 Māori collaborators are linked to the network, with Te Aho Tū Roa engaging with kōhanga and puna reo, kura, wharekura and also working with people in hapori (community) settings, on marae, and with iwi.

Noho Taiao events, held in collaboration with iwi are a feature of the approach to reconnecting rangatahi with te taiao. These multiday experiences weave together science and mātauranga Māori as young people with a whakapapa connection to an area explore its special places and hear kōrero o nehe (local traditional stories).  

One Te Aho Tū Roa participant says, “We have been humbled by the teachings and oral traditions that have been maintained and transmitted through the generations.”

For kaiako feeling inspired to take sustainable action in their own lives, Esther recommends the first step is taking care of your own hauora.

“Hold space for yourself; space to connect with te taiao on a regular basis and breathe,” she says. “Then you can help others to connect, observe, learn, care and take action.”  

Being an Enviroschool

Being an Enviroschool is a journey, says national manager Esther Kirk. 

“Any journey towards sustainability involves a series of small steps that all add up to important changes.”

Enviroschool journeys start from early learning.

Enviroschool journeys start from early learning.

Enviroschools recommend first connecting to the history of your place, exploring the current situation, then creating a vision.

A vision can then lead to taking action on issues that are locally relevant, and ones students are passionate about.

“Reflecting on any action is important – be open to learn from things that don’t quite go to plan, and always celebrate the process,” says Esther.

Examples of projects include:

  • Connecting with te taiao
  • Connecting with local iwi/hapū and their stories
  • Supporting local iwi/hapū with their projects
  • Rethinking waste
  • Restoring a local waterway or sand dune
  • Growing (and eating) healthy kai
  • Improving biodiversity on school grounds
  • Creating an active transport to and from school plan
  • Transitioning to more sustainable energy sources for heating  
  • Supporting a local community garden
  • Building a pātaka kai.

Resources and support

Education Gazette series on sustainability and climate resilience(external link).

For more information about Toimata Foundation, including Enviroschools and Te Aho Tū Roa, visit link)

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:38 am, 31 August 2022

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