Be The Chanage
Be The Change visits a school in Port Chalmers.
By Francisca Galvez

The issues of sustainability and environmental protection have been gaining greater worldwide attention from the 1990s. New Zealand has acquired a reputation around the globe since then, being perceived as clean and green by other countries.

Even though in many ways this is not so true, we have produced some really good initiatives that worth celebration and imitation by others in the world community. One of those good clean and green ideas is the concept of Enviroschools.

Inspired by the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, better known as “the Earth Summit”, the Hamilton City Council (HCC) came up with a basic pilot program aimed at introducing the idea of sustainability to school kids. In 1993 the program was trailed in three local schools and it was such a success that a few years later the HCC employed sustainable architect Heidi Mardon to direct the initiative and help it grow. The HCC then partnered with other councils and environmental groups and in 2001 “Enviroschools” was launched.

It has since been extended into schools across New Zealand and it is now a well-respected program run by the Enviroschools Foundation. More than 20% of New Zealand’s schools participate in the program including a diverse range -from deciles 1 to 10, rural and urban, and even some early childhood centres.

How does it work - putting it into action

It starts with each participating school forming an “Envirogroup” of interested students and facilitators who first identify locally relevant projects they can work on. Then the “action learning cycle” begins, in which they identify the situation, explore alternatives, take action and reflect on change.

The students lead their own projects, which can be very varied, depending on their own interest -from science, to technology and social studies. Some examples of projects different schools have worked on involve ecological retrofitting of classrooms, growing vegetable gardens, constructing an environmental trail, recycling, planting of native bush and restoring riverbeds.

The idea is to get children involved in decision-making and action taking in their own environment. “Enviroschools is about young people exploring and connecting with their environment, empowering them to live sustainably”, says Heidi Mardon.

The whole school environment becomes a learning resource in which students develop skills, understanding, knowledge and confidence through planning, designing and creating sustainable school and community projects.

Another good thing is that New Zealand education system has just introduced a flexible curriculum so schools have the option of applying a whole range of cutting edge initiatives to give kids different approaches to learning. “Approaches that are about emerging knowledge through experience rather than being taught from a textbook, giving students the opportunity to discover problems, construct solutions and nurture projects”, explains Mardon.

Multi benefits

Action projects undertaken by Enviroschools have positive impacts firstly and obviously on the environment, by reducing waste and energy consumption, enhancing biodiversity and promoting healthy waterways, for instance. But also and very importantly, the program has educational outcomes that benefit the school and the wider community.

It changes the way children think and learn, resulting in long-term behaviour change. One of the benefits it has brought about is better social conditions in schools, with many reporting reduced bullying and vandalism, and increased student motivation. “Because the students have a say in what is most meaningful to them, they are obviously going to be more inspired to learn”, says Mardon.

Enviroschools is not just about planting trees. It takes a holistic approach to environmental education, helping develop generations of innovative and motivated young people that think and act sustainably, with a greater understanding of the inter-relatedness between all living things and a concern for the particular place we live in.

In times of environment crisis, this is exactly what the Earth needs, new approaches and new people that understand their relationship with nature and care about it. It is a great thing these schools are doing. Because these kids are the humans of the future and they are on to it, so it’s great that they are giving them a chance to express their concern and creativeness. Hopefully the project will keep growing to take in all of the schools in New Zealand and similar initiatives develop worldwide.