Notes from New Zealand: ‘Learning with the Pulse of the Planet’

April 09, 2014 | Written By:

More on a great school in New Zealand with a focus on student wellness.

Tara Kennon served as HSC’s communications manager before moving about a year ago to New Zealand’s Coromandel peninsula, where she is has focused on projects to promote travel in this region. Now, she’s reporting back to us on a few of her observations related to school wellness. Today, we’re sharing her second post about a school in her community. The first post is here.

Recently, I shared my experience visiting the beachfront Te Puru School and what I learned about the school’s approach to physical activity and environmental learning. I had so much to say about the wellness experience at Te Puru that now I’m here to share more, this time focused on what students learn about food and how teachers’ and school leaders’ approach to education makes this all work.


Food education

This environmental learning and physical activity [link] at Te Puru seem to blend naturally into food education. When a class catches a fish, they grill it simply on the school barbecue. Teachers are engaging students in gradually expanding a schoolyard garden with the goal of growing enough vegetables not only for students to taste but also to give to elderly community members who can no longer tend their own gardens. During recess, I saw students checking on the broccoli and watering flowers.

The garden brings value beyond learning how plants grow, said teacher and team leader Jayne Bolsover. “We’re teaching kids to support and sustain themselves in a healthy and inexpensive way,” she said.

Freedom and flexibility

When I visited the school, I was struck by one more element that I hadn’t anticipated: a sense of freedom and flexibility for both students and teachers that seems to support these other wellness initiatives. Assistant Principal Anne Kershaw, who has worked at the school for more than two decades, said this freedom, combined with a strong community spirit, helps make the school what it is.

“It makes kids feel safe, secure and healthy,” she said.

Teachers follow a national curriculum that is flexible enough to allow time to get out and focus on hands-on learning. The school’s educational approach includes a focus on virtues such as respect and responsibility that naturally complement wellness and environmental learning.

When I visited at recess, I observed the school’s students — nearly 200 of them — running and playing in a range of spaces spread out over the school grounds. One teacher on duty circled through the different areas to keep an eye on students but couldn’t possibly see them all at once. The children seemed fully engaged in actively playing: they ran around the pirate ship, climbed trees, swung from monkey bars, caught butterflies, watered the garden, or organized themselves into teams for rugby or netball. For a little while, two little girls found a quiet spot near the beach to chat and giggle before going back to play.

Bolsover, who was on duty to supervise the students that day, said she almost never has discipline problems and rarely asks students to change their behavior. That day, she asked one student who had nearly reached the top of a huge tree to climb down a little lower.

When I first saw the school, I remember joking to a friend that it might not be a good idea to spend your childhood on such an idyllic beachfront — because wouldn’t the rest of the world seem kind of rough after that?

School leaders have actually pondered a serious version of that question, they told me, and the freedom I saw students experiencing at recess is part of a strategy to prepare them to succeed when they leave this supportive and scenic place.

Principal Mike Friis told me that teachers and school leaders strive to impart students with a sense of bravery, responsibility and a “risk-taking Kiwi spirit,” and create opportunities for students to build self-confidence. This might mean taking on experiences such as kayaking or competing in multi-sport events that are challenging at first. I realized it might also mean climbing a big tree and then figuring out how to get down.

The students at Te Puru school didn’t hesitate to tell me how lucky they are to have a pirate ship and a beach. You really are lucky, I agreed. But I think that the beach and ship might be just half of it. The other half includes an education system that allows some flexibility — and a local team of teachers and school leaders determined to use that flexibility in a way that takes full advantage of that gorgeous beach and that awesome pirate ship, both for learning and for wellness.

Read all Notes from New Zealand posts here.

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