Notes from New Zealand: Spotlight on Te Puru School (Part One)

April 02, 2014

Students at Te Puru School learn by interacting with their physical environment

By Tara Kennon

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 the first of two posts she’s written about a school in her community.

About once a year, orca whales swim in front of Te Puru School. Twice a day, the tide washes driftwood, shells and occasional trash onto the school’s gold-sand beach. And every afternoon, the 200 or so children who study at what several of them told me is “the best school in the whole world” run and play for nearly an hour on the beach, on the wooden pirate ship playground that sits next to it, on a grassy green field beside the school or in a quiet grove of trees and monkey bars in the shade.

When I visited the school on a recent sunny summer afternoon (February is late summer in New Zealand, the month when most students go back to school), I asked students what they thought about their school. They told me:

  • “We have a beach!”

  • “My school has a pirate ship!”

  • “We can go kayaking!”

  • “There’s a swimming pool!”

  • “You can go swimming . . . and did you know we have a pirate ship?”

Other students mentioned kind teachers, “lots of sports” and the chance to be creative. But when you have a beach and a pirate ship, well, those naturally rise to the top of the list.

The school’s teachers and administrators echoed the students’ love for this environment. The things that make this school so fun, it seems, also make it a good place to learn.

“You’ve got the pulse of the planet right there,” said Deputy Principal Philip Lash. “You’ve got tides, whales, a piece of rubbish washing onto the beach. That interaction with the environment is an incredible opportunity to learn about the world around you.”

I first noticed the small collection of bright-colored buildings that make up Te Puru School when I drove along the mostly-rocky shore of the Hauraki Gulf not far from where I live. When I mentioned the school in conversation, a few of my neighbors got excited and tossed out quick stories that seemed nearly impossible to me, tales of orca whales, kayaks and grilling out for lunch. I wondered if these stories were true. And I wondered what the location and these activities would mean for students’ wellness. How would it shape opportunities for physical activity? What about food education and learning about the environment?

I was honored to have the chance to visit the school and share a little bit about what I observed.

First, some quick background: Te Puru School is a public school that serves students in grades one through eight (ages five to 13) from the town of Te Puru (population 942) and the surrounding rural area. It falls near the middle of the scale in terms of access to resources and the percentage of students from low-income families, and fares better than the national average academically. It’s a peaceful place to visit with a warm community of teachers and students who seem to honestly love being there.

Physical Activity
Students start the day with 15 minutes of physical activity, have a daily half-hour PE period and a generous recess every afternoon. Teachers often use five-minute breaks of vigorous activity to transition between lessons. “We’re basically trying to get everyone active all the time,” said Lash.

The idea behind all this activity is to support learning–by getting oxygen to the brain–as well as physical and emotional health. “For good health, children need to be in a happy place,” said Assistant Principal Anne Kershaw. “Exercise helps with that.”

Environmental Learning
Physical activity seems to blend naturally with environmental learning. Students regularly interact with their physical surroundings by kayaking, cycling, running, swimming and snorkeling outside. (Younger students swim in a shallow pool while older students swim in the sea.)

The beach and patches of nearby forest provide an excellent biology classroom, and school leaders teach environmental responsibility throughout the school experience. Last year’s school production wove messages about environment with Maori cultural themes for a performance encouraging community members to help keep the ocean clean. Each day after lunch and recess, students break into teams to comb the beach and schoolyard for any trash that may have washed ashore.

One day, teachers told me, a dead dolphin washed onto the beach. They gathered the children at the beach to sing a few songs in its honor and to place flowers nearby. Principal Mike Friis was able to point out that the small dolphin had a pattern of cuts indicating it had likely been injured by a fishing net.

The opportunities for learning on the beach are usually less somber. When a pod of orcas swims into the gulf, students gather to observe the majestic whales. When students see fish jumping, teachers might cast out the school fishing line. On a calm day, they might put students in kayaks to see the marine life from a different perspective. Older students take part in snorkel expeditions in a nearby river and at a marine reserve across the peninsula.

“It’s authentic learning,” said teacher and team leader Jayne Bolsover. “It brings it home to the children’s hearts when they see something happening in their environment first-hand.”

Up next: Stay posted for more on food education at Te Puru School and the underlying approach that makes this all work.

Read all Notes from New Zealand posts here.