Moves Classes into Forest

Whanganui Intermediate School

Whanganui Intermediate School is removing barriers to learning by removing walls from the classroom.

This year the school has become one of the first – possibly the very first school – in the nation to offer an integrated forest school as part of a mainstream school.

The forest school programme offers 20 students per term the opportunity to spend one day a week learning in an outdoor classroom.

The classroom takes the form of a farm, a creek, or a forest, depending on the learning needs of students for that day. There is a dedicated forest educator hired as a staff member – and I hear she’s fantastic (spoiler alert: it’s me).

The programme is an example of brave educational leadership and truly responsive pedagogy.

Principal Kathie Ellery said the primary motivation was to “think outside the box” in finding ways to meet student needs.

It is a refreshing statement to hear in an education system that more often than not still tries to fit all students into the same size box.

We know that doesn’t work and any teacher can tell you that in a class of 25 students, there are 25 unique learners who all have a backstory shaping their learning.

When looking to meet the diverse needs of 11 and 12-year-olds forest schooling is an obvious choice.

The foundations of forest schooling are appropriate risk-taking, immersion in nature, and inspiring a sense of wonder.

It works for kids who are academic over-achievers and crave the opportunity for real-world problem solving, and those who struggle in the classroom and would rather learn by doing.

It works for kids who are brash natural risk-takers who need to understand their limits and for kids who are risk-averse, and need to learn to trust themselves a bit more.

The calming influence of nature works for tech-addicted, ADHD, or over-stimulated kids, as well as thoughtful and reflective kids.

This is not new-age hippy education.

While most of us think that maths, science, literacy, and the other school subjects are at the core of the educational system, in fact the New Zealand Curriculum rests on a foundation of five key competencies that underpin the core subjects.

These are skills the Ministry of Education believes people need to “live, learn, work, and contribute as active members of their communities”.

These five competencies are: thinking, using language, managing self, relating to others, and participating and contributing.

It is ironic, given the importance of these key competencies, how obsessed we are with test scores, reading levels, and unit standards.

When we spend time focusing on the key competencies, really focusing on them, then the maths and the literacy will follow more easily.

But for many of our students, the key competencies are lacking. Or sometimes missing altogether.

I applaud Kathie (and the rest of her team) for prioritising the key competencies through the creation of the Forest School programme.

While we do plenty of literacy, and science, and technology on the programme, when you walk into my classroom students will not be at desks, in fact it may look like we are all just playing all day.

But let me assure you, the learning we are seeing so far this year is impressive. Students have been embracing their time in ako (learning) and as kaiako (people who make learning happen).

Today as I sat in our campsite next to the creek there was a moment when I stopped and looked around.

Deep learning was happening all around me.

One student was teaching another student the correct tikanga for harvesting harakeke – tikanga he had just learned himself earlier in the day.

Two students were modifying their kopere (dart launchers) and discussing the physics and technology behind why one might go farther than the other.

Three students were stripping harakeke back to the fibre and using that fibre to sew leather journal covers to protect the work they had done so far this term.

Their chatting was punctuated every so often by advice on a new sewing or knot-tying technique, the three of them joined in the camaraderie of learning a new skill, constantly shifting between ako and kaiako.

Another student was organising our tools and ensuring that our group policies and procedures were being followed.

These students are 11- and 12-year olds. Instead of grumbling about doing work, they are asking me for more. I am going to have to work hard to keep up with the pace they are learning at. As a teacher that is a pretty good problem to have.

Well done to Whanganui Intermediate for being a leader in our community and for keeping the long game in mind, investing in a programme that will boost learning outcomes for these students for years to come.

 By:  Dani Lebo

Dani is a teacher at Whanganui Intermediate – her classroom is “The ECO School”

Eco Learning
Eco Learning