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by Ali Mackisack

Photos of smiling children with a tree in one hand and a spade in the other, abound on our print and social media platforms. But – as in many other places, there’s a lot more depth and diversity to our environmental education space than kids planting trees. The Wairarapa has a fantastic team of educators, facilitators and experts working alongside teachers and students to develop passion, knowledge, action and connection in almost every aspect of the biodiversity spectrum.

So, in the Wairarapa, you’ll find students not only planting trees, but also doing bird counts, monitoring waterways, creating and maintaining habitats, exploring and applying aspects of mātauranga māori, running re-use and recycle programmes, gardening, composting and worm-farming, growing, trapping and exploring and playing outdoors, finding fish and doing fish biodiversity surveys, and rummaging through leaf letter to find and identify invertebrates and fungi.

“It’s all about connecting kids with the ‘why’ of things,” says Sam Ludden of the Mokomoko project – a Community Collaboration Education Model role which is jointly funded and supported by Trust House, the Department of Conservation and the Greater Wellington Regional Council. Under this model, schools are supported with their conservation, environmental and sustainability programmes based around the Waipoua River and the Makoura and Kuripuni streams.

“The engagement and the relationship with the people, places and background is critical,” says Sam. “You can’t just expect them to believe that what they’re doing matters, if they aren’t involved in experiencing and learning about what it’s all about. That’s what I really love about this job – working alongside these young people and experiencing their journey with them.”

Experiencing that journey might see Sam and the students from Makoura College or Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Wairarapa down at the river doing rubbish analysis, storm water mitigation or habitat restoration for native species. They are also using ceramic graffiti to raise awareness about biodiversity and freshwater health in our streams.

And that theme of “working alongside” comes up again and again in conversations with our Wairarapa enviro educators.

“Something I’ve found consistently across this education and conservation network, is that they’re really collaborative spaces,” says Kelly Body, the recently appointed Pou Mātauranga/Education Director at Pūkaha. “It seems to me that everyone’s excited to share ideas and plan together. No one’s hoarding knowledge, but instead are working toward a common goal of increasing environmental awareness.So many amazing things have been able to get underway because of that collaborative approach.”

Visits to Pūkaha can be tailored to fit with different parts of the national curriculum across all levels, and a visiting group’s current theme or focus. Conservation courses are currently running in conjunction with local colleges and the polytechnic, and with the new education centre being built, there will soon be opportunities for groups to stay overnight and explore further. Kelly is also looking to develop teacher professional development opportunities, as well as resources for educators to be able to use the space on their own.

“This piece of forest, gifted to the people of Aotearoa by Rangitāne, is such an amazing resource,” says Kelly. “As soon as you start taking kids outdoors, you start seeing learning happening right across the curriculum.”

Getting kids outdoors, hands in the soil, and face-to-face with nature is also a major focus for the Enviroschools network, facilitated in the Wairarapa by Gill Stewart. Schools and Early Childhood Centres can sign up to the network and be facilitated in-school on their sustainability journey as a whole-school approach, but every educator is welcome to come along to their workshops and events.

“Success depends on engaging with the local community, not just with teachers in schools,” says Gill. “When schools are connecting with their wider community, and taking action in that community, it builds genuine relationships and understanding, which benefits everyone involved. This is what’s needed for students to develop constructive hope in the face of the many disruptive forces in our world today including climate change. Councils, community groups, the Department of Conservation, schools and education providers, all have a stake in creating resilience in our communities and restoring our environment.”

“Collaboration is a key aspect of all of our mahi now – working to our strengths and that of our organisations.”

Another key aspect is water, and Mountains to Sea is an education provider with resources and expertise in this area. While some Wairarapa students have been able to tap into their Wellington-based programmes over the years, our region now has had its own freshwater coordinator, Kara Kenny.

Kara’s role has three main aspects. Firstly, it’s an educational role, where she works with students (from preschoolers to college age), and tailors freshwater programmes to their needs and interests. This has seen her working with students from Masterton Intermediate in partnership with the Millenium Reserve to look at water quality, fish biodiversity and macroinvertebrates in their local waterway. She’s also involved with a group from Kuranui College, who are taking a matauranga māori approach to connecting with their water and waterways, in particular Wairarapa Moana.

The second part of her role is connecting kids to other community water-restoration projects, which is great news for these groups who want to form genuine relationships with the next generation of experts and volunteers.

And thirdly, she’s involved with citizen science projects, equipping those who are working with river-based projects to train community groups how to use NIWA’s Stream Health Monitoring and Assessment Kits (SHMAK) and conduct fish biodiversity surveys to assist with their restoration plans.

“I’ve lived in the Wairarapa my whole life, but it’s only now that I’m really discovering the treasures we have in our backyard,” says Kara. Like the others, she’s passionate about restoring and protecting our local ecosystem, is eager to share her expertise and connections, and is available to support enviro projects and programmes. She’s keen to hear from teachers who want to experience the Whitebait connection program.

All of these educators are happy to be contacted, and their contact details follow.

Gill Stewart, Wairarapa Community Enviroschools Facilitator: gill.enviroschools@gmail.com

Kara Kenny, Freshwater Coordinator for Mountains to Sea: kara.kenny@mtsw.org.nz

Sam Ludden, Freshwater Facilitator for Mokomoko CCEM: sam@kahungunuwairarapa.iwi.nz

Kelly Body, Pou Mātauranga/Education Director at Pūkaha: kelly@pukaha.org.nz