Cultivating an attitude

I’ve been fortunate during this project to see sustainability and biodiversity education approached from numerous angles: conserving wild natives in Zealandia, caring for and sustaining diverse species at the Wellington Zoo, observing ecosystem processes at Otari-Wilton’s Bush, and participating in environmental lessons in schools.

One of these schools is a short walk away in my neighborhood.  On Wednesdays, Year 5-6 students spend a 90-minute block learning about different environmental topics, primarily through gardening.  The class splits into several working groups that rotate weekly between data collection and analysis (math applications), blogging (reporting on environmental news of the week for the school newsletter), and working in the garden. Three teachers supervise the different groups and coordinate efforts so that students remain aware of what other groups have accomplished, and are able to plan their next activity.

Wellington’s temperate climate allows for gardening year-round, so the students have been busy planting several different brassicas, silverbeet (chard), broadbeans, and parsnips, as well as tending the tomatoes and herbs begun earlier in the year. The lessons that I have observed have offered a wealth of information and hands-on experience with seed collection, planting, germination, cultivation, and harvest.  For each stage of plant development, there are accompanying processes that are directly illustrated and actively absorbed.

Two weeks ago, the gardening group worked on cultivation of their garden beds: fertilizing, weeding, and removing pests.  Before they began, their teacher led them in a discussion of how people usually approach these tasks. One student offered that his grandfather sprayed cabbage plants to get rid of the caterpillars.  Others chimed in to say that their families bought fertilizer and weed killer.  “So how could we accomplish the same goals without buying those chemicals?” After listening to their ideas, she presented the objectives for the morning:

1) Carefully pull out anything that wasn’t a Brassica from the bed.  How could you tell?  Practice identifying by leaf shape and plant structure.


2) Fertilizing.  The teacher had brought several buckets of aged kelp gathered from nearby beaches and showed the students how to pack this around the base of each plant.

3) Remove (and squish) caterpillars of the small cabbage white butterfly from underneath each leaf.

caterpillar on comfrey

While this was going on, members of the data collection team circulated with clipboards, recording numbers of caterpillars found and checking rain gauges. The blogging team conducted on-site interviews to record reactions to things like the smell of the rotting seaweed (“Disgusting”)and the condition of the soil (“Dry”).

rain gauge2

This week, the focus was on compost, with the analogy of making a cake using dry and wet ingredients, things that would make it heat up, and things that would support “activity” or decomposers.  The highlight of this day, after various forms of compost had been gathered on school grounds, was an impromptu walking field trip down the hill and into the Aro Valley center. Here, the group visited two cafes and requested their coffee grounds from the day, which they would add to their school compost.  These were willingly donated, and on the way back to school the group picked up a pile of cardboard waiting on the curb for recycling – this would be shredded and also added to the compost.

Of the many benefits of having a school garden, the food that it produces may actually be far less significant than its ability to actively draw children into understanding and appreciating essential processes and cycles.  One of the boys arrived to work on compost today with the comment, “Isn’t compost just rotten stuff?”  By the end of the class, he was eagerly announcing all the things that he was planning to bring in to add to the school piles, including his rabbit’s straw bedding that his family had been discarding in the rubbish. In fact, he said, he would clean that cage as soon as he got home.




One thought on “Cultivating an attitude

  1. Emily – when you get back, you can use part of my back yard for composting & gardening. I would love to learn & feel confident I’m doing it right.


    Liked by 1 person

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