A Coastal Classroom without Walls

Monica Green

I love sitting out my window and I have this big tree out my home and always climb on that, and there's this really, I don't know what it's called but I'd love to find out, it's this bright pink, I'm not sure but it smells like sweet lollies. And I love listening to the kookaburras 'cause we have kookaburras and I love listening to the birds. I just like breathing fresh air and looking up at the sky with all the nature and walking around the school. It's Mother Nature and it's already been there and it's born there. Nature is everywhere.

(Sam, age 9)

Woodbridge School (Kinder to Year 10) is located on the banks of the D'Entrecasteaux Channel, a major coastal waterway between the Tasmanian mainland and Bruny Island in southern Tasmania, about an hour's drive from the capital city of Hobart. Like all students at Woodbridge, Sam (a Grade 4 student) participates in a weekly environmental and sustainability education programme that occurs predominantly in the school's coastal school grounds. Her expression of feelings and ideas about trees, the air and the birds exemplifies some of the ways children interact with and understand the ecologies that make up the local places where they live and go to school. Her perceptions of the more-than-human world, which she refers to as 'Mother Nature', and her relations with that world provide the foundations of this chapter, which focuses on the impact of school ground ecologies on children's sustainability learning.

Originally a thriving fishing village, Woodbridge is a small town with a population of approximately 445 people that supports a predominant farming community and a fishing and tourist industry. While a small proportion of students live in the town the majority travel from outlying settlements, some as far away as an hour. For more than a decade Woodbridge School has initiated a number of sustainability projects that have focused on the rich coastal and marine history of the place, and examined the production and consumption of energy, waste and water within the school. Like many primary schools, the ongoing commitment to sustainability education at Woodbridge has relied extensively on the availability of human and financial resources that include the expertise and willingness of teachers and community. By the time the new environmental education teacher Nel Smit arrived at the school in 2002, earlier dedication to sustainability education had waned. With an extensive background in environmental education and curriculum, grant writing and community skills, Nel set out to reignite sustainability education within the larger Woodbridge community. Inspired by the distinctive ecologies of the 10-hectare school ground featuring a wetland, tree woodlot and local foreshore, all part of a previous working farm, she initiated an informal meeting with professional and support staff to discuss earlier and future sustainability school initiatives.

I got people to write down things that had happened previously. 'Stop the butts' program, a 'clean up Australia' thing and then there was the 'adopt a patch' program with the kinder teacher and the marine discovery centre. Once we sort of added those things up, well there might not be recycling but I thought there's quite a bit happening here. And we talked about what vision, what did people want in say five years' time? And so we wrote all those things down. I wrote it up as a bit of a management plan and sent it back to the teachers and so that became: this is where we're going as a staff rather than just something that I thought would be good.

The meeting process and the emergent management plan reflecting past and potential sustainability initiatives provided early impetus for re-establishing the school's sustainability culture. Soon afterwards alternative pedagogies that involved outdoor learning in small groups with disengaged students who were 'losing interest in classroom learning' commenced. In earlier outings students were introduced to less visited sites such as the foreshore and wetland (where students rarely ventured during recess and lunch breaks) through informal tree planting activities. Within a matter of weeks Nel observed a shift in student desire to actively take part: 'the more they participated in the simple environmental activities the more interested they became in learning'.

The whole school Landcare1 programme was developed as an approach to involve its students in environmental, conservation and gardening activities in a range of allocated sites throughout the grounds.

Fundamental to [Landcare] is that every class has a patch that they identify with. Some of them have the wetland, some of them have the little fernery, and they're responsible for that. The prep/ones have the little garden, a weedy garden area that they rehabilitate. At the end of the year they have the satisfaction of seeing how the flowers were blooming, the plants that they've grown and harvested from seed from the area and germinated, they get to plant those back. And so just that sense of the cycles, the interrelatedness of it all. It evolves out of that fundamental concept.

Similar pedagogies underpinned My Patch (Smit, 1997) a picture storybook developed by Nel at a previous school where children's interactions with the more-than-human world - ant tunnels, local flora and fauna, rocks, trees and vegetable gardens - were accompanied by children's written stories about special places. The intent of the book was to capture how 'kids explore a one metre of that patch and get to know it, and be the expert of that patch, and learn to identify with that patch and be caretakers of it'. A similar pedagogical approach was applied at Woodbridge.

One of the school's first major sustainability initiatives was developed after Nel saw an earlier map of the school property that revealed the extensive removal of vegetation across the property. The motivation behind the Landscape Renewal Project was to increase local bird and wildlife, restabilise foreshore erosion and enable students to plant endemic species from which seed could be collected and propagated for ongoing tree planting projects (within and beyond the school). In the months that followed Nel successfully applied for funding grants that supported other sustainability and conservation projects that involved activism around energy, water, waste, forests and food. Bolstered also by financial support from conservation awards and prizes, the Landcare curriculum eventually evolved to take a central position in school/community life at Woodbridge.

I first met Nel at the Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Conference in the city of Melbourne in 2007 at her presentation on Landcare sustainability education. I had found the images of her school's participation in diverse conservation activities inspiring: children engaged in planting trees, gardening, seed propagation and foreshore restoration. We heard how students addressed local environmental issues in conjunction with local community people and other experts, and the communication of the programme's activities to a wider audience through media and environmental channels, including interviews, conference presentations, newsletter articles and posters, all with the children's participation. Impressed by the pedagogical frameworks that emphasised local learning, I arranged to visit the school with the intention of inviting Nel and the Woodbridge School community to participate in a broader research project focusing on sustainability education in Australian primary schools (Green, 2011).

In spring 2007 I visited Woodbridge School, and on arrival was introduced to three 10 year old girls who were waiting to take me on a 30-minute 'Landcare tour'. Unsure of what the tour involved or where I would be taken, I followed the girls who told me we would visit many of the sites 'where Landcare happened'.

The girls first took me down to the sandy foreshore (only a few hundred metres from the main school buildings) where we saw recently planted native grasses that would combat increasing erosion that has become a problem. While we walked on the beach the girls told me about a unique shell that had been found recently. From here we headed over to a grassy wetland that was being refurbished by the older students who were removing an invasive weed called com- bungi. From the wetland we walked over to the chicken shed to collect the eggs before inspecting a recently planted garlic patch that was the beginnings of a new community garden project where the public would come and grow food. After dropping down into a little gully downstream of the wetland where more native grasses and native seedlings had been planted we headed across to the native garden the younger students looked after. We visited the paper recycling plant, worm farm and nearby small vegie garden beds before they took me back to the office.

(Author field notes)

The tour served an important purpose: it oriented me to the extensive coastal school grounds and delivered unexpected insights into Landcare curriculum. Although the tours had been created as a way of sharing the school's specific approach to sustainability learning and activism, they were also designed as an opportunity to publicly showcase children's perspectives of place-based sustainability learning. These insights were further expanded when the school principal Alison Grant described the evolution of the Landcare tours in response to unanticipated but increasing public interest in the school's sustainability curriculum.

Our goal is to have the students working with people who book in for tours, to come and have a look at what we're doing and they'll be able to explain what's happening and it will be their enterprise, it will be their school. To me, if a child can do that, they can communicate with just about anybody and that's what we're about. The essence of what we're about is helping kids to be good communicators. The spinoff is they feel proud about what they've done and they get an opportunity to talk about what they've done.

Although the Landcare curriculum was fundamentally designed to engage children in outdoor learning, children assumed other responsibilities connecting them to life beyond the school.

There are kids doing different jobs - we've got the journalist group that write the article for the paper - they're working, phoning up people in the community asking for sponsorship but they know that they're working for Landcare, that's the subject they are doing it in. Their concept, their understanding isn't just about planting trees, it's about being involved also as a community. The sales team has been working to get the sponsorship; the journalist team was interviewing kids in the lower primary area to ask them about their gardens and about the future so that they could put that in the paper. They see themselves as working as part of a team, part of a community.

The central focus of Landcare curriculum, however, is on children's interactions with coastal ecologies, an emphasis that has emerged from Nel's theories of place:

I guess really basic to my philosophy is to encourage kids to develop a sense of place, an understanding of where we live and to get to know their place and understand the sense of wonder about their place, identify with it, be the expert and caretaker of it and develop an awareness of the changes that occur in that place. There's such a rich resource outside the classroom and outside the school which is often neglected.

Nel's identification of an outdoor environment as a 'rich resource' reflects her deep recognition of the importance of children's surroundings. Building on this she is also interested in how those surroundings can inform teaching and curriculum, particularly through 'a sense of wonder'. At Woodbridge, Landcare curriculum is developed to promote children's participation in the everyday place where they are linked to local knowledge, history, heritage, geography and ecology. Children's regular immersion in and interaction with the day to day comings and goings of the school grounds are influenced by the belief that local ecologies and children's interactions with them have value. In Landcare learning, children's capacities to comprehend the basic ecologies that make up the coastal landscape, including the systemic and cyclical patterns, coastal waters and marine life, vegetation and fauna, soil and the numerous other non-human life forms and the ongoing exchanges with those life forms, are highly prioritised. For Nel, meaningful learning for Woodbridge students involves affording them the opportunity to interact and connect with these comprehensive principles of ecology as part of everyday learning.

As a way of illustrating the impact of Landcare curriculum and children's interactions with local ecologies, the following section emphasises four distinctive school ground sites that frame children's learning. The following accounts are valuable for understanding the pedagogies of sustainability that supported children's ongoing relations with the more-than-human world, and the impact of their place-making activities. The walking tours with children at the wetland, chicken shed, the indigenous garden and little vegetable gardens were also an opportunity for them to share personal accounts of their learning at diverse school ground sites.

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