Children's accounts of four school ground places The wetland

The wetland restoration project was instigated soon after Nel's arrival at the school when she learned about the proposed decommissioning of the school's wetland and its replacement with an artificial wetland. In convincing the school community about the ecological benefits of maintaining the wetland's ecological integrity, she initiated a meeting to seek a wide range of perspectives and publicly debate the proposal. The eventual community-based decision to restore the wetland to its original working state generated a new initiative that was used to officially launch the school's re-entry into sustainability education. The Caring for a coastal place project was promoted as a way of announcing the school's renewal on ecological action and sustainability. Given the nature of the physical work required, senior students were allocated responsibility for the wetland refurbishment.

The debate about the state of the wetland and its future featured consistently in the walking tours with the more senior students who took me to the wetlands to see first-hand its transformation from dysfunctional to flourishing. On our way to the site one of the girls had told me that 'before [Nel] came all this [pointing to an outflow pipe from the art room] was coming into the wetlands and making it smell really bad, so she got some tests done and she found out what you have to do to get rid of that kind of stuff'. Others were keen to explain their interactions with and understanding of the wetland's complex hydrology and ecology.

I reckon the wetland has changed a lot. It used to have weeds growing up twice as high as it is now. When we came here it was covered in combungi [invasive weed], it was everywhere. Over there we found it was leaking water into the dam making it worse. There was a giant puddle so we ended up digging a big trench all the way to the dam to fill it up. Otherwise the combungi was just growing, thriving.

(Aden, age 11)

The wetland helps the other plants to grow and lets the water flow through. We've been pulling out the combungi weed, it drinks up all of the water. We get our chopper things [machete] and we cut the tops off. We have to make sure we have to get the seeds off and we pull the weeds out. It is so much fun doing it as a class. It gets all muddy and you have to be quick on it, so you go like this [chopping motion] and then you start sinking [in the mud]. And once someone sunk right into it so they had to get Pete and Gary [the grounds men] to pull them out.

(Alex, age 11)

The children's accounts demonstrate a collective knowledge of the wetland's history. Their stories (and my own observations) of embodied learning, the exertion of cutting, clearing and stacking the weeds and getting stuck in the mud contain their connection to and investment in the wetland site. Having spent considerable time at the site, students have come to know it as an intricate and distinct school ground feature that has an important ecological part to play in purifying the upstream water from Masons Creek that feeds the wetland before reaching its foreshore destination. The children explained how the indigenous grasses and trees planted up and downstream of the wetland create important natural water filtration systems that enable water overflow, which prior to the wetland refurbishment had been blocked, to eventually make its way to the coast some 300 metres away. Their restoration work is the catalyst for converting the 'smelly' wetland into a thriving habitat for local frogs, water hens, cormorants, sea eagles and a platypus, many of which are protected species that now call this place home.

Children expressed great enthusiasm about the physical work, as I noted in my personal observations of two wetland sessions. I watched them eagerly arrive, pull on plastic waders and gloves, select their cutting devices and start the process of removing the thick tall weeds that had formed a dense and intrusive forest in the main body of water. The nature of the wetland work dictated the children's collaboration: while some cut the combungi weed, others collected it and stacked it to the side. On these occasions I also observed the children's reluctance in returning to class once the lesson had finished. From their wetland work students told me how 'you learn a lot about the animals that live there [in the wetland] and what they like, and whether they can live there'. They explained that, for instance, the platypus is very fussy about water quality and will only inhabit waterways that provide reliable food sources and underground burrows for protection.

In speaking with Nel about the success of the wetland project and its new ecological capacity, she indicates that the main outcome of the wetland project is to teach the older children 'about the importance of caring for a living system' (Figure 3.1).

It's not so much about the end product but more about the processes that allow the students to care. It's that development of nurturing and caring for the planet, for our environment and for our place because that develops ownership. Eventually [the children] feel really proud of the place that they live in.

Working in wetlands with swamp plants

Figure 3.1 Working in wetlands with swamp plants

 
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