Bush School experiences build self-determination and empowerment

| By Cami Carty Melis, Enviroschools Waikato Facilitation Team

Rich learning in the local environment

This year, Pokuru School in Waikato has begun a Bush School programme where middle and senior students experience hands-on and creative nature play, learn bush and survival skills, as well as tikanga around interacting with nature. Led by Mr Wilkinson, students attend 1 day/week for a term, with the first half of the term focusing on learning skills, and the second half involving identifying and undertaking a sustainability project. The bush school experience culminates with an overnight camp at the end of the term.

With growing recognition of the importance of sustainability awareness and self-sufficiency skills, and the role schools can play in preparing students for this, a growing number of schools are developing a ‘Bush School’ kaupapa as part of their curriculum. The Pokuru Bush School programme was developed to provide an opportunity for students to develop practical skills and knowledge related to sustainability and the natural environment, while also offering a different learning environment that suits the needs of a diverse range of students.

The significance of Kakepuku Maunga

Tracking tunnels made to find out what small creatures are around the school.

In recent years, Pokuru School have been exploring and learning about their local environment and history, including learning about indigenous flora and fauna that are unique to their area, growing relationships with Kakepuku Maunga (as well as organisations involved in conservation and restoration on the maunga), learning about wetland and bush ecology, undertaking planting projects to support these, and more. The Bush School kaupapa builds on these and other learnings, as students learn tikanga and kawa associated with living, playing and learning in nature, and being sustained and nurtured by their natural environment.

Pokuru School is currently running the 10-week programme for the third time and is finding the schedule to be effective in engaging students, building knowledge, and taking meaningful environmental action.


The first 5 weeks of bush school focus on developing bush skills, growing enjoyment and interaction with nature, identifying interests, exploring, learning, and engaging in education for sustainability. Some of the activities that take place include learning how to use tools, whittling, rope and knot tying, fire-making and cooking, foraging, species identification and assessing stream water quality. This is alongside free and creative play.

Using natural objects and new binding and knot skills for making a small village.

Weeks 6-9 are about identifying, developing and carrying out a project or action that supports the bush or another sustainability-related kaupapa within the school or community. Examples of projects students created include tracking pests, weed clearing, establishing a composting system, stream care, and building a miniature forest village for junior students.

In the last week of term students attend an overnight camp in the bush, supported by parents. Here, students draw on their bush school experiences and knowledge, and apply their new skills. The camp is also an opportunity to complete the cycle of learning, where students spend time reflecting on their bush school experience and their environmental action project.

Embedded Enviroschools Guiding Principles

The Enviroschools Guiding Principles are embedded in the Pokuru Bush School kaupapa:

  • Empowered Learners

The programme places students at the centre of their learning journey. By creating a space for students to propose and undertake their own learning and action project based on their interests, the Bush School experience fosters a sense of self-determination, ownership, and empowerment. The hands-on approach enables students to develop their decision-making skills, project management abilities, and creativity. The outdoor challenges and overnight camp further nurture students’ self-confidence and resilience.

  • Sustainable Communities

The programme is designed to grow students’ sense of connectedness to nature, environmental responsibility, self-sufficiency and sustainability. By learning practical skills such as composting, pest tracking, ecological building, stream care, and bush care, students learn skills that help them be and become environmentally conscious citizens.

Also, through partnerships with local conservation groups and DOC, students engage in community initiatives that have direct positive effects on the environment, such as stream water quality testing, tree planting, and weeding.

  • Learning for Sustainability

The Pokuru Bush School programme exemplifies learning for sustainability through immersing students in real-world, nature-based experiences. Through the exploration of bush skills, sustainability projects, and te ao Māori, students develop a more holistic understanding of environmental sustainability and manaakitanga ki te taiao (care for the Earth).

  • Honouring te ao Māori

The Bush School programme at Pokuru School demonstrates a deep respect for te ao Māori. Mr Wilkinson has spent time growing his understanding of mātauranga Māori, tikanga and stories, and has carefully interwoven these into the bush school curriculum to ensure it can whakamana indigenous knowledge and values, and local Māori culture and history.

  • Respect for Diversity

The programme intentionally selects a diverse range of students for each cohort to ensure there are a range of ages, genders, interests and abilities. This means different students’ strengths can be celebrated through different activities and challenges, while students facing challenges can be supported by others. The overall outcome of this process is that a creative range of approaches to action projects develop from each cohort, as students identify and grow their unique interests.

Where to next?

Exploratory play.

Pokuru School have found their Bush School programme to have a multitude of positive outcomes for students, including knowledge acquisition, learning and application of new skills, students commenting on enjoyment of the programme and benefits to wellbeing, and in some cases behaviour or academic improvements upon returning to the classroom. It has also had positive outcomes for the wider community, such as growing relationships with whānau and external organisations, and participating in mahi that benefits the broader environment and local ecology. With these positive experiences, the school wishes to continue and grow the programme (including making it available to more students on more days). They have successfully applied to the Waikato Envirofund and the Pukemokemoke Education Fund for a range of equipment and hope to support teachers with bush school PLD in the future.