Once Upon a Wetland – Porirua School’s Outdoor Classroom

| By Enviroschools Te Upoko o te Ika a Māui

Papatūānuku - Earth Mother

Beautiful, functional and fun – Porirua School’s outdoor classroom has it all. This project has overcome some significant flooding challenges arising from being located on reclaimed land and has been replete with opportunities to empower ākonga, involve community and develop understandings of how people interact with the environment. 

Reclaimed land – A challenging environment

Major reclamation of land around Porirua Harbour began in the 1940’s. Porirua School sits on land that was once a tidal flat at the harbour’s edge. Unsurprisingly, flooding has always been a problem.  

Principal Vanessa Hendry, and teacher aide Sue Hodge have vivid memories of wading through waist-high water; piggybacking students to safety after torrential rain flooded their driveway in 2016.

This experience motivated some empowering and ongoing school-wide learning and action to mitigate the flooding problems, making their grounds beautiful and spaces usable. This has included planting on their flood-prone field as part of their Enviroschools Living Landscapes Habitat Project. The planting complements Te Kukuwai o Toa, a wetland project across the road from the school. Planting has also expanded to other projects like their outdoor classroom.  

Ākonga planting at Porirua School in 2017 to restore the boggy, flood-prone field to a wetland.

Collaborative design at its best

The area outside the junior classrooms was another part of the school grounds that was difficult to use at any time of year due to moisture content.  Principal Vanessa proposed using the Enviroschools Guiding Principles to creatively redevelop this part of the grounds as an outdoor classroom space.

Some senior students already had some playground design experience after working with Porirua City Council and the Elsdon Residents Group to redesign the local Hukatai Playground.  These students became the ‘experts’ and shared their knowledge with the junior school.

The junior school teachers planned an inquiry exploring components of outdoor learning spaces such as water play, sensory areas, sandpits, moving parts play and repurposed materials. Students created plans of their dream play spaces and then wrote letters to Vanessa to persuade her of the importance of each feature.

Junior school ākonga drew designs and shared ideas in letters to the principal.

Teachers and the Board of Trustees contributed their thoughts too.  They were conscious of how an outdoor classroom providing for play-based learning would significantly support tamariki in their transition from early childhood education to junior primary school.

When Porirua School received a one-off School Investment Package grant (SIP) from the Ministry of Education, the school had the means to take their ideas to the next stage.


Outdoor learning space design specialist Robin Christie helped plan a fun space taking into account the flood prone nature of the site.

Enviroschools facilitator, Amanda Dobson, shared examples of how two Wairarapa Enviroschools had planned and created their outdoor classroom spaces. The complexity of their site and its flooding issues meant the Porirua School team felt they needed some additional planning support.  So Amanda introduced them to Robin Christie, a specialist in outdoor learning space design who leads the Childspace Workshop. Inspired by the play potential, Robin generously offered his time to develop some concept drawings based on discussions with students and teachers and taking into account the flood prone nature of the site.

A new and fully usable outdoor area

The resulting outdoor classroom area includes a raised wooden decking area, sandpit and mud kitchen, loose-parts play areas and two garden beds outside the classrooms.

Today’s enviro leaders, who were part of the group involved in designing the Outdoor Classroom as juniors, are now enjoying the opportunity to support younger students with developing the space in lovely tuākana – tēina relationships.  Together they look after  the garden beds and the wetland restoration plantings that surround the Outdoor Classroom area. 

The school’s well-established worm farms provided vermicast to prepare the new garden beds. The students wrote to local business, Whittaker’s Chocolate, who provided some delicious smelling cocoa husk for mulch and Amanda accessed some Project Sunshine sunflower seeds from Epuni School in Te Awa Kairangi.

Tuākana and tēina together look after the garden beds and the wetland restoration plantings that surround the Outdoor Classroom area. Gardens are enriched with vermicast from the school worm farms and cocoa-husk from local chocolate company, Whittaker’s.

Ākonga sowed the sunflower seeds in October 2021 and and worm-tea helped the putiputi-rā to reach impressive heights creating a spectacular sunflower display for the new year return to school.

They  have enjoyed harvesting and packaging the abundance of seeds to share with their whānau as well as gifting to manuhiri and thanking the team at Whittaker’s Chocolate. 

Project Sunshine Sunflower seeds grew to great heights fed with worm-tea from the school worm farms. Ākonga enjoyed harvesting the seeds and sharing them back to the community.

Using additional eco-sourced natives from Te Rito Gardens, planting will eventually connect the native garden from the outdoor classroom to the wetland planting on the field .

With Amanda’s support, ākonga have recently applied to Greater Wellington’s Student Action Project Fund for four rain-water collecting tanks and additional watering cans to make watering the gardens easier, more cost effective and more sustainable. 

“The outdoor classroom has provided such an exciting learning space for our students and teachers. Our students are very proud of the changes they have made to our outdoor learning environment.”  – Vanessa Hendry, Porirua School Principal

This is an ongoing, long term project that will continue to be developed through integration of learning for ākonga both in the curriculum programme and out in the environment.

Connecting with the community

Kuia Karanga Metekingi planting with her mokopuna at the Outdoor Classroom blessing, November 2021.

The outdoor classroom was officially opened in November 2021 with a special blessing ceremony led by Ngāti Toa kaumātua Taku Parai. The blessing acknowledged the mauri and the history of the place where the school and the outdoor classroom sit. 

Other members of the Parai whānau from across the generations attended including 92 year old kuia Karanga (Claire) Metekingi and some of her descendants. Karanga attended Porirua School in the 1930’s and felt uplifted by the way learning environments have changed since her time at school and how the status of mana whenua is honoured.

Her mokopuna, Nohoa, attends nearby Ngāti Toa Enviroschool and was so excited to see the developing outdoor classroom space that Amanda offered to bring him and his fellow Enviro leaders back to visit.  As part of that visit Enviro leaders from both schools went to Te Rito Gardens to see where the plants for their projects had been grown and meet their growers.

Steve Wilson at Te Rito Gardens hosted Enviro leaders from Porirua and Ngāti Toa schools to see where the plants provided for their projects are propagated.

Honouring this mahi

Enviroschools Te Upoko o te Ika a Māui presented their ‘Taonga o Kaitiakitanga’ to Porirua School in 2022.

Porirua School’s mahi was recently acknowledged by Enviroschools as the 2021-22 recipients of our Taonga o Kaitiakitanga.  This taonga is passed on from Enviroschool to Enviroschool in the season of Matariki each year to recognise the role young people play in modelling kaitiakitanga. 

The Outdoor Classroom project has provided rich and relevant contexts for applying the school values through their inquiry process which is based around the Enviroschools Action Learning Cycle. 

“We have worked hard to embed the Enviroschools guiding principles and action learning cycle in our inquiries across our school.  The work in our outdoor classroom and wetland have been great examples of Empowered Students and Learning for Sustainability.”  – Vanessa Hendry, Porirua School Principal