All the young ecologists

Orokonui’s Ecosanctuary’s education officer Tahu Mackenzie guides an enthusiastic bunch of ‘‘eco...
Orokonui’s Ecosanctuary’s education officer Tahu Mackenzie guides an enthusiastic bunch of ‘‘eco-warriors’’ in the nurture of nature. Photos: supplied.

Raising our children with a sense of connection to the environment will set them up for life, and pay a dividend for generations, writes Tahu Mackenzie.

I love my job. In my role as education officer, I work with people of all ages celebrating our native plants and animals, and deliver curriculum-based programmes on how we can best protect these taoka. Our connection to nature is crucially important for the health of the environment and for our individual wellbeing. Lifelong emotional resilience can be attained through a mindful relationship with the natural world. We find purpose in nurturing and feeling part of a living, infinite web of life.

Thanks to grants and parents’ fundraising efforts that have paid for transport and educator costs, an early childhood programme with Port Chalmers Kindergarten has been developed. Every second Wednesday, 10 inspiring children aged 4, our ‘‘eco-warriors’’, visit me at Orokonui Ecosanctuary from 9.45am to 11.45am. In these two hours, they learn through play and action about the natural environment.

Countless researchers have shown the importance of starting environmental education early to support innate curiosity and stimulate the desire to learn and responsibly protect. Many notable scientists and conservationists began their work very early. Dame Dr Jane Goodall often credits her lifelong dedication to conservation to her mother allowing her to take her pet worms straight from soil to bed with her when she was a very young girl!

One of the aims of the ecosanctuary is to instil a sense of wonder that will translate into empowered action. The more support children are given to explore and learn in a natural environment, the more they will associate it with pure joy and choose to nurture it.

In the classroom at the start of our day, a mihi whakatau welcomes the children to Orokonui and celebrates their relationship to all living things and to the hills that are part of their turangawaewae, Mihiwaka and Mopanui. They sing about their favourite animals, then adults and children form a circle, a porowhita, symbolically becoming the mighty ‘‘fence of defence’’ around the ecosanctuary, and we imagine being a possum or a rat trying to squeeze through it. Having demonstrated strength as a team, each warrior then takes a turn to say their name and what aspect of the living world they are most passionate about and want to protect.

After acknowledging the protection of earth mother Papatuanuku and sky father Rakinui by patting the earth and leaping for the sky, we stretch out our arms and collectively thank the warrior who has spoken. In this way, each person feels heard and appreciated and an important ecological principle is recognised: that each part of an ecosystem contributes a unique gift to be acknowledged.

Out in the sanctuary, the learning focuses on an ecological process that reflects the changing season. At first, the children learned about plant anatomy and what plants need in terms of care by examining and touching the shining green leaves of a broadleaf or kapuka, or the strappy ones of the kouka or cabbage tree.

Recently, spring has brought pollination into focus. The children chose which pollinator they would like to be, from tui to short-tailed bat.  In play, they ran from giant (model) flower to giant flower, distributing sparkly pom-pom pollen, afterwards checking for successful pollination. The bush provided real examples, with the blue pollen of the tree fuchsia a surprising delight. Its Maori name kotukutuku means ‘‘I let go’’ and the children loved finding the pollinated flowers on the ground, complete with their developing seed in the ovaries at the base.

Learning is also achieved through helping in the restoration work. The eco-warriors have their special rohe, their area of habitat they are restoring, and will rush to their favourite tree and hug and talk to it. They spend time clearing the grass around the trees and pegging down weed mats, often watched by inquisitive takahe, or they might find butterflies living on the plants they are tending. In this way, they see the real purpose of their work: to restore the homes of native animals.

At their kindergarten, they have established a similar site, so the skills learned at Orokonui are used in their daily environment, and the younger children look forward to their turn to be eco-warriors. The kindy environment has benefited, in that teachers and children have become more aware of the importance of planting plants that provide pollen for the bees, while the poo bombs (seed balls) they have thrown into the wilderness garden will increase the number of native plants and shrubs as well as encourage more native birds into the area.

And at Orokonui the young eco-warriors are helping plant a legacy their great-great-grandchildren will appreciate.

- Tahu Mackenzie has been teaching students of all ages at the ecosanctuary for eight years, and is well known in Dunedin as a singer with her band Tahu and the Takahes.

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