What does it take to integrate sustainability in education? New Zealand’s Enviroschools are leading the way.

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“You should come to Kerikeri on Friday!” Susan Karels proposes, beaming. “We will be giving a school the green-gold award.” We’re in a meeting room of the Northland Regional Council, where Susan works as the coordinator for Enviroschools. “You’ll get to see exactly what it means to be an enviroschool”, she adds. “Yes, please!” we reply in unison, excited to learn more about the national programme that gets children involved in sustainability at an early age.

Garden to Table

School is about to start when we arrive at Riverview School in Kerikeri on Friday morning. As we enter the assembly hall, the students welcome us and representatives from the Northland Regional Council with a traditional Māori ceremony. After the formalities are over, we are taken to a class room, where the eight-year-olds have prepared a presentation about their Garden to Table programme. Proudly, they tell us what they grow in the school’s organic garden: tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, cauliflower, cherries, watermelons, bananas, apples, even apricots. We knew that the climate of Northland, New Zealand’s northernmost province, is the ideal place to grow fruit and vegetables but we didn’t expect young students to be involved in growing all this.

“We also learned to prepare meals from the food we grow”, one of the students explains. “Hence the name of our programme, Garden to Table”, his teacher adds. The children are visibly proud of what they have done and learned. By making the programme part of the curriculum of the eight-year-old students at the school, they not only experience how rewarding it is to grow food themselves. They also learn that the seasons determine which food they can grow and thus eat. They’re also likely to pick up that growing food can save money and avoid emissions and packaging. In a playful manner, the programme thus sensitises them to the sustainability challenges of food production.

Restoration and Rewilding

At the classroom next door, the school’s oldest students, 10-11 years old, are ready to show us a mini-documentary about their nature restoration work. While the video runs, they give live commentary about their excursion to Urupukapuka, the largest island in the nearby Bay of Islands. “Large parts of Urupukapuka were once deforested to make room for sheep pastures. Fortunately, nature is now being restored with a rewilding programme,” one of them explains. “We learned everything about the indigenous birds on the island and the introduced predators that threaten the ecosystem,” they continue while we see them planting trees and checking traps for rats or stoats in the documentary. It’s a trip they all remember fondly, not least because they saw birds that have become very rare on the mainland, like the saddleback. They witnessed the vulnerability of the native flora and fauna, learned the importance of their survival, and helped rewild the island to contribute to the restoration of their habitat. It’s a lesson they can apply throughout their life in New Zealand and beyond.


A group of students of different ages accompanies us from one classroom to the next. They are the Eco-Warriors. Sporting blue vests, they lead the school’s initiatives to reduce plastic waste. “We ensure that all the waste is separated and that nothing ends up on the ground”, a bright boy of about nine explains. After a short silence, he adds: “And we tell our classmates to bring reusable items, such as containers and drinking bottles. Otherwise, we’ll be cleaning up forever!” Their activism is effective: the school grounds are immaculately clean. It’s not difficult to fathom that their ambition to minimise plastic pollution at school spills over to their life outside school.

Educating for Sustainability

Headmaster Ken McLeay is visibly proud of his students. He is a strong supporter of the Enviroschools program. “The initiative fits in perfectly with the sustainability values we stand for as a school,” he says. “It goes beyond taking good care of nature. We also teach students about Māori culture, for example by using the native language and teaching them customs such as the haka. That is why you have been greeted in the traditional manner this morning.”

The integration of sustainability is not limited to the curriculum, according to Ken. “We looked at how we can make the school building more sustainable and came up with solar energy. There are now 52 solar panels on the roof. The students can monitor what we generate and consume.” Ken is convinced that his students learn valuable lessons from the sustainability programs. “They take it home and convince their parents too.”


The Riverview School has been actively participating in the Enviroschools program for many years. Susan is here today to celebrate the school’s achievement of the highest attainable status: green-gold. To celebrate this success, the students raise the green-gold flag. “For the children, it is a recognition for their hard work. We are all impressed by their efforts”, Susan says with a smile. She is dressed in green and gold for the occasion.

About 1,400 New Zealand schools – with a total of 340,000 primary- and high school students – participate in the Enviroschools program. No fewer than 145 regional coordinators and support staff advise teachers and provide educational materials. These are impressive figures, especially when you consider that Enviroschools started as a small project in 1993. It was a response to the 1992 Earth Summit’s call to “think globally and act locally.” After that, the network grew rapidly, thanks in part to its many partners. The program is mainly funded by the government and is supported by a national foundation (Toimata Foundation).

Local Approach

“When schools join the programme, they often start by making their buildings and energy supply more sustainable,” Susan explains. “You’ll see solar panels being installed on roofs and buildings getting insulated, for example. The next step can be improving waste management and recycling, so you’ll see bins for different waste streams being put up and students being educated about recycling. That’s a good way to start including sustainability programs in the school curriculum. As that requires a lot of dedication and continuity, it is usually only up and running after a few years.” The regional coordinators, funded by regional councils (like the Northland Regional Council), assist the schools throughout the process and work closely with the teachers who are responsible for the enviroschool programme at their school.

“Enviroschools aims to create a healthy, peaceful and sustainable world by learning and taking action together. Students take centre stage and are encouraged to share ideas. They explore indigenous wisdom, work together with people from diverse communities and discover their own passion and qualities in the process”, Susan continues. “That’s the overarching mission, but each school decides their own approach. We don’t impose anything, but support and contribute new ideas. Because each school is unique, with its own ecology, history, culture, and community, the Enviroschools program is different everywhere,” Susan adds. “What the projects have in common is that students learn to make contact with nature with their heads, hands, and hearts.”

She beams when she tells us what wonderful things the programme has already spawned. “All over the country, there have been initiatives to reduce waste, recycle, and restore nature. Students have also built a tiny house and a worm- and insect hotel. A group of high school students is even entering a competition to make – and drive – their own electric vehicles.”

Success Through Collaboration

The success of New Zealand’s Enviroschools is due in large part to community collaboration and support. Local companies, social organizations, and parents donate materials and their time by volunteering or sharing their knowledge. This helps schools with practical projects and the development of their sustainability programmes.

The thousands of projects that help create healthy, peaceful and sustainable communities, and the hundreds of thousands of children who learn from them, are a beacon of hope. Generations of New Zealanders, including its future leaders, are getting so accustomed to acting sustainably that it becomes second-nature to them, influencing their decisions and actions for the rest of their lives. What’s more, children experience the consequences of their actions for the environment and their community, learn to take positive action, and bring about change. As far as we are concerned, Eviroschools should be a part of every school’s curriculum, in New Zealand and beyond!

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