Deeply personal learning about citizenship while walking

Waimairi School students Sam and Izzi.

November 15 2016. Mornings outside Waimairi School (roll approx. 500) are busy with lots of people on foot, reflecting in part how the local streets became a context for learning.

“The footpaths are overcrowded,” says Principal Mike Anderson. “But now the congestion at the school gate is from all the pedestrians.”

The number of students walking or scooting to this Christchurch school grew some years back when a school-based travel plan coordinator organised projects to support active travel. Another boost came when the streets become a vivid context for the curriculum.

Mike explains that staff looked at the school’s travel plan in their role as teachers, planning a school-wide health and PE unit in 2014.

“The big idea was about being active, and at first we just thought about things to do inside the school fence. But what if, for a term, we got physically active outside on the streets. Many students were experiencing the roads only through cars,” says Mike.

Plans for learning experiences on foot

Walking routes were planned around neighbourhood streets. The plan was simple: each class walked its own route once a day for a whole term. Teachers adapted the Feet First curriculum resources, and extended student experiences to develop wellbeing (the Mental Health Foundation’s 'Five ways to wellbeing' was one source for this).

“So let’s see physical activity as a pathway towards wellbeing, not just raising your heartbeat, but connecting, giving, taking notice, learning and being active,” says Mike. “We went for it.”

At first, students mostly chatted among themselves as they walked. Soon they began noticing details: the gardens with beautiful flowers, places with broken glass, fences that needed attention.

And local residents started to notice the students.

“After a couple of weeks, curtains started to twitch. People would happen to be at the letter box as the students approached. The groups of students slowed down. Little conversations started to happen.”

Path towards wellbeing

Those encounters supported wellbeing for people in the neighbourhood as well as for students. Students were gaining confidence and were learning safe walking practices in an authentic setting. Soon, they wanted to contribute with things like picking up rubbish. Teachers helped make arrangements.

“Little helping projects started to happen in our neighbourhood,” says Mike. “Ten weeks is a long time. There was a lovely regularity of people moving in our community on foot.”

On weekends and after school, some kids took their parents on their route. This was the first time some people had walked around their own neighbourhood.

“After that, walking and scooting to school started to become okay for more people. It’s totally about the people and the place. They were experiencing the idea of sharing the roads as non-car users,” says Mike.

Mike says there were plenty of curriculum links, such as Health and PE achievement objectives related to healthy community and environments and personal health and physical development. Importantly, this learning emerged from each student’s own experiences.

“It’s personalised learning, which doesn’t mean 50 different projects on different topics, but rather deeply personal learning for our students.”

Education for citizenship

Mike says for a curriculum context like road safety to be sustainable, it needs to be immersed in projects that make the learning deeply personal.

He refers to American educator John Holt, who wrote about the worlds of children, and how they learn from what they experience directly. When it comes to physical activity and sharing the road safely, this might mean getting out onto the streets during class time.

Mike says learning such contexts within notions of citizenship education is not about each individual becoming a super citizen for their own sake, but finding out how their awareness of problems and opportunities can be applied. They learn how to be helpful to others.

“Citizenship needs to be experienced in the community that you’re a part of and not just in the classroom.”