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Urban farm reaps active rewards

Dr Simon McMillan, a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching recipient and the teacher in charge of the Kaikorai Valley College urban farm

You may know them, or have been one. Teenagers who don’t see the point of school or how it relates to life, and don’t want to be there.

Imagine such students learning without realising it when they build a barn, measure milk to feed lambs, harvest honey, plant trees and cultivate vegetables.

Imagine kids who may be disruptive in class because they get stressed by conventional learning, enjoying fresh air and exercise while co-operating to construct a wooden fence.

Or students who don’t understand why they’ll ever need to draw a bar graph being asked to find which time of year possums are most abundant, so more traps can be laid then. Through providing a graph to show this, they realise its purpose and relevance.

In seven years, the Kaikorai Valley College (KVC) urban farm in Dunedin has gone from a dream to reality: from a flat field to a productive mini-farm which is creatively used as part of education.

All types of students are benefiting and the teacher in charge of the ground-breaking urban farm, Dr Simon McMillan, would like more local schools to be able to use it.

Finding meaning

Last November, Dunedin teenager Ezra Moodie told the Daily Encourager (DE) how he’d struggled in the conventional education system before being supported into alternative education and a full-time job.

“[School is] like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, and there’s so many kids who don’t fit into that round hole,” he explained.

He has lots of ideas about how schools and learning should be, so the DE spoke with Simon, who is a 2016 Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching recipient.

Ezra went to a different Dunedin school. Intriguingly, his ideas are ‘on the same page’ as those Simon has gathered through extensive pedagogical study and 24 years’ school teaching.

A lot of kids find it difficult to understand the meaning of what they’re being taught,” Simon says.


It’s important to help them understand what they’re going to do, and that they “buy into” this. Youngsters need to understand what a topic or task means to them and how it links to other areas of their lives.

“Project-based learning is definitely a way to go for some kids,” he says, adding that students must be ready to learn, have inquiring minds and be given structure.

The urban farm provides active learning which is hands-on and practical, getting young people involved in projects and using their bodies very physically.

Kaikorai Valley College Year 13 student, Rikihana Cassidy-Macklin, saws rounds for a Skills for Employment project. Photo: Nicola Rushbrook

“Active learners must be tearing their hair out when they’re required to sit in a classroom for hours on end!”

Practical learning

At the urban farm, students have built almost all the structures. They gain maths, science and technical skills when building a seat, raised beds or compost bins. For instance, they learn to estimate when measuring timber.

A music class has listened to “music of the forest” among the rustling trees and an art class designed logos for farm merchandise.

Doing is important, rather than talking about doing.”


Sometimes youngsters don’t reflect on what they’re doing, but teachers can promote reflection by asking what they’ve learned that is new, and how students feel about themselves and what they’ve learned.

Simon says kids often feel less stressed at the farm, enjoy being with friends and are able to release their energy.

While caring for horses, calves, lambs and chickens, the teenagers have developed leadership and realised that they can be responsible.

With the animals, youngsters may experience love and affection which isn’t available at home. Some parents or caregivers may have told kids all their lives that they’re worthless.

“Animals don’t judge them.”

Simon has a vision of the urban farm being an education centre which other schools can use, then return to their location and carry out projects which fit their individual space.

Reaping rewards: the beginnings of a sensory garden at Kaikorai Valley College’s urban farm in Dunedin

He says if the Ministry of Education funded this for five years, it would be an efficient use of resources.

Part of the urban farm’s ethos is giving – when guests come to speak or teach a skill, Simon or the farm manager, Nicola Rushbrook, try to give something back, such as honey from the beehives.

“A place like this is not successful unless it’s given to, and you can give in return.”

The local community has also been generous, with Dynes Transport contributing a driver, digger, gravel and time to make a driveway which replaced a sometimes muddy track.

This means students in wheelchairs, and others who couldn’t previously access the farm, now can.

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For further information:

Ezra’s story


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