Great minds think alike

Department of Conservation —  15/11/2021

For young people, life is full of exciting firsts. With all your senses charged, unforgettable memories are made – some of which can set you on a path for life. Over on Tiritiri Matangi Island, in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf Marine Park/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa, such memories are being made every year by students from low-decile schools thanks to an education programme called Growing Minds. The programme is the brainchild of an employee and a volunteer from Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi who hit on the idea at precisely the same time.   

Tiritiri Matangi Island is the site of one of the most successful community-led conservation projects in the world, with habitat regeneration providing a safe haven for our rare native species. The only way to experience the motu / island is by accessing the island on a commercial ferry, the cost of which is out of reach for some families and schools.

SoTM Guide Jean Goldschmidt has Sylvia Park School pupils entranced by the hihi nest in a display box on the Wattle Track.
📷: Martin Sanders

Since 2012, the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi Inc (SoTM) Growing Minds programme has covered the costs for an astonishing 6,000 tamariki from low-decile schools to visit the island. The programme is funded by generous visitor and supporter donations, as well as grants. A recent grant of $70,000 from the Joyce Fisher Charitable Trust will enable the programme to continue inspiring young people to experience our unique wildlife and participate in conservation.

Growing Minds is available to pupils in Years 1 – 13 in schools with a decile rating between 1 – 6, covering the ferry costs for up to 85 students per school. Fullers360 provides seats to all the schools visiting Tiritiri Matangi at a set school rate, and free seats to teachers and parents at a ratio of 1 adult to 6 students.

Once on the island, SoTM volunteers guide the groups on tours tailored to suit the age, interests and focus of the class. Preparations for the educational component are discussed in the lead-up to the visit, but the experienced guides (many of whom are former teachers) are flexible to follow whatever piques the students’ interest. Tours are predominantly focused on the island’s restoration and endangered native species but can also draw on its rich Māori presence by visiting archaeological sites such as middens, pā sites and kumara pits; the island’s more recent European history including the story of its famous Lighthouse, or for older students taking science, the island’s very own weather station.

SoTM Guide Martin Sanders points out birds to an excited group from Tapora School.
📷: John Sibley

However, for many tamariki, the excitement of leaving their suburb or town and going on a ferry, let alone experiencing a natural space such as Tiritiri Matangi, is just as important as the learning. Island guide, Alison Hunt, vividly remembers what a pleasure it was to watch the first Growing Minds students experience the island. She recalls, “The ecology was important to them, but the total experience went much further. I’ll never forget one young boy in his togs racing down to Hobbs Beach yelling, ‘This is paradise!’”

The learning doesn’t finish when the students return home either. Glen Innes School, a decile 1 school, used its trip in their science projects, and as inspiration in their English, drama and music classes. Growing Minds Educator, Barbara Hughes adds, “This is not just about the education and advocacy with the students. The parents and the teachers who come with them are also learning about community conservation. Perhaps even more importantly, they are picking up on this project, which is run by volunteers without a surplus of funds and is still very successful.”

How do students describe the impact of their visit to this special island? The words ‘inspiring’, ‘wonderful’ and ‘exciting’ frequent post-event surveys, and for some students it can be a catalyst for positive change. Gabriel from Summerland School writes,

“When my teacher said to my group that the three takahē on the island were 1% of the entire world’s population, I knew I had to do more about it. Learning about what the conservationists were doing on the island, and how important it is to be [invasive] predator-free I was inspired to help my neighbourhood.”

Gabriel did, sending a letter to every house in his neighbourhood informing them about native species and invasive predators, and providing sources and links to educate themselves further. He was rewarded with a spike in native birds around his house, and the sighting of a rare miromiro / North Island tomtit.

After visiting Tiritiri these pupils from Opoutere School created their own Bird Garden to encourage others to work to make the whole country a wildlife sanctuary.

What do teachers have to say about the programme? Gabriel’s teacher, Sonya Galbraith, shares,

“For our young students, especially those who have challenges in their lives, it is becoming increasingly important for them to develop a sense of wellbeing by being strongly connected to the natural world around them. Young students who are given the opportunity to visit Tiritiri Matangi come alive with a sense of awe and wonder as they experience and begin to understand the uniqueness of New Zealand’s taonga. This experience, together with the personalised guiding programmes and education programmes provided by the educators, will be one of the most memorable and long-lasting memories of their schooling.”

Great minds thinking alike

Schools have been visiting Tiritiri Matangi since the restoration project began in the 80s. Almost all the schools were from wealthy communities that could afford the cost of the ferry. The inequity had been bothering former guide and shop manager, Mary-Ann Rowland, who woke up one day with the idea fully formed in her head. After discussing with the SoTM team, a member suggested the name ‘Growing Minds’ and they set about tackling the biggest hurdle to the programme: money.

Happily, the solution was close at hand. Volunteer SoTM guides, Alison and her partner Rob Docherty, had recently started the company Running Events to encourage families to enter running races, and had decided to donate profits to good causes. Serendipitously, Alison had the idea to fund students from low-decile schools to visit the island and approached the SoTM team. Mary-Ann laughs, ‘I just rushed out and jumped on her!”

So, in 2012, Alison and Rob made a donation of $25,000 to launch the programme. Low-decile schools were contacted, and negotiations held with Fullers-owned ferry service 360Discovery. On 29 November 2012, 60 students and 10 teachers and parents from Papatoetoe Intermediate became the first school to visit under the new programme.

Since then, the programme has gone from strength to strength. With nearly 6,000 tamariki from Growing Minds, and other schools, visiting annually, experienced educators have been brought on to manage the education programme. Senior biology and science teacher, Barbara Hughes, runs the overall programme, with Liz Maire the assistant educator.

Assistant educator Liz Maire shares a joke with a school group.

Last year, the challenge of Covid-19 forced Growing Minds programme to pivot. While ferries to the island weren’t running, Barbara and Liz created an outreach programme to take Tiritiri Matangi to the students instead. Organising visits to schools, they used the true story of an historical rat incursion, guiding the students through the planning process to trap the rat using tracking tunnels, traps (which students practiced setting up and activating), and conservation dogs. The story ends with a DOC ranger thinking outside the square to adapt a DOC 200 trap, which eventually caught the rat. The outreach enabled Growing Minds to reach new schools, some of which have planned to visit the island later this year.

With the lack of overseas tourists this year, Fullers360 has cut back the number of weekday sailings to one day during the off-peak season. All schools were rebooked accordingly and the team stepped up to make those busy days with higher number of students work. In this current lockdown, the team await level 2 to resume the programme.

If you would like to apply for funding under the Growing Minds programme, please read the Growing Minds School Bookings Procedure and make your application using the Growing Minds Application Form. For questions, please email

Love it, Restore it, Protect it

One response to Great minds think alike

    Brigid Spiers 15/11/2021 at 2:46 pm

    Absolutely brilliant. I first visited Tiritirimatangi as a student at Wintec doing the Environmental Technology degree course. It was an eye opening place for all of us but especially the foreign students and new immigrants. I also got to see a special bench with a plaque commemorating one of your past volunteers who was a family friend – Ray Ridgeway. Tiri will always be a special place for me.