… Rooted in Freedom

  • Everyone pursuing their own interests and joy in their own way
  • Everyone celebrating creativity and diversity
  • Everyone shaping their school with an equal voice

… Grown with Love

  • Students choosing mentors, workmates and playmates – building genuine mutual relationships
  • Mentors focusing on emotional intelligence, human rights and sustainability
  • Students nurturing the health of their mind, body and spirit out in nature

… Immersed in Learning

  • Students exploring and mastering their world in play
  • Projects evolving ideas about innovation, expression and people
  • Everyone learning from everyone


While researching and conceptualising what our school would be like, in order to meet the needs of Nelson’s families it became apparent that we really had to make it our own. For this reason Aroha Discovery School doesn’t subscribe to just one ideal; but is a fusion of the best of several approaches to alternative education. As we are in the process of establishing this school it will evolve and grow to fit the needs of the students, but at its heart it is a democratic school, fostering elements of nature-based learning, and education cities.


“The root ideas of a democratic education are as simple as they are radical: children should be accorded the same human rights and freedoms as adults; they should be granted responsibility for the conduct of their affairs; and they should be full participants in the life of their community.”
– Daniel Greenberg

In democratic schools, rights and freedom come with responsibility. Children are free to play and, within the rules voted on by all, can do as they please. They are also encouraged by all to take responsibility for their own learning and behaviour.

Young people are seen as natural learners and decide themselves, or with guidance, which lessons, if any, they wish to go to. Learning progresses at the child’s pace, free from overt coercion, in a relaxed and happy atmosphere, with the understanding that a child playing is also a child learning.


“Playing in a natural environment has shown to improve children’s concentration, social and mental development, and physical and mental health”
– Dr William Bird (2006)

Nature-based learning takes many shapes and forms. A commonly known model is forest schooling, but it is also known as an outdoor classroom or bush school. Each model is slightly different in it’s approach but their common theme is that the learning almost 100% takes place outdoors in a forest or woodland setting.

We follow the child-led and play-based philosophies, where the facilitator is, at first, the observer, letting children play, explore and discover. When opportunities for learning present themselves then the facilitator utilises that opening to help children expand on their awareness and understanding of the world around them e.g. learning about specific plants and animals, increasing body awareness through climbing and movement, problem solving (e.g. using maths to build a shelter), learning how to recognise and manage risk, and (most important of all) learning how to work as a team and understand/manage their own emotions in moments of conflict.

The benefits of nature-based programmes are well documented including; increased self-esteem/independence, better communication skills, leadership skills, self awareness and mental/emotional well being.


“There is a community of the spirit. Join it, and feel the delight of walking in the noisy street, and being the noise.“
– Rumi

We are part of a wider community and what better way to connect with that community than to regularly explore and hold opportunities for learning within the city itself! We want our kids exposed to what happens in our city in everyday life by visiting places like the museum, gallery, library etc; and to keep learning relevant and inspire the imagination of what’s possible by visiting people in their workplaces doing interesting things.

Utilising the city as our school means we don’t have to spend lots of money on buildings and equipment, and we can get the kids out amongst it all where they can learn in real world settings, feeling part of something bigger than themselves.

Want to learn more? Check out our Resource and FAQ pages



Mairi Lewis-Smith


Programme Facilitator

Mairi moved permanently to Nelson in 2017 from a small island in Scotland. Originally British she has danced between the UK, Canada and NZ. Now making her home with her 6 year old in central Nelson.  Mairi has an adventurous spirit, and is constantly surprised by what Nelson and this beautiful region has to offer, her curious nature continues to be inspired and delighted, and her roots are growing more entwined in Nelson’s soil! Having the backyard at Fairfield House as a playground, and Aroha Discovery School as rich natural learning environment is a special and exciting opportunity.

She brings a background in visual communication and art therapy to the fore. Her career has centred on working with vulnerable children and young people with disabilities. Her support work is at the heart of a high level of care and service. Mairi believes in a child-led strengths based philosophy that learning is stimulated by creative and explorative experiences with a play-based focus.  Creative expression, communication, personal exploration and play help give children the resilience they need to operate effectively in life and Aroha Discovery school’s framework encompasses group work, decision making, problems solving and collaboration to help develop important social skills. This philosophy resonated with Mairi’s own personal and professional values and she came on board to support her friend’s vision for an alternative education option in Nelson.

As a program facilitator Mairi will bring a sense of adventure and curiosity, with creative flair and compassion for the children she works with. She will help to empower the children that attend Aroha Discovery, and be a supportive role model while aiming to nurture and develop your child’s personal skills. When she’s not facilitating for Aroha you will find her bringing art therapy to the children and young people of Nelson, at Founder’s Park, and as an art therapist for Lifelinc.

Anne Bieleski


Programme Facilitator

Anne has an extensive background in education with a diploma in teaching and Montessori qualifications. Her experience has seen her working as teacher of a Montessori classroom, leading a Bush Guide programme in Otari, special needs support, and as the lead on the Everyone Out nature-based holiday programme in Wellington for the last 2 years. She enjoys being creative, reading, tramping and is passionate about environmental issues. Anne brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to our nature programme.

Anna Ormandy


Programme Facilitator

A qualified primary teacher with a background in environmental education Anna holds a Graduate Diploma in Sustainability and Outdoor Education, with a Masters of Education in Teaching and Learning amongst several other qualifications. She has been teaching in various forms for the last six years and is currently working in Early childhood education. 

Anna started her education journey with a goal to work in environmental education however, once in the classroom she found that in order to make a sustainable change to our planet we must first make sustainable changes to human minds. From this her goal and passion moved towards Social and Emotional Wellbeing. She now believes that in order to create a more sustainable planet we must have mentally healthy, resilient and competent children who have the confidence and capability to look after themselves, their whanau and the planet. Anna has many passions outside of education and emotional wellbeing, including yoga, gardening, mountain biking, fishing, conscious dance, and cooking.

Mitchell Winter

Mitchell Winter

Holiday Programme Facilitator

Mitchell recently moved to Nelson in 2020 after having grown up in Golden Bay. He has previously spent time in the UK and Wellington. He has a lot of experience with teaching and coaching of kids of all ages having been heavily involved in running activities for juniors including coaching, mentoring and training. Furthermore, Mitchell spent a year in the UK at Christchurch Cathedral school in Oxford where he was a teacher aid and after school mentor to children. A love a nature, boating, tramping and sports keeps Mitchell busy in his free time.

Board Members

Anne-Marie Richards

Chair of Board, School Business Manager, Co-Founder

Co-Founder of Aroha Discovery School, Anne-Marie’s journey to starting Aroha Discovery started after her son was born in 2015, through a desire to find a more holistic alternative in education. Having a background in admin, IT and office management, and a keen interest in psychology and personal development the pieces all fell into place with the idea of starting Aroha Discovery School. Drawing on the enormous amount of work started by Dawn Kelly and her group of supporters Anne-Marie was determined to take this long-held dream in Nelson and finally make it a reality.

Her vision is to create compassionate, strong, resilient, loving communities by helping children (and adults) to develop their own internal awareness and communication skills – creating deeper relationships within themselves and with others.

In her spare time she enjoys dancing, yoga, art and music. You may see her out in the community spinning fire, as well as making the most of Nelson’s beautiful beaches and nature spaces.

Sara Elphick

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Board Secretary, Advisor, Co-Founder

Sara has done mentoring, tutoring and teaching in high schools for over a decade.  Over that time she has delivered hundreds of hours of science and maths lessons, but feels people are more motivated to learn when they can truly follow and develop their own passions.  She is passionate about the holistic wellbeing of children and believes learning experiences should be fun, nature-centred, build community and connect mind, body and spirit.

She cherishes the couple of years she spent living at Earthsong – an innovative urban co-housing development whose model of socially and environmentally sustainable urban living inspired many other co-housing communities across New Zealand.  The consensus decision making style and wisdom that different generations bring has since become a big influence on her passion to create new ways of working and community.

Sara spends her free time having fun with her kids, camping in her escape pod, dancing and tinkering in her permaculture garden.

Velma Vermaat

Board Member, Co-Founder

Velma moved to New Zealand from the Netherlands in 2006. Her motivation in work and personal life is to enhance and strengthen local community and individuals. She is a strong advocate of healthy living, specifically in caring for our environment as well as our own personal wellbeing. She is a clear and logical thinker, good at recognizing people’s needs, initiating activities and working towards both short and long-term goals. Since her daughter was born in December 2016, she has been working on her own business to provide support to people from all walks of life in areas of continuing independence and belonging. She strongly beliefs that people of any age or background should be able to choose and decide how to live their lives, which includes that children should decide themselves in how, when and what they learn.  

In her free time, she enjoys swimming, going for walks on the beautiful hills surrounding Nelson and gardening. Or just relaxing with a locally brewed IPA or glass of wine. 

Peter Washington

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Treasurer, Bookkeeper, Co-Founder

Peter Washington joined the board in January 2020. He has been involved as Treasurer for the YHA in Christchurch, then continued to study performing arts and environmental management at SIT in Invercargill, before moving to Nelson mid 2018.

Peter enjoys interacting with people and children. He was attracted to the philosophy of democratic schooling while searching for a charity to contribute to. From his own experience, he has come to the conclusion that the traditional form of education doesn’t fit every student. Some students may struggle to learn and concentrate in a conventional classroom setting, with their perceived ‘misbehaviour’ affecting other students’ learning experience. In his mind alternative schools are the way to go and a democratic model of learning can really help students that are struggling to learn efficiently. Peter continues with pursuing his studies in environmental management and ‘mindful living’.

Peter has a wide range of interests. He enjoys many forms of the performing arts such as plays, singing, attending music gigs, and dance; also enjoys beach walks, and being out at sea kayaking.


Celia Hogan

Celia pic

Founder of Little Kiwis Nature Play

Celia is the founder of Little Kiwis Nature Play, a provider of professional learning and development training, focused on embedding outdoor philosophies and nature education into ECE centres and primary schools across New Zealand. For the past 20 years she has worked for a variety of outdoor education organisations internationally, setting up, developing and running outdoor programmes, wilderness expeditions, leadership development programmes and establishing risk management and safety systems. Celia brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to all that she does and has survived a variety of crisis’ both professionally and personally to give some real depth to her conversations. Celia manages to juggle professional development training, speaking engagements, running her Bush Kindy sessions for pre-schoolers and their whanau and taking her own kids on mini adventures in nature.

Bronwyn Bayne


Chief Number Cruncher at Ako School

Bronwyn Bayne is a mother of two lively young boys and is a co-founder of play-based primary school, Ako in Auckland, that opened in 2018. She is a passionate advocate for children’s rights and is on the Executive Committee of the International Play Association Aotearoa NZ. Her long term goal is to see community led and democratic schools starting up and thriving throughout Aotearoa. She believes we can achieve a lot through collaboration and supporting each other. Her professional background is in government policy and strategy. She loves a good spreadsheet and is a recent aficionado of design led thinking practices. She spends her free time listening to podcasts, attending conferences and networking, with the odd yoga retreat thrown in.

Sarah Langi

Sarah Langi

Head Teacher of Estuary School (Wellington)

Sarah Langi is an experienced educator and in the late 1970s was head teacher of Estuary School, Lower Hutt. Estuary School was an alternative school, modelled on Summerhill, the first alternative school in the Uk. The teaching programme was totally child-centred and tailored to individual students’ passions and abilities. Sarah also ran the Montessori Preschool in Wellington and for 15 years was the environmental educator for Nelson Environment Centre, designing and delivering programmes in streamcare, zero waste and renewable energy for students of all ages, and teachers. She has an Honours Degree in Classics from University College London, a BSc in Zoology from Victoria University, and a Postgraduate Teaching Certificate in primary education from Bristol University

Jerry Mintz

Founder of Alternative Education Resource Organization

Jerry Mintz has been a leading voice in the alternative school movement for over 30 years. In addition to his seventeen years as a public and independent alternative school principal and teacher, he has also helped found more than fifty public and private alternative schools and organizations. He has lectured and consulted in more than twenty-five countries around the world.

In 1989, he founded the Alternative Education Resource Organization and since then has served as it’s Director. Jerry was the first executive director of the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools (NCACS), and was a founding member of the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC).

In addition to several appearances on national radio and TV shows, Jerry’s essays, commentaries, and reviews have appeared in numerous newspapers, journals, and magazines including The New York Times, Newsday, Paths of Learning, Green Money Journal, Communities, Saturday Review, Holistic Education Review as well as the anthology Creating Learning Communities (Foundation for Educational Renewal, 2000).

Jerry was Editor-in-Chief for the Handbook of Alternative Education (Macmillan, 1994), and the Almanac of Education Choices (Macmillan/Simon & Schuster, 1995). He is the author of No Homework and Recess All Day: How to Have Freedom and Democracy in Education (AERO, 2003) and is editor of Turning Points: 35 Visionaries in Education Tell Their Own Story (AERO, 2010).

Chris Mercogliano

Chris Mercogliano

Director of Albany Free School (United States)

Chris Mercogliano has been involved with the Albany Free School, the oldest inner-city alternative school in the U.S., since 1973. He is also the author of Making It Up As We Go Along, the Story of the Albany Free School (Heinemann 1998), Teaching the Restless, One School’s Remarkable No-Ritalin Approach to Helping Children Learn and Succeed (Beacon Press 2004), How to Grow a School: Starting and Sustaining Schools That Work (Oxford Village Press 2006), and In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness (Beacon Press 2007), and A School Must Have a Heart (Oxford Village Press 2014).