place-based education


Place-based Education


One of the challenges of modern education is to help people live well in their communities. While there are many perspectives on what "living well" means, for the purposes of this website there are two components. First, that people need an understanding of the social skills that allow them to live together with other people. This involves an understanding that each community member is responsible for contributing their time, talent and treasure to ensure the health of the social fabric of that community. The second component is that "living well" in a community involves a personal committment to stewardship of the natural world and conservation of environmental resources to ensure that the human community actively provides for its needs without reducing the quality of the environment for themselves or future generations.

The trend in modern schooling with an emphasis on state-wide and nation- wide curriculum, instruction and assessment is the loss of local knowledge and skills. In the rush to provide accountability and level the achievement gaps between cultural groups, modern education has omitted key knowledge and skills useful for citizens in ensuring the health of the social and natural communities where they live. For instance it is not common to see, "What is a common wildflower that blooms first in the spring where you live?" on a state exam or in a text book sold for profit across all 50 states. In the social dimension the question, "How does a person in your community bring people together to address local community issues?" is not valued by being omitted in many schools. So the challenge of modern schooling is how to prepare citizens to live in their local communities in a context of increasing generisized national curriculum, instruction and assessment.

One approach to these issues is place-based education. The idea is that schooling should be centered around the knowledge and skills citizens need to live in their local communities. A person who lives in the community they grew up in or a person who moves into a new community both need to have the skills to develop" living well" skills in accessing local social history, geographic knowledge, natural history, etc. This webpage provides some basic thoughts about the place-based education idea.

What is a Sense of Place?

Sense of Place is the meaning, attachment, and affinity (conscious or unconscious) that individuals or groups create for a particular geographic space through their lived experiences associated with that place (Hug, 1998).

Sense of place develops in people through ongoing lived experiences with places. Think about a place you really have a strong affinity for. This place might be a place of astonding natural beauty or a common place where you have lived so long that you unconsciously come to love and care for it. Experience in places perhaps is tied to memories of wonderful times with family members or friends. Perhaps there are memories from youth of special places where you engaged in joyous play. Perhaps also you have developed special fondness for the place where you live through many years of living in that place.

Our modern world for many people has disconnected them from places. Every house and neighborhood is the same and can be exchanged easily. Neighbors come and go reducing community and collective participation in community life. Nature is replaced with manicured lawns and sanitized living spaces. The danger in this disconnected life is that people begin to loose an understanding of what a healthy natural community looks like or what a healthy human community feels like. Without the ability to recognize healthy of communities and contribute to their health the potential exists for an ongoing decline in the health of local natural and human communities. Therein lies the challenge: every citizen should learn in school about how to live life in a way that contributes to the health of local natural and human communities.

What is Place-based Education?

Place-based education is the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects across the curriculum. Emphasizing hands-on, real-world learning experiences, this approach to education increases academic achievement, helps students develop stronger ties to their community, enhances students’ appreciation for the natural world and creates a heightened commitment to serving as active, contributing citizens. Community vitality and environmental quality are improved through the active engagement of local citizens, community organizations, and environmental resources in the life of the school (Sobel, 2004).

Place-based education focuses on helping children develop an understanding of the places where they live. For instance, citizens need to know something about the local natural environment where they live. So place-based education involves school activities that take children outside to gain direct experience observing fields, forests, streams, plants and animals contributing to their local ecosystem understanding. If outdoor field trips are limited or impossible bringing natural objects such as local rocks, seeds, plants and animals inside for exploration would be next best activities.

Another component of place-based education consists of understanding the local human community. Again, teachers can take their children outside the school to visit community leaders or have someone who has lived in the local area for many years take children on a tour to talk about local history and landmarks. Children can be introduced to community service activities to share the idea that all citizens have a role in contributing to a healthy social community rather than delegating everything to specially hired public employees. Children can practice math and geography skills by drawing maps of the area around the school indicating natural and human-made landmarks. Again if going outside is not possible local citizens can be invited into the classroom to share their expertise. Healthy human communities require participation by citizens to nurture that health. Schooling activities should incorporate these ideas into every school day.

The Promise of Place Program further explores place-based education providing examples and resources.

What are the dimensions of a Sence of Place?

Geographic Landmarks
Natural Flora/Fauna Landmarks
Social / Cultural Landmarks
Historical Landmarks
Human Constructed Landmarks

What are some key questions concerning our students?

How do we (educators) help students learn about local natural and human communities?
How do we help students learn to recognize natural and community health or ill-health?
How do we help students learn to contribute to the health of their natural and human community?

A sustantial challenge resides in the current pressures on educators brought on by national legislation such as "No Child Left Behind." In the atmosphere of high stakes testing and public disclosure of test results, schools have decreased the time devoted to non-tested academic standards. There is no multiple choice test that can test the students' knowledge of the first wildflower that blooms near their home in the spring, so it is not tested. Schools do not test on how to participate in the social activities of a local community or how to help an elderly neighbor. Since it is not tested it is not taught. Since it is not taught children learn that it is not valued. If it is not valued......what implication for the natural world and our human communities is there when our main source of citizen training, school, does not value knowlege of the natural world or participation in the health of human communities?

Who are a few of the influential thinkers that inform Place-based Education?

Wendel Berry writes elogantly about places through his essays, poems and works of fiction describing rural communities and stewardship of land.

David Sobel has contributed a great deal to education through his work to establish place-based education programs and write about place-based education. One exerpt of his writings describes place-based education. Another excellent resource is his book, "Map-making with Children," that provides research, discussion and activities to use with children to help them learn about their local places through drawing maps.

Parker Palmer - Wholistic education
Gandhi - Head, Heart & Hands
Madhu Prakash - Living as Learning
Henry David Thoreau - Walden
Willa Cather - My Antonia

John Muir - Wilderness Discovery Books

Aldo Leopold -

Edward Abbey -

Terry Tempest Williams -

Gary Snyder -

Leslie Marmon Silko -

Teddy Rosevelt -

David Orr - Ecological Literacy
Chet Bowers - Root Metaphors
Richard Louv - Nature Deficit Disorder
E.O. Wilson - Naturalist & Biodiversity

What are some of the things citizens should understand if they are going to be well connected to their local places?

1.   Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap.

2.   How many days until the moon is full?

3.   Describe the soil around your home.

4. What were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture(s) that lived in your area before you?

5.   Name five native edible plants in your bioregion and their season(s) of availability.

6.   From what direction do winter storms generally come in your region?

7.   Where does your garbage go?

8.   How long is the growing season where you live?

9.   On what day of the year are the shadows the shortest where you live?

10.   Name five trees in your area.   Are any of them native?   If you can't name names, describe them.

11.   Name five resident and any migratory birds in your area.

12.   What is the land use history by humans in your bioregion during the past century?

13.   What primary geological event/process influenced the land form where you live?

14.   What species have become extinct in your area?

15.   What are the major plant associations in your region?

16.   From where you are reading this, point north.

17.   What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live?

18.   What kinds of rocks and minerals are found in your bioregion?

19.   Were the stars out last night?

20.   Name some beings (nonhuman) which share your place.

21.   Do you celebrate the turning of the summer and winter solstice? If so, how do you celebrate?

22.   How many people live next door to you?   What are their names?

23.   How much gasoline do you use a week, on the average?

24.   What energy costs you the most money?   What kind of energy is it?

25.   What developed and potential energy resources are in your area?

26.   What plans are there for massive development of energy or mineral resources in your bioregion?

27.   What is the largest wilderness area in your bioregion?

Adapted from: Devall, B., & Sessions, G. (1985). Deep ecology: Living as if nature mattered . Layton, UT: Gibbs M. Smith Inc. p. 22-23.

Here are some additional questions....

What is a major local business and how does it contribute to your community?
What is a major social festival in your community and how do volunteers contribute to its success?
What are the architectural influences in the buildings in your community?
How does your community take care of those unable to care for themselves?
Which families have lived in your community for generations?

What are some of the benefits for engaging students in Place-based Education?

Environment as an Integrating Context (EIC) - Lieberman provides excellent connections to research and information

Place-based Education Evaluation Cooperative - Great resources on facilitiating and evaluating place-based education programs.

Students say learning during place-based education is fun.

Student - Teacher relationships deepen due to the informal social nature of interactions.

Teachers report that they are renewed and energized for teaching again.

Students report they are energized.

Teachers report there are fewer disipline issues and higher attendance from students who have not excelled in the classroom.

Communities are more involved in the education of students.

Implementation Strategies: Organizations

Put an environmental educator in every school.
Create broad-based steering committees.
Create a community vision and action forum event.
Tread lightly until the community knows your work.
Nurture continuous improvement through ongoing professional development.
Nurture community exchange.
(adapted from Sobel, 2004)

Implementation Strategies: Examples

Teton Science Schools Journey's School, Jackson, WY. -

Piegan Institute's Total Immersion School - Browning, MT. Blackfeet language immersion program

Implementation Strategies: Standards

Review your State Academic Standards looking for standards that could be accomplished through your place-based teaching.
Review the local School District Scope and Sequence Documents
Design a Curriculum Alignment Document specific to your school, community and intended place-based teaching

Implementation Strategies: Students and Parents

Make sure to help parents understand what you are doing before you begin. Gain their support.

Help students learn how to learn in a new learning environment through careful, sequential instruction in the new learning tasks.

Help students and parents broaden their definition of learning to include that learned in outdoor settings during experiential activities.

Implementation Strategies: Resources

There are many resouces for teachers to get started with place-based education. Here are a few examples:

Children and Nature Network - Excellent resources for teaching, starting clubs and research on children and nature.

Project Books: Learning Tree, Wild, WET, WOW
Sobel: Mapmaking with Children
Leslie: Nature Journaling
Identification Guides

Nature and Children Powerpoint


Last updated: February 8, 2016

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