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Place-based Learning for Sustainability

If you've heard anything about our Prairiewood Forest School programs, you've likely run across the phrase "place-based learning" or "place-based education," and perhaps wondered what exactly that means. In this post, we'll share several explanations, definitions, and research-indicated benefits of this age-old educational method.

why place-based?

Place-based education is not new; humans have naturally learned immersed in their surroundings since the earliest times. Whether learning which plants are edible in order to forage a meal, figuring out navigation via observation of signs found in nature, or teaching children how to make tools from trees and rocks naturally occurring in a given area, education has been inextricable from place for most of history.

“Place teaches implicitly…” -Dr. Megan Bang (Ojibwe and Italian descent), Professor of Learning Sciences and Psychology at Northwestern University

Many outdoor educators today observe that when outside, students learn directly from the natural environment: speak with a student who spent half an hour watching an insect lay its eggs, on a day when the teacher's plan for being outside was for a lesson on tracking mammals, and it's clear that the environment itself is a valuable teacher.

Besides developing scientific observation skills, learning local flora and fauna identification, and becoming aware of sustainability and conservation issues pertaining to their local environment, students experiencing place-based learning also get to develop a personal, even visceral connection to the natural world around them. As a Prairiewood Forest School parent reflected:

“Returning kids to the same outdoor place all 4 seasons seeds nature in their bones. It isn’t every once in a while, it’s all of our lives.”

Richard K. Nelson refers to this connection in his memoir The Island Within:

“What makes a particular place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it’s flat or rugged, rich or austere, wet or arid, gentle or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame.”

When I read Nelson's words, I think about the exotic animals on the coloring pages, storybook illustrations, and natural films I watched in school. As exciting as it was to get a peek into a world far from my own, it didn't lead to actual conservation actions in the same way that going canoeing, tasting wild plants, and has. In my classes today, I see students composting because they're also eating the blackberries we plant into the amended soil, and reminding one another to tidy up after their picnic lunch so the nearby squirrel doesn't get a stomachache.

Place-based Learning & Sustainability

With reference to sustainability, these times immersed in interactive outdoor experiences also provide opportunities to see the impact of human activity on the natural world. When adults model sustainable practices to care for these beloved outdoor spaces, students see the ways their impact can be positive, instead of just feeling guilty for the harm caused (which is the focus of many educational materials written for students). In this way, place-based education teaches in alignment with Indigenous/ecological knowing.

“Native science is also about mutual reciprocity, which simply means a give-and-take relationship with the natural world, and which presupposes a responsibility to care for, sustain, and respect the rights of other living things, plants, animals, and place in which one lives” (Native Science, 2000).

Learn more about incorporating Indigenous/ecological knowledge as a way of teaching sustainability through place-based education with resource such as:

what does Place-based learning/education include?

Our lead Nature Mentor, Lori Ann Wilde, has composed her own explanation of "place-based learning" for use in program planning, family communications, and motivating other educators to incorporate this impactful pedagogical approach:

"Place-based learning results from authentically engaging experiences that take place in the local environment and are integrated with the learners’ community. These experiences inspire stewardship, a sense of belonging, and a visceral understanding of the interconnected relationships on which land, community, and sense of self depend."

According to a report shared by the National Park Service:

"Place-based education helps students learn to take care of the world by understanding where they live and taking action in their own backyard and communities.” (Place-based Education Evaluation Collaborative, 2010)

David Sobel, author of Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities, writes:

“Place-based education offers a way to integrate the curriculum around a study of place while inspiring stewardship and authentic renewal and revitalization of civic life.”

as well as:

“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…Hands on, real world learning experiences help students develop stronger ties to their communities, enhance appreciation for the natural world and create a heightened commitment to serving as an active citizen” (Sobel, 2004).

what are the impacts of Place-based learning experiences?

Now that we've established place-based learning as real-world experiences focused on the local community and environment, and seen a little of how that learning inspires community action and stewardship, let's dive into other findings about the impact of these experiences:

“The findings are clear: place-based education fosters students’ connection to place and creates vibrant partnerships between schools and communities. It boosts student achievement and improves environmental, social, and economic vitality. In short, place-based education helps students learn to take care of the world by understanding where they live and taking action in their own backyards and communities.” (Place-based Education Evaluation Collaborative, 2010).

Students (and their teachers) are personally impacted by such experiences outside of the academic setting, as well:

“When they are anchored in both human and natural communities, people can experience a sense of contentment, meaning, and purpose” (Smith & Sobel, 2014).

For teachers concerned about incorporating outdoor time into already-challenging class environments, several studies are optimistic that doing so actually improves student outcomes both behaviorally and academically, as well as student engagement indoors and out. Many of these are summarized in Nature-Based Play and Learning: A Literature Review (PEER Associates, Inc. et al., 2018):

“Learning outdoors has been shown to provide academic benefits both during and after lessons. Children with lower self-regulation skills in “normal” science classes showed a significantly higher self-regulated learning motivational behavior in the outdoor educational setting (Dettweiler et al., 2015).
“A study comparing lessons in nature and matched lessons in regular classroom settings found stronger classroom engagement after lessons in nature than after their matched indoor counterparts” (Kuo et al., 2018).
“A four-year study of elementary school children from disadvantaged backgrounds participating in a nature-based learning program found that the students participating in the program consistently outperformed the control group in knowledge of science and overall academic performance" (Camasso & Jagannathan, 2017).
"Higher childhood participation in nature-based activities increased motivation to recreate outdoors as well as efforts to overcome barriers in doing so" (Asah et al., 2011).
“...unstructured, frequent childhood play in wild settings” was identifed as the most common influence on the development of lifelong conservation values" (Finch & Loza, 2015).

Integrating experiences

If you're convinced that hands-on, nature-immersed, community-centered experiences are right for your students, where do you get started?

Our entire curriculum at Prairiewood Forest School is place-based, emergent, and inquiry/student-led. But you don't have to revamp everything you're already doing to help your students benefit from place-based learning! Here are some ideas to get you started, and a few to help increase the impact:

  1. Take any lesson outside. You don't know have to know all about the plants, animals, and minerals around you for your students to benefit from time outdoors. Try reading a chapter under a tree and allowing a little extra space for wiggling ("SOS" -- "Stand or Sit" -- works great as an alternative to Criss-Cross-Applesauce) and interruptions ("Wow, does everyone see that bird flying overhead? What could it be?").

  2. Take a walk. Maybe you ask questions along the path, or assign students something to look for ("Pick a leaf, stick, or other fallen option from the ground that makes you think of your favorite thing to do outside, and we'll all share something about what we found when we get to the end"). Or, maybe it's less structured and you just call it a Brain Break. Maybe you head into the woods, or maybe you just circle the school building. Remember the research above about student focus and behavior after outdoor time? It'll help!

  3. Play a game. There are lots of gross-motor, animal-themed games to get your students moving, engaged, laughing, and open to learning. Try these to get started: Flying Deer Games, Outdoors Group part 1 or Outdoors Group part 2 to get started.

  4. Grow plants! A school garden is great, but you can start small by planting seeds for native wildflowers or edible plants that have historically fed people in your area.

  5. Find community partners: Can a scientist from a nearby university share with your students about their research? What about inviting an Indigenous teacher or leader to present (and offering a gift as a thank-you for their time and knowledge)? Are there any professionals who would be willing to share a project with your class, such as a forester helping students identify the trees around your playground?

  6. Participate in a community science project such as the Great Backyard Bird Count. Their website makes it easy for educators to get started!

  7. Learn more! The book Place-based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities by David Sobel is a great start. To dive deeper, you might also look more into overlapping pedagogies such as experiential learning, project-based learning, student-led learning, inquiry-based leraning, design thinking approach, sociocracy for schools, interdisciplinary learning, and forest school pedagogy.


Asah, S. T., Bengston, D. N., & Westphal, L. M. (2011). The Influence of Childhood: Operational Pathways to Adulthood Participation in Nature-Based Activities. Environment and Behavior, 44(4), 545–569.

Camasso, M. J., & Jagannathan, R. (2017). Improving academic outcomes in poor urban schools through nature-based learning. Cambridge Journal of Education, 48(2), 263–277.

Dettweiler, U., Ünlü, A., Lauterbach, G., Becker, C., & Gschrey, B. (2015). Investigating the motivational behavior of pupils during outdoor science teaching within self-determination theory. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.

Finch, K., & Loza, A. M. (2015). Nature Play: Nurturing Children and Strengthening Conservation through Connections to the Land. Pennsylvania Land Trust Association.

Getting Smart. (2020). What is Place-Based Education and Why Does it Matter?

Kuo, M., Browning, M. H. E. M., & Penner, M. L. (2018). Do Lessons in Nature Boost Subsequent Classroom Engagement? Refueling Students in Flight. Frontiers in Psychology, 8.

Cajete, G. (2000). Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. Clear Light Publishers.

PEER Associates, Inc., Powers, A., & Ren, Q. (2018). Literature Review: Nature-Based Play and Learning: A Literature Review.

Place-based Education Evaluation Collaborative. (2010). The Benefits of Place-based Education: A Report from the Place-based Education Evaluation Collaborative (Second Edition).

Smith, G. A., & Sobel, D. (2014). Place- and Community-Based Education in Schools. Routledge.

Sobel, D., & Orion Society. (2013). Place-based education: connecting classrooms and communities. Orion.

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