The Value of Place-Based Education

A reflection by Sierra Club BC’s Environmental Educator, Kirsten Dallimore

November 2016

“Place-based education is a vibrant approach to education that takes students out in to the communities, to learn, to do and to grow as human beings. Students are given the opportunity to learn subject matter in deep and lasting ways, understand the places they live in and participate in community renewal that makes a different to themselves and others” (Our Curriculum Matters).

Kirsten Dallimore with Heritage Elementary students in Prince George.

Kirsten Dallimore with Heritage Elementary students in Prince George.

If you have ever moved or traveled to another place in the world, you understand what it means to be connected to place. When we leave our home environment that we have become familiar with—our neighborhood, local forest, bodies of water, workplace or school—we depart from a place that we have been deeply rooted and connected to and embark on a journey to learn about a new place.

At first, it can be easy to adapt to the new place we find ourselves in. In fact, this change in place can be quite exciting. However, as we stay longer in that place, we may begin to discover how our sense of place plays a role in the way we interact with our local environment.

When I moved from Ontario, I left a place that was familiar to me and intentionally came to BC to establish a new sense of place. Over the past two years, I have found myself going on many outdoor journeys in hope of becoming more familiar and connected to this place—stepping deep into the coastal rainforest, watching waves crash on west coast beaches, collecting huckleberries and beachcombing during low tides. What I have learned is that the more time I spend in a certain location, the more deeply rooted and connected I feel here in BC.

Many years ago, I took a course in ecological education where I was introduced to the term place-based education. Before this, I didn’t quite understand the importance of becoming connected to a place. As my program was taught through the lens of traditional ecological knowledge, I was able to look toward First Nations for guidance. I felt that since generations of First Nations have lived in this place for thousands of years, they should be the ones to teach us the techniques for learning about place and the history of local places. Their understanding of place is rooted in their own knowledge of how their ancestors have lived here over time. Traditional knowledge about the environment is a direct result of their interactions with nature in a specific place.

When I visit communities, I speak with the local people about their relationship to the land and water. Through their sharing of local knowledge, we can learn how they are impacted by the loss of salmon, old-growth trees, and clean water and air. We can also see how they have established a sense of place.

Willows Elementary. Photo by K. Zolotas.

Examining cedar boughs at Willows Elementary in Oak Bay. Photo by K. Zolotas.

What does this mean for the way we educate our children? Why should place-based education be part of the educational model for how our children can succeed in school?

According to research by Dr. J. Mark Fly at the University of Tennessee, the benefits of place-based education include increased academic performance, reduced behavioural problems, reduced ADD- and ADHD-related symptoms, improved health, greater community involvement, and increased investment and pride in one’s home community.

We may need to make some changes in the way we educate our children so that they may become more connected with their local community and environment. For example, taking students for walks in the community, inviting parents and community members to share local history of a place, visiting a local regional park, and engaging in outdoor nature play and exploration are ways place-based education can be integrated into a classroom routine.

If you are interested in integrating place-based education, the model and philosophy of Forest Schools is a great place to start. Forest School programs provide regular and repeated access to a natural space, as well as childdirected, emergent and inquiry-based learning. The defining feature of a Forest School program is that children have an opportunity to build an ongoing relationship to the land, to a dedicated educator, to one another, and to themselves.

Kirsten Dallimore. Photo by K. Zolotas.

Environmental Educator Kirsten Dallimore. Photo by K. Zolotas.

My experience teaching and being part of many place-based education programs is that it can be challenging to see the many benefits at first. When I first moved to BC, I didn’t realize how much I would change to truly embrace my own place-based learning.  However, I now firmly believe that if we provide our children with opportunities for place-based education, we will empower them. First, we will have recognized the many benefits I described above. And ultimately, we will have nurtured stronger advocates for environmental protection.

-Kirsten Dallimore

Forest Schools in Victoria:

Oak and Orca

Victoria Nature School

For a list of forest schools in the Metro Vancouver area, visit FreshAirLearning.org

Feature image by K. Zolotas.