Urban EE and Sense of Place

Urban Environmental Education and Developing a Sense of place


Jennifer D. Adams, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, USA
David A. Greenwood, Lakehead University, Canada
Mitchell Thomashow, Philanthropy Northwest, USA
Alex Russ, Cornell University, USA


  • Sense of place—including place attachment and place meanings—can help people appreciate ecological aspects of cities.
  • Sense of place is determined by personal experiences, social interactions, and identities.
  • In cities, factors such as rapid development and gentrification, mobility, migration, and blurred boundaries between the natural and built environment complicate sense of place.
  • Urban environmental education can leverage people’s sense of place and foster ecological place meaning through direct experiences of places, social interactions in environmental programs, and nurturing residents’ ecological identity.


Different people perceive the same city or neighborhood in different ways. While one person may appreciate ecological and social aspects of a neighborhood, another may experience environmental and racialized injustice. A place may also conjure contradicting emotions—the warmth of community and home juxtaposed with the stress of dense urban living. Sense of place—the way we perceive places such as streets, communities, cities or ecoregions—influences our well-being, how we describe and interact with a place, what we value in a place, our respect for ecosystems and other species, how we perceive the affordances of a place, our desire to build more sustainable and just urban communities, and how we choose to improve cities. Our sense of place also reflects our historical and experiential knowledge of a place, and helps us imagine its more sustainable future. In this essay, we review scholarship about sense of place, including in cities. Then we explore how urban environmental education can help residents to strengthen their attachment to urban communities or entire cities, and to view urban places as ecologically valuable.

Sense of place

In general, sense of place describes our relationship with places, expressed in different dimensions of human life: emotions, biographies, imagination, stories, and personal experiences (Basso, 1996). In environmental psychology, sense of place—how we perceive a place— includes place attachment and place meaning (Kudryavtsev, Stedman and Krasny, 2012). Place attachment reflects a bond between people and places, and place meaning reflects symbolic meanings people ascribe to places. In short, “sense of place is the lens through which people experience and make meaning of their experiences in and with place” (Adams, 2013). Sense of place varies among people, in history, and over the course of one’s lifetime (http://www.placeness.com (link is external)). People may attribute various meanings to the same place in relation to its ecological, social, economic, cultural, aesthetic, historical, or other aspects. Sense of place evolves through personal experiences, and defines how people view, interpret and interact with their world (Russ et al., 2015). In cities, sense of place echoes the intersections of culture, environment, history, politics, and economics, and is impacted by global mobility, migration, and blurred boundaries between the natural and built environment.

Research and scholarship around the relationship between “place” and learning reflects diverse perspectives, many of which are relevant to urban environmental education. Education scholars point to the need for people to develop specific “practices of place” that reflect embodied (perceptual and conceptual) relationships with local landscapes (natural, built, and human). Further, some scholars and researchers have used a lens of mobility—the globalized and networked flow of ideas, materials, and people—to build awareness of the relationship between the local and global in the construction of place in urban centers (Stedman and Ardoin, 2013). This suggests that understanding sense of place in the city generates an added set of situations and challenges, including dynamic demographics, migration narratives, and complex infrastructure networks, as well as contested definitions of natural environments (Heynen, Kaika and Swyngedouw, 2006). One critical question is how we think about sense of place in cities when places and people are constantly on the move. Given rural-urban migration, sense of place today includes where a person came from as much as where she now finds herself. In one study in a large, urban center in the U.S., Adams (2013) found that notions of “home” and identity for Caribbean-identified youth were largely constructed in the northeastern urban context in which they found themselves either through birth or immigration. Such dimensions of place relationships are vital for thinking about meaningful and relevant urban environmental education.

Understanding sense of place in the urban context would be incomplete without a critical consideration of cities as socially constructed places both inherited and created by those who live there. Critical geographers such as Edward Soja, David Harvey, and Doreen Massey draw on a Marxist analysis to describe cities as the material consequence of particular political and ideological arrangements under global capitalism. Critical educators (e.g., Gruenewald, 2003; Haymes, 1995) have drawn upon critical geography to demonstrate how cities are social constructions imbued with contested race, class, and gender social relationships that make possible vastly different senses of place among their residents. For example, Stephen Haymes (1995) argued that against the historical backdrop of race relations in Western countries, “in the context of the inner city, a pedagogy of place must be linked to black urban struggle” (p. 129). Although Haymes was writing twenty years ago, his claim that place-responsive urban education must be linked to racial politics resonates today with the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. and ongoing need for environmental educators to be in tune with the political realities that so deeply inform a given individual’s sense of place. This also resonates with the notion that different people may ascribe different meanings to the same place. The complexity of meaning surrounding urban places and our understandings of such contested meanings make a powerful context for personal inquiry and collective learning.

In the U.S., Tzou and Bell (2012) used ethnographic approaches to examine the construction of place among urban young people of color. Their results suggest implications for equity and social justice in environmental education, such as the damage that prevailing environmental education narratives could do to communities of color in terms of power and positioning. Further, Gruenewald (2005) suggests that traditional modes of assessment, such as standardized tests, are problematic in place-based education; instead, we need to redefine education and research as forms of inquiry that are identifiably place-responsive and afford a multiplicity of approaches to define and describe people’s relationships to the environment.

Sense of place and urban environmental education

Although not always explicitly stated, sense of place is inherent to many environmental learning initiatives (Thomashow, 2002). A goal of such programs is nurturing ecological place meaning, defined as “viewing nature-related phenomena, including ecosystems and associated activities, as symbols” of a place (Kudryavtsev, Krasny and Stedman, 2012). This approach is prevalent in bioregionalism, the “no child left inside” movement, community gardening, sustainable agriculture, as well as in natural history, place-based, and other environmental education approaches. Place-based education has goals important to urban life, including raising awareness of place, of our relationship to place, and of how we may contribute positively to this constantly evolving relationship, as well as inspiring local actors to develop place-responsive transformational learning experiences that contribute to community well-being.

Nurturing a sense of place

With the global population increasingly residing in cities, ecological urbanism requires new approaches to understanding place. How does sense of place contribute to human flourishing, ecological justice, and biological and cultural diversity? Using a theoretical basis from literature described above, we offer examples of activities to help readers construct field explorations that evoke, leverage, or influence sense of place. (Also, see a relevant diagram in Russ et al., 2015.) In practice, urban environmental education programs would combine different approaches to nurture sense of place, perhaps most prominently place-based approaches (Smith and Sobel, 2010), which teach respect for the local environment, including its other-than-human inhabitants, in any setting including cities.

Experiences of the urban environment

Making students more consciously aware of their taken-for-granted places is an important aspect of influencing sense of place. Focusing on places students frequent, educators can ask questions like: “What kind of place is this? What does this place mean to you? What does this place enable you to do?” Hands-on activities that allow students to experience, recreate in, and steward more natural ecosystems in cities could be one approach to nurture ecological place meaning. Another activity could use conceptual mapping to highlight places and networks that are important to students, for example, related to commuting and transportation, the internet, food and energy sources, or recreation. Maps and drawings also might focus on sensory perceptions—sights, sounds and smells—or locate centers of urban sustainability. Such maps can help students learn about specific neighborhoods, investigate the relationship among neighborhoods, or create linkages between all the places they or their relatives have lived. Further, mapping activities may help students recognize how their own activities connect to the larger network of activities that create a city, as well as allow them to reflect on issues of power, access, and equity in relation to environmental concerns such as waste, air pollution, and access to green space.

Other observational and experiential activities to instill sense of place might include: (1) exploring boundaries or borders, for example, space under highways, transition zones between communities, fences and walls; (2) finding centers or gathering places and asking questions about where people congregate and why; (3) following the movements of pedestrians and comparing them to the movements of urban animals; (4) tracing the migratory flows of birds, insects and humans; (5) shadowing city workers who are engaged in garbage removal or other public services as they move around the city; (6) observing color and light at different times of the day; (7) observing patterns of construction and demolition; and (8) working with street artists to create murals. All of these activities could serve to develop new meanings and attachments to places that may or may not be familiar to people. The activities build on seminal works related to urban design, including Christopher Alexander’s “Pattern Language,” Randolph T. Hexter’s “Design for Ecological Democracy,” Jane Jacobs “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre’s “How to Study Public Life,” and the rich material coming from New Geographies, the journal published by the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Social construction of place meanings

Activities that allow people to explore and interpret places together could contribute to developing a collective sense of place and corresponding place meanings. Participatory action research and other participatory approaches raise young people’s critical consciousness, influence how they see themselves in relation to places, and build collective understandings about what it means to be young in a rapidly changing city. For example, photo-voice and mental mapping used during a participatory urban environment course allowed students, many of them from marginalized racial and ethnic groups, to experience a shift from viewing a community as a fixed geographic place to a dynamic, socially constructed space, and to describe how they experience and understand urban phenomena such as decay, gentrification, and access to green spaces (Bellino and Adams, 2014). These activities enabled students to expand their notions of what it means to be urban citizens, and to transform their ecological identities in ways that prompted them to take steps towards imagining environmentally, economically, and culturally sustainable futures.

Further, ecological place meaning can be constructed through storytelling, communication with environmental professionals, interpretation, learning from community members, and sharing students’ own stories (Russ et al., 2015), as well as through representation of places through narratives, charts, music, poetry, photographs, or other forms that encourage dialogue and reflection about what places are and how they can be cared for (Wattchow and Brown, 2011). Other social activities, such as collective art-making, restoring local natural areas, or planting a community garden, could contribute to a collective sense of place that values green space and ecological aspects of place. New socially constructed place meanings can in turn help to promote community engagement in preserving, transforming, or creating places with unique ecological characteristics (e.g., fighting to keep a community garden safe from developers), and create opportunities to maintain these ecological characteristics (e.g., group-purchasing solar power). Environmental educators who are able to engage with a community over time can watch these initiatives take root and grow, and can observe individual and collective changes in sense of place.

Developing an ecological identity

In addition to paying attention to social construction of place, environmental educators can nurture ecological identity, which fosters appreciation of the ecological aspects of cities. Humans have multiple identities, including ecological identity, which reflects the ecological perspectives or ecological lens through which they see the world. Ecological identity focuses one’s attention on environmental activities, green infrastructure, ecosystems, and biodiversity, including in urban places. Ecological identity in cities can be manifested in realizing one’s personal responsibility for urban sustainability, and feeling oneself empowered and competent to improve local places (Russ et al., 2015). Urban environmental education programs can influence ecological identity, for example, by involving students in long-term environmental restoration projects where they serve as experts on environmental topics, by valuing young people’s contribution to environmental planning, respecting their viewpoint about future urban development, and recognizing young people’s efforts as ambassadors of the local environment and environmental organizations (e.g., through work/volunteer titles, labels on t-shirts, or workshop certificates). Even involving students in projects that allow them to become more familiar with their community from an ecological perspective goes a long way towards adding an ecological layer to their identity and perception of their city (Bellino and Adams, 2014).


The environmental education challenge presented in this essay is how to embed deeper meanings of place and identity in dynamic urban environments. Because urban settings tend to be diverse across multiple elements, ranging from types of green space and infrastructure to global migration, there are countless ways to proceed. In addition, while environmental educators can design and facilitate experiences to access and influence people’s sense of place, it is also important for educators to have a strong notion of their own sense of place. This is especially critical for environmental educators who may not have spent their formative years in a city. Such persons may have a sense of place informed more by frequent and ready access to natural areas, and less by access to urban diversity and the density and diversity of people found in an urban environment. It is important for all urban environmental educators to engage in reflective activities that allow them to learn about their personal sense of place, including what they value about the natural, human, and built environment. Demonstrating one’s own continued learning, and learning challenges, will greatly aid in the process of facilitating other learners developing sense of place in diverse urban settings. Through sharing their own experiences with places, all learners can deepen our awareness of and sensitivity to our environment and to each other. Such awareness and receptivity to place can positively influence collective and individual actions that help create sustainable cities.

Place-based Education

Place-based Education

The Time is Now for Place Based Education

Schools are not just training grounds for children to learn content and job skills for twelve or more years before they are allowed back into broader society, ready to pursue their own individual enrichment. In the place-based education vision, schools and students become an integral part of the community acting for the public good.

By Sarah Anderson

here are multiple reasons why now is the right time for place-based education. Across the country, the stage is set for a new community-based, student-powered form of education.

Disconnection from Nature
Children are separated from the natural world more now than ever before. This crisis was well documented in Last Child in the Woods where author Richard Louv labels the problem “nature deficit disorder.” Kids are getting outside less and less, partly because of the seductions of technology, but almost more so because of parents who fear danger. The obvious result is a new generation that is less informed about the environment, and therefore potentially less likely to care about it in the future. This inadvertently places more responsibility on schools to get students outside and into the natural world around them.

Revitalizing of Democracy
While it is essential that student learn about worldwide issues and understand the idea of global citizenship, it is also vital for them to know about what is right in front of them. Technology has made it easy for us to connect with people and places thousands of miles away and spend hours of our day immersed in alternate or virtual realities. The less time we spend learning about our own towns and cities, the less knowledge we have. This leads to us feeling less qualified to participate in the local democratic process. Civic engagement connects neighbors and puts students in touch with local issues.
It is as important for students to learn how their city government works as it is for them to know about the Constitution. Local politics often affect us more directly than national issues, even if the topics may not be as sensational. Additionally, students- and their parents- can get involved and make real change on a local level. Maintaining a democracy means giving young people the tools, information and confidence they need to truly participate.

Need for a New Civic Education
The Annenberg Public Policy Center recently released the results of a poll that found that only 36% of Americans can name all three branches of government. (Annenberg 2014)[i] If American citizens don’t understand how the government works, how can they actively participate or accurately reform? We are charged with a substantial responsibility to teach students the basics of how our government operates and our democracy functions.

Another study, this one from Northwestern University and Princeton University, found that the United States is no longer a democracy, but is now an oligarchy. (Chumley 2014)[ii] Under this system of government, decisions and policies are not made by average citizens or for their benefit. The power is shifting. If citizens don’t use their voices, they risk losing them altogether.

It is our responsibility as educators to balance the scales and ensure that our children will have a say in the future. It will be the children’s responsibility to play a more active role in securing that future.

Cultivating Character
Social education has increasingly become a priority in classrooms and schools. As educators, we know that our charge is not just teaching the common core, but to show kids how to be kind and compassionate, honest and respectful. When examining the purpose of place-based education, retired Lewis and Clark College education professor Greg Smith wonders what attributes people will need in order to “contribute to the resilience and adaptability of their communities in the face of climate change, resource exhaustion, and the social disintegration likely to become widespread in coming decades.” (Greg Smith, pers. comm.)
Students working to improve their community naturally strengthen character. By actively engaging with their community, students learn to take responsibility for themselves and others. By gaining insight into diverse perspectives and experiences, students develop empathy. By performing collective acts of service, students learn to collaborate.
Long-term projects require perseverance and effective teamwork. They also demand patience and kindness. Presenting to authentic audiences made of invested adults builds both integrity and courage. Place-based education fosters the growth of caring and involved humans who recognize and value the ways in which we are all connected and depend on one another.

An Eye on Justice
One of our roles as educators in a democracy is to give students the tools they need to advocate for a better future. Our citizens need to be well-versed in American history, which includes the close study of times when we as a nation strayed from our mission of “liberty and justice for all.”
Learning from our mistakes allows us to avoid similar injustices in the future and also gives students a context for current events and conflicts. By studying slavery, students can see the roots of racial tensions today; by examining colonialism, we have a more informed understanding of recent conflict and global trade.
Likewise, looking at examples of compassionate leadership and courageous action gives young people models for own lives. For instance, it is important to know that most of the leaders in the Civil Rights Movement were average, working-class citizens who felt compelled to stand against injustice. The more students can connect to such individuals from the past and recognize our common humanity, the more opportunity there is for young people to imagine themselves as agents of positive change.

School and Communities as Mutual Resources
Many of our communities are in crisis. Paul Nachtigal, former director of the Annenberg Rural Challenge, declared that,


    “When school only focuses on how to benefit the individual, they become the enemy of the community. They educate young people to leave and so fulfill the prophecy that these places are doomed to poverty, decline and despair. Instead, we intend to rally communities to reinvent their schools as engines of renewal for the public good.”

(Cushman 1997)[iii]

As many rural areas across America lose industry, resources, and their young people, place-based education can offer a strategy for revitalization and renewal. By integrating school into the local towns, students work with partners to create or strengthen community programs and initiatives. Students develop a stronger bond with their place, rooted in experience and deep knowledge. The school and the students can even inspire local citizens to take a more active role. Place-based education recognizes that there is a link between healthy communities and a vital economy; when people are actively engaged, it attracts more people, and the hope is that the economy will follow. (Sobel 2013, 55–56)[iv]
Although many examples of place-based education can be found in rural areas, the model can also fill a special niche in cities. As the American population becomes increasingly urban, more kids are going to school in densely populated areas. Inner city areas may have just as much need for grassroots revitalization and community-building. Likewise, the city has a lot of offer to schools. Students can make better use of their local resources such as the public library, city hall, historical societies, public universities, and art museums. The city can literally become the classroom.

Making School Relevant
Student engagement is a concern for schools everywhere. Many educators are trying new strategies to combat high dropout rates. As David Perkins noted in his March 2016 Educational Leadership article “Lifeworthy Learning,” one way to keep students engaged now and for years to come is to make education more “lifeworthy.” In other words, student learning should not focus on isolated, abstract subjects, but on larger, integrated topics which have relevant connections to students’ lives such as current events or local problems.
When engaged in a successful place-based education unit, students don’t ask the age-old question, “Why do we need to learn this,” because the answer is obvious. Many times students don’t even notice that they are learning because the education is so deftly camouflaged as real life.
Making learning more relevant has an impact beyond higher graduation rates. It provides a new role for schools within their community, one where teachers and students actively contribute to civic improvement. Collaborating with colleagues and partner groups can be incredibly reinvigorating for teachers and can help combat the feelings of isolation often reported by educators in traditional schools. (Mirel and Goldin)[v]

Being the Mirror
The demographics of our nation are changing. The U.S. census predicts that by the year 2020, “…more than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group.” (U.S. Census Bureau 2015)[vi] Despite this trend in student populations, 82% of teachers are white. This is what the Center for American Progress and the National Education Association are calling a “diversity gap.” (Holland 2014)[vii]
It is vital to the health of our country that our educational programs reflect the diversity of our student bodies. When students see their experience reflected in the curriculum, they feel recognized and included. Place-based education gives us the opportunity to create content which is truly culturally responsive.
Through place-based education, teachers can shift the attention away from their own personal experience to further explore the experience of their students’. Children learn about issues relevant to them and build relationships with organizations who are working on similar topics. They will have the opportunity to examine the history of their particular place and gain more insights into local current events. Students and their communities are at the center of their learning, which will make each project unique to the needs and interests of that specific community.

“Soft” Skills
Traditional schooling does not prepare students for the world we live in today. Our colleges, universities, and places of work are not looking for young people who only know how to memorize facts, fill out worksheets, and work alone. Society is now in need of students with “soft” skills, many of which are also 21st century skills.
The Partnership for 21st Century Learning has placed four learning and innovation skills at the heart of their “Framework for 21st Century Learning.” Also known as the 4Cs, they are: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. (P21 2017)[viii]

Practicing these skills are natural components of quality place-based education programming and are necessary in its implementation. Conveniently, it is almost as if place-based education emerged in synch with this need in the marketplace.
At its core, place-based education gives us a process through which we can reconnect with our community, environment, and with each other. In a 2013 interview with Bill Moyers, the writer, activist, and farmer Wendell Berry said:
We have the world to live in on the condition that we will take good care of it. And to take good care of it, we have to know it. And to know it and be willing to take care of it, we have to love it.
There are many aspects involved in knowing, loving, and caring for our world, from incorporating diverse perspectives to honoring the rural or urban nature of our environment to teaching our kids to care for each other and the places where they live. Place-based education provides a way for us to bring our children more fully into the world while preparing them to be strong and capable stewards of their own future.

Sarah Anderson teaches middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies at a place-based charter school in Portland, Oregon. This is an excerpt from her book Bringing Life to School: Place-Based Education Across the Curriculum. Originally from rural Vermont, Anderson has also taught nature studies to urban middle school students in the California Redwoods, career skills to at-risk youth on an educational farm in Vermont and Civics and Global Studies at an independent school in Maryland. She earned a masters in education in Integrated Learning from Antioch New England Graduate School.

[i] Annenberg Public Policy Center. 2014. “Americans Know Surprisingly Little About Their Government, Survey Finds.” Accessed May 7, 2017. http://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/americans-know-surprisingly-little-about-their-government-survey-finds/

[ii] Chumley, Cheryl K. 2014. “American Is an Oligarchy, Not a Democracy of Republic, University Study Finds.” The Washington Times, April 21. Accessed May 7, 2017. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/apr/21/americas-oligarchy-not-democracy-or-republic-unive/

[iii] Cushman, Kathleen. 1997. “What Rural Schools Can Teach Urban Systems.” Challenge Journal (The Journal of the Annenberg Challenge) I, no. 2

[iv] Sobel, David. 2013. Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society

[v] Mirel, Jeffrey, and Simona Goldin. 2012. “Alone in the Classroom: Why Teachers Are Too Isolated.” The Atlantic, April 12. Accessed March 4, 2017. .https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/04/alone-in-the-classroom-why-teachers-are-too-isolated/255976/

[vi] The United State Census Bureau. 2015. “New Census Bureau Report Analyzes U.S. Population Projections.” Accessed March 24, 2017.

https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2015/cb15-tps16.html 3/24/17

[vii] Holland, Jesse J. 2014. “U.S. Teachers Nowhere as Diverse as Their Students.” The Big Story, March 4. Accessed March 24, 2017.


[viii] P21: Partnership for 21st Century Learning. “Framework for 21st Century Learning.” Accessed March 27, 2017.

Of Education and Place

Of Education and Place


Everyone Ought to Have a Ditch

“What gets lost, when we focus on facts, are the initiation experiences, the moments of transcendence when the borders between the natural world and ourselves break down.”

by David Sobel

spend a lot of time these days talking with teachers, foundation directors, environmental educators, and evaluators about how to most effectively shape environmental stewardship behavior. The $64,000 question is—what’s the most effective way to educate children who will grow up to behave in environmentally responsible ways? Or, more elaborately, what kinds of learning, or what kinds of experience will most likely shape young adults who want to protect the environment, participate on conservation commissions, think about the implications of their consumer decisions and minimize the environmental footprint of their personal lives and the organizations where they work? There’s a surprising dirth of information about exactly how this process works.

A number of researchers have studied environmentalists to try to determine if there were any similarities in their childhood experiences that contributed to their having strong ecological values and pursuing an environmental career. When Louise Chawla of Kentucky State University reviewed these studies (Chawla 1992), she found a striking pattern. Most environmentalists attributed their commitment to a combination of two sources, “many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature.” Lots of time rambling in neighborhood woods and fields and a parent or teacher who cared about nature were frequently cited as causal forces in the development of their own environmental ethics. In his autobiography about growing up in Denver, lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle describes the urban semi-wild place the inspired him.

“My own point of intimate contact with the land was a ditch. Growing up on the wrong side of Denver to reach the mountains easily and often, I resorted to the tattered edges of the Great Plains, on the back side of town. There I encountered a century-old irrigation channel known as the High Line Canal. Without a doubt, most of the elements of my life flowed from that canal.

From the time I was six, this weedy watercourse had been my sanctuary, playground and sulking walk. It was also my imaginary wilderness, escape hatch, and birthplace as a naturalist. Later, the canal served as lover’s lane, research site and holy ground of solace. Over the years, I studied its natural history, explored much of its length, watched its habitats shrink as the suburbs grew up around it, and tried to help save some of its best bits…Even when living in national parks, in exotic lands, in truly rural country side, I’ve hankered to get back to the old ditch whenever I could …
Even if they don’t know “my ditch,” most people I speak with seem to have a ditch somewhere—or a creek, meadow, wood lot or marsh—that they hold in similar regard. These are places of initiation, where the borders between ourselves and other creatures break down, where the earth gets under our nails and a sense of place gets under our skin…. It is through close and intimate contact with a particular patch of ground that we learn to respond to the earth, to see that it really matters… Everyone has a ditch, or ought to. For only the ditches—and the fields, the woods, the ravines—can teach us to care enough for the land.” (Pyle, 1993)

One problem, of course, is that every child doesn’t have a ditch, or even if they do, they’re not allowed access to it. As more than half of the world’s children live in urban settings, the availability of ditches, or just urban parklands, is shrinking. Even in rural and suburban settings where patches of woods and ponds are available, parents’ concerns about pollution and abduction make these places unavailable. And so the task of providing access to semi-wild places with the tutelage of caring adults often falls to environmental educators. But as environmental educators seek to professionalize their endeavors and work more closely with schools, they become assimilated into the world of standards, curriculum frameworks and high stakes tests. Learning about the environment becomes ingesting a sequence of facts and concepts that create environmental knowledge. The underlying assumption is that knowledge leads to the creation of attitudes that eventually lead to thoughtful environmental behaviors.

For instance, California’s curriculum guidelines for Understanding the Local Environment starts out with the healthy notion that, “Direct experience in the environment also helps foster the awareness and appreciation that motivate learners to further questioning, better understanding and appropriate concern and action.” This is followed by content guidelines for different grade levels. Here’s an example of a set of related guidelines through the curriculum.

Grades K-4: Identify basic types of habitats (e.g.. forests, wetlands, or lakes). Create a short list of plants and animals found in each.
Grades 5-8: Classify local ecosystems (e.g.. oak-hickory forest or sedge meadow). Create food webs to show, or describe their function in terms of, the interaction of specific plant and animal species.
Grades 9-12: Identify several plants and animals common to local ecosystems. Describe concepts such as succession, competition, predator/prey relationships and parasitism.

This is a developmentally appropriate sequence of knowledge objectives, but there’s an inherent problem. Because these curriculum guidelines are connected to state assessments, the focus often collapses into making sure the students can recite the information. They follow the old Dragnet maxim: “Just the facts, m’am.” As a result, providing the direct experience falls to the wayside. The opportunity to explore the ditch gets replaced by memorizing lists.

Go back to Pyle’s description above to see where the problem lies. From exploring the ditch, he became interested in natural history and then became an advocate for preservation. Sounds like knowledge to attitudes to behavior. My contention, however, is that the crux element in his description is, “These are places of initiation, where the borders between ourselves and other creatures break down, where the earth gets under our nails and a sense of place gets under our skin.” What gets lost, when we focus on facts, are the initiation experiences, the moments of transcendence when the borders between the natural world and ourselves break down. It’s like Dylan Thomas describing “I was aware of myself in the exact middle of a living story, and my body was my adventure and my name.” It’s these experiences that provide the essential glue, the deep motivational attitude and commitment, the sense of place. These in turn fuel the pursuit of knowledge that leads to conservation behavior. John Burroughs puts it simply when he says, “Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow.”

Which leads me to my controversial hypothesis. “One transcendent experience in nature is worth 1000 nature facts.” Stated in a slightly more positive form, it may be that one transcendent experience in the landscape has the potential for leading to 1000 nature facts. Maybe even to infinity and beyond. So the question becomes: How do we design family outings, school curriculum, and environmental learning opportunities with an eye towards optimizing the possibility of creating transcendent experiences? Of course, first we have to get a sense of what these transcendent experiences are and if they really make a difference before we can decide that they’re important to pursue.

Nature Mysticism
Writing at the beginning of the 19th century, William Wordsworth was the one of first poets to identify the significance of children’s nature experiences. In his Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, Woodsworth recalls his boyhood wanderings saying,

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

Wordsworth contended that children perceived nature differently from adults and that this mode of perception was a gift rather than a delusion. Their experiences were transcendent in that the individual often felt connected to or merged with the natural world in some highly compelling fashion.

Following Wordsworth’s lead, anthropologist Edith Cobb reviewed the autobiographies of 300 European geniuses and found that many of them described similar kinds of experiences in childhood.

“My position is based upon the fact that the study of the child in nature, culture and society reveals that there is a special period, the little understood, pre pubertal, halcyon, middle age of childhood, approximately from five or six to eleven or twelve, between the strivings of animal infancy and the storms of adolescence—when the natural world is experienced in some highly evocative way, producing in the child a sense of some profound continuity with natural processes….”

It is principally to this middle-age range in their early life that these writers say they return in memory in order to renew the power and impulse to create at its very source, a source which they describe as the experience of emerging not only into the light of consciousness but into a living sense of a dynamic relationship with the outer world. In these memories the child appears to experience a sense of discontinuity, an awareness of his own unique separateness and identity, and also a continuity, a renewal of relationship with nature as process.

Cobb’s description, (a renewal of relationship with nature as process) is surprisingly ecological in character, especially when you recognize that she was writing in the mid 1950’s, well before any ecological theory had developed.

It turns out, however, that these experiences are not limited to geniuses. Two similar, but unconnected studies, document the widespread occurrence of spiritual experiences in nature during childhood. The Original Vision: A Study of the Religious Experience of Childhood by Edward Robinson was conducted by the Religious Experience Research Unit at Oxford University in England in 1977. Visions of Innocence: Spiritual and Inspirational Experiences of Childhood is a study completed by Edward Hoffman in 1992, a practicing psychologist and university professor who solicited descriptions of childhood experiences from adults in the United States and around the world. Hoffman does not reference Robinson’s study, so they appear to be quite independent, though their findings are absolutely resonant.

Robinson’s British study was based on adult responses to a published query in newspapers asking people if they had ever “felt that their lives had in any way been affected by some power beyond themselves.” Of 4000 responses, about 15% described childhood experiences and a significant proportion of these occurred in nature. Robinson analyzes these is a chapter entitled Nature Mysticism. Hoffman’s study similarly requested respondents, “Can you recall any experiences from your childhood—before the age of fourteen—that could be called mystical or intensely spiritual?” Again, though no mention was made of nature, a significant proportion of the experiences described are nature-based.

Both authors describe that these are accounts written by adults of childhood experiences. Many of the writers suggest that though the childhood experience was monumental in significance, they had no way of describing the experience in childhood. They were swept up in a wave of awe, but had no way to tell their parents what they had felt. Robinson and Hoffman both acknowledge the possibility of the experience being reshaped by years of memory, but the similarity of the descriptions suggests an integrity to the original experience. Let’s dip into some of the experiences.

“Through the spring, summer and autumn days from about the age of seven, I would sit alone in my little house in the tree tops observing nature around me and the sky overhead at night. I was too young to be able to think and reason in the true sense, but with the open receptive mind of a young, healthy boy I slowly became aware of vague, mysterious laws in everything around me. I must have become attuned to nature. I felt these laws of life and movement so deeply they seemed to saturate my whole mind and body, yet they always remained just beyond my grasp and understanding.”

    (68 year old male)

“When I was about eleven years old, I spent part of a summer holiday in the Wye Valley. Waking up very early one bring morning, before any of the household was about, I left my bed and went to kneel on the window-seat, to look out over the curve which the river took just below the house…The morning sunlight shimmered on the leaves of the trees and on the rippling surface of the river. The scene was very beautiful, and quite suddenly I felt myself on the verge of a great revelation. It was if I had stumbled unwittingly on a place where I was not expected, and was about to be initiated into some wonderful mystery, something of indescribable significance. Then, just as suddenly, the feeling faded. But for the brief seconds while it lasted, I had known that in some strange way I, the essential ‘me’, was a part of the trees, of the sunshine, and the river, that we all belonged to some great unity. I was left filled with exhilaration and exultation of spirit. This is one of the most memorable experiences of my life, of a quite different quality and greater intensity than the sudden lift of the spirit one may often feel when confronted with beauty in Nature.”

    (40-year-old female)

The comments of the woman above illustrate Edith Cobb’s notion of discontinuity or unique separateness and continuity or oneness with nature. The woman sitting at the window describes “the essential me” (her unique separateness) being unified with the trees, the sunshine and the river, (continuity with nature). I contend that this sense of deep empathy, of being saturated with nature, yet unique and separate, is one of the core gifts of middle childhood. The sense of continuity provides the foundation for an empathic relationship with the natural world and the sense of separateness provides a sense of agency, of being able to take responsible action for the natural world. The deep bond creates a commitment to lifelong protection. The next question then might be: Are these experiences really specific to childhood? These next two recollections suggest the narrowness of the developmental window of opportunity.

“The only aspect in which I think my childhood experience was more vivid than in later life was in my contact with nature. I seemed to have a more direct relationship with flowers, trees and animals, and there are certain particular occasions which I can still remember in which I was overcome by a great joy as I saw the first irises opening or picked daisies in the dew-covered lawn before breakfast. There seemed to be no barrier between the flowers and myself, and this was a source of unutterable delight. As I grew older, I still had a great love of nature and like to spend holidays in solitary places, particularly in the mountains, but this direct contact seemed to fade, and I was sad about it. I was not quite able to grasp something which was precious.”

    (46-year-old female)

From a thirty-three year old German woman who grew up an urban setting.

“Our home was in the city, but fortunately we lived only a few minutes away from a beautiful park with many kinds of flower….On Sundays, we made trips regardless of the weather to the nearby Harz Mountains…
I can’t remember if my parents ever told me that nature is alive or has a certain spirit. But I always felt that nature had a definite soul. In our backyard an old maple tree stood, and I used to climb up it and spend many hours amid its branches. I would hug this old tree, and I always felt that it spoke to me. Its branches and leaves were like arms hugging and touching me, especially on windy days.
Not only the trees could speak to me, but also all the plants, streams and even the stones…When I would find an especially beautiful rock on the road, I would take it, feel it, observe it, smell it, taste it and then listen to its voice. Afterward, I would return happily to my parents and relate what the trees or flowers, rocks or brook had told me. They would find this amusing, and were proud of their daughter’s imagination…
Then school began, and everything changed. Because of my intense involvement with nature, I couldn’t relate well to other children who seemed silly and babyish to me. They found me strange and funny. But even harder was the change at home. Now (my parents) denied everything. ‘What nonsense! The rocks can’t talk! Don’t let anybody hear this, because they’ll think you’re crazy.’ How right my parents were. I found out one day when my classmates saw me talking to a big chestnut tree in front of the schoolyard. Not only did they ridicule me, but they told the teacher, who requested a meeting with my parents the next day…
My parents recounted the conversation to me and clearly showed how ashamed they were ‘to have such a crazy child.’ From that day onward, my magic was systemically ruined or destroyed… So it happened, that I started believing that nature was mute and couldn’t speak to me.”

The window of opportunity is both developmental and cultural. The account of the first woman parallels the account of the 14 year old in the previous chapter describing how, at adolescence, she was just no longer able to capture the sense of transcendence after a certain age. The account of the German woman suggests that even when a child has a particular disposition towards transcendent experiences, the cultural context only tolerates this kind of magical thinking up through the end of early childhood. It’s like imaginary friends—up till about seven they’re cute, after seven they become indicative of a child’s avoidance of reality.

Both Robinson’s and Hoffman’s studies are filled with similar descriptions. They become almost boring in their similarity, but that’s the interesting part. They seem to reveal a reasonably common propensity towards transcendent experiences during middle childhood. Now, no longitudinal studies have been done to assess whether these people behave in a more ecologically responsible fashion in adulthood than the general population. My speculation, however, is that once you’ve felt continuous, and at one with the natural world, it will powerfully compel you to environmental ethics and behavior. Therefore, it follows, that if we want to develop environmental values, we should try to optimize the opportunity for transcendent nature experiences in middle childhood. Tall order? That’s where the children and nature design principles come in handy.

David Sobel is a Senior Faculty in the Education Department at Antioch University New England. He also coordinates Antioch’s new Nature-based Early Childhood program. Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, David plays a major role in what has become a national movement promoting place-based education, an approach that has blossomed—from studying biology in the school yard to creating mapping businesses, and other neighborhood services. Each is an exercise in changing the way students learn about the environment and their place in it. David advocates using students’ home turf to study topics and issues related to sustainability, not just ecology but also local history, culture, and the economy. David is the author of a number of books including Children’s Special Places and Beyond Ecophobia.

Integrating Place-based Learning

Integrating Place-based Learning


Wenatchee School District’s Case Study of Science Field Experiences

by Susan Ballinger and Karen Rutherford

T3his year (2005) in the shrub-steppe eco-region of rural Eastern Washington, over 3600 elementary students, teachers, and adult volunteers will spend a wonderful day of adventure and learning outdoors, at a science field experience. Kindergarteners pound leaf chlorophyll into fabric, 1st graders capture insects amidst blooming wildflowers, 2nd graders use iodine to measure sugar content in ripening apples, 3rd graders wade in icy waters looking for aquatic insects, 4th graders build paper dams, and 5th graders climb a 1000-ft mountain, rewarded with an expansive view their valley home below.

All science field experiences take place within a 20-mile radius of city elementary schools. Each experience is co-sponsored by local organizations. In the Wenatchee School District, a field experience differs significantly from a just-for-fun “field trip.” This place-based field experience is a relevant, multidisciplinary day of adventure and learning in a local outdoor setting. There are two distinct parts to a field experience, both tied to local natural resources:
1. In-class curriculum integrating science and social studies concepts
2. On-site field curriculum, applying classroom concepts with hands-on activities.
Here is our story of how weíve worked from the inside of our school district to make significant connections with the natural and cultural landscape of our collective home.
(Table 1).


As field teachers, we try to fight the desire to verbally import knowledge and instead allow students time and space to discover using their senses.

The Wenatchee School District (WSD) is located along the Columbia River in the state’s geographic center with a rural metropolitan population of 50,000.
Over 7,000 students are served at seven elementary schools, three middle schools, an alternative high school, and a 4A high school. Our K-5th student population is 55% Hispanic with 55% Free/Reduced lunch poverty levels.

Six years ago, the Wenatchee School district embraced a vision to connect classroom science curriculum to the local landscape of our watershed and cultural community. At that time, our assistant superintendent, Dr. Jeanine Butler, wanted our district to comply with our state’s (unfunded) mandate to provide environmental education, K-12. A wonderful model existed in the Leavenworth Salmonfest, serving all 3rd grade students in our region. This outdoor festival co-sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S.D.A. Forest Service included teacher training for classroom pre-work lessons. Student come to Salmonfest with foundational knowledge and participates in hands-on activities at the festival. Initially, only schools that had strong parent support organizations could afford to pay for school bus transportation to Salmonfest. Dr. Butler recognized the need for equity and strategically budgeted bus transportation money for all schools into the science curriculum. This budget decision significantly addresses the issue of environmental justice. In our district, we see a high correlation between poverty and ethnicity in student populations, which is reflected in our low scores on state standardized testing. Among our 7 elementary schools, a wide disparity between overall ethnic and poverty levels is found between buildings. Schools with high poverty rates have fewer resources available to provide student trips. With a district-level initiative, all students, regardless of income or ethnicity, have this opportunity and an even-playing field for learning. For science field experiences, district-budgeted bus transportation money has been the key to serving all schools.


The community college arboretum is the location for the kindergartner Wenatchee Tree Walk and college students work as volunteer teachers.

Community partners provide the key help needed to launch a science field experience. For example, the USDA Forest Service spearheaded a successful grant-writing effort that enabled the purchase of supplies and development of the 5th grade field experience curriculum. Our 4th grade field experience found significant funding support at our local Public Utility District for 25 classroom kits, valued at $400 each. They are our hosts for our annual watershed-based River of Power experience at Rocky Reach hydroelectric dam. Our community college arboretum is the location for our kindergartener Wenatchee Tree Walk and college students work as volunteer teachers. Our local museum provided relevant local history resources and staffing for many grade level experiences. Members of local non-profit conservation organizations volunteer each year as field teachers. Our local Arbor Day Committee purchased non-fiction tree books for 25 classroom kits. As part of their coursework, Central Washington University pre-service teachers lead groups of 5th graders each May. This broad base of community support has institutionalized field experiences in both the school district and the partner organization.

The key to effective use of community agencies and organizations has been the use of a school district coordinator. The coordinator initiates the contacts, ensures good communication, and follows through with strategically worded thank you letters sent to organization leaders and local newspaper letters-to-the-editor.

Most of our community partners have organizational education goals and our district curriculum structure allows them to concentrate their efforts annually. For example, instead of responding to year-round requests from individual teachers to give tours or be guest speakers, local research scientists from Washington State University know that every September, they will teach stations as part of the Awesome Apple Adventures, serving every 2nd grade student in our town in a concentrated manner.

Teacher today are under great time pressures. Increased testing requirements means even less class time is available for extra activities or field trips. By using a district science field experience coordinator, classroom teachers can focus solely on teaching. The district coordinator designs, and produces an in-class curriculum. With this, we provide a classroom kit filled with all the materials needed to teach the classroom field experience lessons, from videos to local maps, books, and supplies. For example, our second teachers receive an art kit with craft supplies necessary to make anatomically correct insects. This pre-work art lesson prepares students to learn in the field where they use beating trays to find aphids and moths living in apple trees. Another example is our linkage of local cultural history to watershed concepts when our fourth graders view a vintage 1950s film documenting the building of Rocky Reach Dam, prior to their visit.

Awsesome Apple 2003 022

A pre-work art lesson prepares students to learn in the field where they use beating trays to find aphids and moths living in apple trees.

Seven years ago, we adopted a national FOSS curriculum for K-5th grades. This broad-based national curriculum needed a local focus to become relevant, interesting, and meaningful to our teachers. Teachers have no time to research local connections and then integrate this into the adopted curriculum. For example, our fifth grade teachers were struggling to teach the FOSS landform kit topographic map lessons, using a Mt. Shasta map, and many found the stream tables to be baffling. Most had never heard of Mt. Shasta and had never worked with a topographic map themselves. Many teachers are new to our region and had limited knowledge of the local environment and landforms. Teachers simply didn’t realize that our region was a topographic wonderland. Views of Mt. Rainer, catastrophic Ice Age floods, and the Columbia River Watershed were literally within a short bus ride of every classroom. As curriculum designers, we realized we had to start with adult-level learning as a key part of our trainings, giving foundational knowledge to our teachers. At the training, our teachers heard a respected local geologist lecture about our valley’s remarkable erosional features. Suddenly, stream tables are seen not as sandboxes, but as working models of the Columbia River that bisects our town. The FOSS curriculum suddenly had connections to the local environments, so teachers saw the connection between science and experience.

Classroom teachers, librarians, and music specialists spend one month preparing students using science lessons, integrated with reading, writing, art, music, and social studies. Our 4th and 5th grade curriculums include a student reader containing local artist biographies, memoirs, interpretive sign texts, song lyrics, poems, legends, radio plays, and newspaper articles. Classroom teachers have the option to teach non-fiction reading lessons using original source material directly linked to the science lessons. After the experience, students reflect on their experiences and new knowledge by drawing, composing poetry, producing a play, and or by writing essays as culminating classroom projects.

Awsesome Apple 2003 029

Local research scientists from Washington State University teach stations as part of the Awesome Apple Adventures.

Coordinators, not teachers, set up the logistics of the experience, so teachers can instead focus on preparing their students to learn in the field. Coordinators write and prepare hands-on field station curriculum, schedule the buses, recruit station teachers, and devise class rotation schedules. The coordinators take care of the nuts-and-bolts of putting on a big event: making sure everyone can get to where need to be, drink, eat, use the bathroom, and stay safe. They make sure that schedules are fastened to clipboards, binder clips secure watercolor paper to lap easels, port-a-potties and hand-sanitizer are strategically placed, small digital clocks attached to clipboards, large water jugs are ready to refill water bottles, and first aid kits are on hand to handle skinned knees.

One of the most fun and creative parts of developing a science field experience is designing the outdoor learning stations. We aim to select activities that extend classroom learning, are best done outside, are too messy for the classroom, and that require special equipment. We assemble an array of visual aids and needed tools into a station kit that is delivered to the field location, ready to go. We often enlist the expertise of a scientist to help with the content of a field lesson. For example, several local wildlife biologists helped develop 5th grade stations called “Mule Deer/ Marmot.” and “Coyote/Cougar.” We use pelts, scat, prints, skulls, and photographs to compare and contrast the life history of these two sets of native mammal species.

We strive to offer an art or music station at each field experience. Art teachers develop the watercolor painting or pastel drawing lessons so that every student produces a masterpiece in the field that is later delivered to their classroom. Our music teachers have enthusiastically created music stations, teaching science content through finger-plays, songs, dances, and games. We provide classroom teachers with a music CD (recorded in-house) so students can start to learn the songs before coming to the field experience.

Each station lesson presentation is written as a “script” so that a non-scientist volunteer or paid teacher can successfully present the material with minimal preparation time. If a skilled professional is available as a station volunteer, we encourage them to modify and extend the lesson to best match their expertise. These scripts are modified and improved each year, using input from the field teachers.

Saddlerock Hike 2004 003

Teachers simply didn’t realize that the region was a topographic wonderland. Views of Mt. Rainier, catastrophic Ice Age floods, and the Columbia River Watershed were literally within a short bus ride of every classroom.

A critical element for success of a field experience is detailed event planning. Logistically, field experiences differ significantly in length, type of location, and structure. We try to match amount of time spent in the field with the developmental abilities of students. Kindergarten students spend only 2 hours on site, eliminating the need for eating, having lots of extra water available, and frequent bathroom stops within this time window. In contrast, our 5th graders spend 5-1/2 hours on site, hiking a steep trail, covering a roundtrip distance of three miles. We provide port-a-potties at 3 strategic points, lots of water, and schedule a 1/2 hour seated lunch break. While students rest at lunch, music teachers lead a camp song sing-a-long.

In-District partnerships are another key to our success. The most essential partnership has been between the two co-coordinators for field experiences. Both of us bring a different suite of skills to the tasks of curriculum and event design, event implementation, and last-minute problem-solving. It takes two coordinators to pull off each event, dealing with the last minute crisis that always arises. We do have stories to tell! Maybe you’d like to hear about the time a sudden gust of high winds blew over a port-a-pottie, with a child inside!

In designing the activities and the flow of the day in the field, we’ve borrowed what we call the “Disneyland principles.” To ensure that science learning can happen in the field:
1. Participants leave, wanting to come back because they didn’t get to do everything;
2. Music is embedded in the event;
3. Adequate food and drink are ensured;
4. A wide variety of offered activities; and
5. Something to take home to remember the experience.

What may look like a marketing plan, in reality has ensured a quality science learning experience for all ages of participants. It ensures a good flow of the day that taps into all the senses. We strive to create a scheduled day that runs smoothly with a balance of activities at a pace that isn’t rushed. At all of our experiences, student groups attend some, but not all learning stations. Many of students are dual-language learners so field learning activities involve touch, smell, and creation of art, singing, and movement. We strive to minimize talk and maximize doing. As field teachers, we try to fight the desire to verbally impart knowledge and instead allow students time and space to discover using their senses. Simply being in an unfamiliar outdoor environment is very new to our mostly urban, poor children. We try to select field locations in public spaces so children can potentially return with their families.

Saddlerock Hike 2004 030

We’ve discovered that field eperiences have woven a web-like interdependency between non-classroom employees and our classroom teachers in our school district.

We’ve discovered that field experience have woven a web-like interdependency between non-classroom employees and our classroom teachers in our school district. School nurses, warehouse managers, delivery truck drivers, building secretaries, food service workers and district office administrators all provide logistic support. We’ve also built partnerships with a corps of district substitute teachers who are hardy souls, willing to teach outdoors in all types of weather. We depend upon hired station teachers who can modify and adjust their teaching when high winds spread materials far and wide, a massive bloody nose erupts, or when a rambunctious high school helper decides to capture a bull snake. Community volunteers, many of whom are retired, and will likely vote in the next school bond levy, have positive, one-on-one contact with students and are introduced to the diversity of our student population. Many of our volunteers return year after year. We often need to provide special transportation for senior citizens and some teachers in order to get them to their teaching locations. We strongly encourage pregnant teachers to take advantage of our transportation offers!

Creating a sustainable field experience program is important to us. Often, outdoor education programs depend upon the charisma and energy of a few key people and once these people move on, the program dies. By fully integrating our field experiences into classroom curriculum, they have become part of the schoolís culture. Students and teachers alike look forward to their annual adventure in the field. District funding ensures that staff are dedicated to refurbishing kits and implementing six yearly experiences.

An important key to our success is that we’ve taken the FOSS and STC national general science curriculums and made them place-based for both social studies and science. Integration has helped our teachers see the “why” of teaching science because it is locally relevant and fun. We’ve brought science “home.”


Author Biographies
Karen Rutherford is the K-8th Science Resource Coordinator for Wenatchee School District. Over the past 6 years, Karen has implemented and maintained over 270 FOSS and STC kits. Karen has a strong background in Marketing and Business to compliment her passion for science education.

Susan Reynolds Ballinger has a M.S. Education and M.A. Biology and works as a consultant to Wenatchee School District as the Science Field Experience Coordinator. Susan’s former pursuits include middle school science teaching, biology field work, and a variety of natural history interpretation projects.

For Science Field Experiences, Karen and Susan have worked together for over five years on grant-writing, curriculum development, kit assembly, and event coordination.

Human/Natural Systems Interactions

Human/Natural Systems Interactions


Human/Natural Systems Interactions:
A Framework

A critical thinking tool for developing ecological literacy throughout the curriculum compares cultures and their relationship to the natural world.

by Barbara Jackson

I-bluen this era of relentless consumption of non-renewable resources, there is a tremendous need for the teaching of ecological concepts, in as many ways and places as possible. Society is at risk from these future consumers and decision makers who have little direct experience with the natural world and who often lack opportunities to make direct connections between their studies and their impact on ecosystems. Without creating accurate yet gloomy scenarios on the state of planetary health that often engender a feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness in the individual, it is possible to provide information that helps fill in the missing pieces. Hopefully, those little pieces can help build a larger picture that looks at the interrelationships between man and planetary systems.

JacksonOutline102In formal educational settings, ecology and ecological literacy, if taught at all, are generally the domain of the science teacher. In such places, there is a need to provide more opportunities for kids to be exposed to what was once common knowledge of the living world. Infusion of small pieces is a valuable approach when one considers that the process of becoming ecologically literate is much more than a unit in science class. Ecological literacy is a way of seeing the world and the interactions between people and the living systems as interconnected. It comes from developing a body of basic knowledge from first hand experience and from reflection upon useful information gained through exposure to varied media.

There is the risk of offering small, disconnected pieces, yet in fact such an approach provides the opportunity to scatter many small seeds of connectedness into the still open mind of the adolescent. By planting seeds, the kids are being given information that hopefully they will find useful in the future as they look deeper at the world around them.
The Human/Natural Systems Interactions matrix below was most recently used as a wrap-up exercise after reading two books in class, The Giver, a tale of a future time in a society devoid of memory by Lois Lowry and Two Old Women by Velma Wallis, which is a tale of survival of two elderly Aleut women, abandoned by their band in a time of starvation during a hard winter. For the student, the focus of the exercise is to make a comparison between the future society as found in The Giver , the indigenous culture in Two Old Women and the life they live as typical North Americans. The matrix also lends itself to a comparison between a historic time period, the present and the future time and also can be used to compare what is known about different cultures and their world views.

The matrix exercise evolved from two complementary musings. In The Co-Evolution Quarterly in a 1981-82 article on bio-regionalism and watersheds, the editors asked:

1. What soil series are you standing on?
2. When was the last time a fire burned your area?
3. Name five native edible plants in your region and their seasons of availability.
4. From what direction do winter storms generally come in your region?
5. Where does your garbage go?
6. How long is the growing season where you live?
7. Name five grasses in your area. Are any of them native?
8. Name five resident and five migratory birds in your area.
9. What species have become extinct in your area?
10. What are the major plant associations in your region?

When first exposed to those questions, I was intrigued, But, after answering the questions to my own satisfaction, I forgot about them until I saw them again in the David Orr’s book Ecological Literacy.

At the time I was reading Ecological Literacy, my daughter’s 7th grade social studies teacher used “Cultural Universals” for the class study of ancient civilizations. Cultural Universals is an outline format to help students look at the commonalities underlying cultures, in the areas such as art, religion, trade, and government. The Cultural Universals outline helps students recognize that while we may look different and speak different languages and call our gods different names, there are common activities to all cultures. With this frame of reference, attempts at understanding humanity throughout the ages can become more than a recitation of facts.

Furthermore, outlining cultural universals is a great way to practice going from the general to the specific as the skills of outlining are developed.


The Human-Natural Systems Interaction matrix evolved as an extension of the Co-Evolution questions and the Cultural Universals outline. As a matrix it can be used to look at how human nature has both changed and stayed the same for many generations.
The matrix is a critical thinking tool to help students develop a frame of reference for making comparisons between cultures. It also helps students delve deeper into the author’s message, rather than simply asking them to prepare a rehash of the storyline and a list the characters. The matrix provides the opportunity to reflect upon what we know of the natural world and our relationship to that world.


Co-Evolution Quarterly, 32 (Winter 1981-2).

Lipetzky, Jerry, Dig 2, Interaction Publishers, Lakeside, CA, 1982.

Orr, David W. Ecological Literacy, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1992.

When this article was published, Barbara Jackson was an 8th grade teacher at Anacortes Middle School in Anacortes, Washington.


Of Education and Place

Place-based Learning: Community Mapping

PathwaysMapmakingEngaging Students With/in Place through Community Mapping

By Susan Jagger
University of Toronto

This article was reprinted from Pathways – The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, Volume 26, Issue 3

C (Dakota)ommunity mapping brings together local people as they celebrate local geography, ecosystems, and stories of place through created representations of their communities (Lydon, 2003; Perkins, 2007). Mapmaking itself is a way of making sense of the world and of our place within it, and community mapping can help us to come to know our local environments. The process of mapmaking is key in community mapping; indeed, much of the value in community mapping is not so much in the product but rather in the collaborative sharing and discovering of place that leads to the map’s creation (Parker, 2006). I wondered about the pedagogical possibilities for community mapping in the K–12 curriculum and began a study that examined how participation in such a project could influence grade four students’ environmental knowledge, attitudes and actions (see Jagger, 2009 and Jagger, 2014 for a discussion of the research).

I worked collaboratively with Ms C.1, a grade four teacher, to plan and teach a three-month long, cross-curricular community mapping project of Sandy Beach Provincial Park. We focused on four themes in our project: local history, natural history, First Nations history, and personal connections to the park. Our mapwork drew from multiple field trips to the park, a visit to the local cemetery, and class visits from the museum manager and school First Nations liaison person. The following is an overview of some of our project’s mapping activities.

Introducing Mapmaking and Sandy Beach
We began our project with a small group brainstorming web of the question, “What can maps tell us?” To extend thinking, we shared a range of maps—from traditional topographic maps to handmade written and photographic representations of place—and asked students to then revisit their webs to make additions. The students were drawn to familiar political and road maps; some students did not identify the alternative maps as maps at all. One student, Charles, confided in me that maps were not made by people and that “you can’t make maps.”

Following this initial look at maps, we had our first visit to Sandy Beach. This visit was intended as an opportunity for students to familiarize themselves with the park and, given that it was the beginning of September, a chance for the class to build a sense of community. Students used digital cameras to take photographs and several parent volunteers accompanied us, allowing for small group, free-choice park explorations.

Back at school, students made their first maps of places very familiar to them—their bedrooms and the school playground. Bedroom maps were done by students at home and in a form of their choice. Most students created bird’s eye view maps of their rooms; some made their drawings to scale and in perspective. In small groups, students created a section map of the school playground (the playground was divided into nine sections to be mapped in a three-by-three grid; when completed the maps were put together to create a complete playground map). To guide their mapwork, students were asked to explore the sounds, textures, colours, shapes and sizes in the playground, and they spent time outside listening, touching and seeing the complexity of the playground space. The completed maps took on a variety of forms (e.g., side view, bird’s eye view) and included a range of techniques (e.g., grass pieces glued onto map, crayon rubbings to show texture).

Connecting with Local and First Nations Histories
Ms C. and I wanted to actively bring the community—its people and places—into our mapping project. To do this, we complemented our experiences at Sandy Beach with visits from both the local museum manager (Mr. B.) and the school district First Nations liaison person (Ms E.), and with a class field trip to the local cemetery.

Mr. B. arrived from the museum with (quite literally) a treasure chest full of artifacts from Sandy Beach to share with the students. Some pieces were the very tools used by the Barry family—the family who used to live and farm on the land that would become the park. The students quickly made connections between what they discovered at the park and the stories told by Mr. B. Guided by careful observations, the students made pastel sketches of chosen artefacts.

As it was important to us to recognize the traditional uses of the land in our mapping work, we invited the school district’s First Nations liaison person, Ms E., to be part of our project. Ms E. visited the class twice, and during her visits she taught the students about the traditional uses of Western Red Cedar in both practice and ceremony. In her workshops, Ms E. showed examples of woven cedar baskets and jewellery, and taught students to weave cedar mats of their own. Her underlying message to the students about cedar, and all natural elements used by First Nations people, was of respect and the importance of giving back to the land when we take from it.

The local cemetery was a short walk from the school and afforded us with a further trip back into local history. Here, the stories of the Barry family came to life as many of the family members were buried there. The students searched the cemetery for all of the members of the Barry family and used crayons and paper to make tombstone rubbings.

Exploring the Natural History of Sandy Beach
We took our second trip to the park about one month into the project. This visit was an exploration of the natural history of the park including the diversity of life and the park’s ecosystems. To guide their experiences, we asked students to keep three words in mind: unusual, interesting and change. Again, students used digital cameras to capture their explorations and parent volunteers accompanied small groups in three activities: a low tide beach walk, a scavenger hunt, and a sound and colour walk.

Ms C. led the students on the low tide beach walk. We planned our visit to coincide with low tide so the students could compare and contrast the high and low tidal zones and the transition between zones. Ms C.’s experience as a park naturalist at Sandy Beach guided the students’ explorations as she helped students to identify species, ecosystems and interactions. Students also used small magnifying glasses to examine details and intricacies of the features of the beach. Below, Quinn uses a magnifying glass to examine tiny molluscs attached to a rock (see Figure 1).

I created a map for a parent-led scavenger hunt that guided groups along a planned route through several different ecosystems—meadow, marsh, forest and beach. Students were asked to be mindful of their changing surroundings and reminded of the trip’s guiding words. Student observations were documented in their photographs and field notes. These photographs were put together in a class album of the visit, and back at school the groups came together again to write descriptive captions of the pictures from their walks.

To increase students’ awareness of the living things around them, I led groups on a sound and colour walk during which participants were asked to slow down and stop to listen and look. We listened quietly to the sounds surrounding us: the chirping of crickets, the laughing of ravens, the crashing of waves, the crunching of gravel. Before the start of the project, I collected paint chip cards from the local home improvement store and on our walk, we matched the cards to colours noticed along our walk. We renamed those colour samples to reflect the shades and hues of Sandy Beach (e.g., Douglas Fir Cone Brown, Rosebud Red, Arbutus Peeling Bark). The renamed paint chips were included in the class album of trips to Sandy Beach and in a mosaic frame for our emergent bulletin board map. The photographs, stories and observations from our visits to Sandy Beach were used to create an emergent bulletin board map (Sobel, 1998). I started the map with a very basic outline of the park—the shoreline, access road, parking areas and campground—and over several days, small groups of students added to the map. Some students drew in trails we walked along.

Others contributed written descriptions of features of the park they remembered. Still others added photographs that shared what we had experienced at the park. As we created the map, students looked through the album of photographs taken on our visits, shared their experiences with me, and added captions to the pictures.

Celebrating Personal Connections to Place
It was very clear to Ms C. and me that the students had developed deep personal connections to Sandy Beach. Students eagerly shared with us stories of special times at the park—recollections of weddings, first visits to the beach, earlier field trips and explorations with family and friends. It was important to us to really honour these affective understandings of place and so we focused our last visit to Sandy Beach on students’ cherished places there. As with other visits, students were in small groups, but on this visit students led the exploration of the park. The groups visited students’ cherished places and were told by the students what made that place so special to them. Many of these places were related to play—the driftwood pile that made a great fort, the tree that was like a swing, the tidal pools that were fun to explore. Students’ special places also
included spaces for quiet reflection and enjoying the beauty of the park—“the Dinosaur tree in the very quiet woods,” the beach with its beautiful shells, the amphitheatre “because I feel free there.” Students mapped their cherished places by creating clay sculptures and writing short descriptions of those places.

Mapping It All Together
Students shared their cherished places, along with their knowledge of the park’s natural, First Nations, and local histories in their If you came to Sandy Beach, I would show you… class book. We used Sheryl McFarlane’s Jessie’s Islandas a model for this mapwork, a book in which McFarlane shares the story of Jessie who writes a letter to her cousin describing all of the wonders he would see if he visited her home. With Jessie’s Islandas a guide, the students wrote letters to family members and friends who had never been to Sandy Beach. Letters included descriptions of plants, animals and ecosystems that could be seen at the park. Students recalled the stories of the Barry family’s first years on the farm and wrote about how First Nations peoples traditionally lived on the land. The letters also shared students’ own memories of cherished places and experiences at Sandy Beach. Over the course of the project, teachers and parents shared with me special memories that they had of Sandy Beach so we invited the school community to write letters as well.

Our class book beautifully brought together all of the experiences of the mapping project and allowed students (and some teachers and parents) to reflect on the experience of being and learning in place. Other books that celebrate place and could be used in mapping projects include Harrington and Stevenson’s (2005) Islands in the Salish Sea, Kronick’s (2013) How Victoria Has Changed, and Moak’s (1984) A Big City Alphabet.

Community Mapping as a Pedagogical Tool
Community mapping can be a wonderful way to infuse place-based environmental education across the curriculum. Our project was truly cross-curricular as we drew science, social studies, language arts, fine arts and citizenship together in our studies. This type of project can be easily adapted to the exploration of any local environment; the possibilities are endless. Mapping a local natural space helped the students to realize and respect the biological wealth and diversity that lived quite literally in their own backyards. Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “we cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love” (as cited in Orr 2004, p. 43). Community mapping projects can help foster this critical bonding in students.

This project was partially funded by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council, Canada’s Pacific CRYSTAL (Centres for Research into Youth, Science Teaching and Learning) for Scientific and Technological Literacy.

1 To protect the identity of participants, the names of all people and places have been changed.


Harrington, S., & Stevenson, J. (Eds.). (2005). Islands in the Salish sea. Surrey, BC: Touchwood Editions.

Jagger, S. (2009).The influence of participation in a community mapping project on students’ environmental worldviews. Retrieved from http://dspace.library.uvic.ca:8080/bitstream/handle/1828/2816/Final%20Final%20Draft.pdf?sequence=1

Jagger, S. (2014). “This is more like home:” Knowing nature through community mapping. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 18.

Kronick, I. (2013). How Victoria has changedRaleigh, NC: Lulu Publications.

Lydon, M. (2003). Community mapping: The recovery (and discovery) of our common ground. Geomatica, 57(2), 131–143.

McFarlane, S. (1992). Jessie’s island. Victoria, BC: Orca Book Publishers.

Moak, A. (1984). A big city alphabet. Toronto, ON: Tundra Books.

Orr, D. (2004). Earth in mind
(10th anniversary ed.). Washington, DC: Island Press.

Parker, B. (2006). Constructing community through maps? Power and praxis in community mapping. The Professional Geographer, 58(4), 470–484.

Perkins, C. (2007). Community mapping. The Cartographic Journal, 44(2), 127–137.
Sobel, D. (1998). Mapmaking with children: Sense of place education for the elementary years. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Susan Jagger, Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning, OISE/University of Toronto; s.jagger@mail.utoronto.ca.