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.

Eco-Art: How to Flow Upstream

Eco-Art: How to Flow Upstream


By Shimshon Obadia

hirty-one degrees Celsius and the air is dry to the touch in downtown Kelowna, BC. I whip my bicycle down the shoulder of Pandosy Street where the bike lane would be until I hit K.L.O. Road where I connect to the actual bike lane embedded in the road with a glowing grass-green path and neon white icons. My body feels like it is being hit with a light rain shower but it’s just my sweat in this Canadian desert’s air. Passing Fascieux Creek on Casorso Road, I glance at the luscious wetland full of tall cattails and a small sign indicating the creek’s adoption by École K.L.O. Middle School where I’m headed in a frantic rush. I switch gears and pedal faster. I cannot be late for this. The school is coming up on my right and checking both ways— the sidewalk is empty — I mount the curb. Launching myself through the pre-teen sized gap in the school’s fencing I walk my bicycle along the length of the garden. This is the garden Michelle Hamilton and her Environmental Education students have planted on the school grounds separating the school from the roadway. I am just on time.

Even though it may cost me my punctuality here, I have a little routine that I’ve taken to since beginning my eco-art work with the students at École K.L.O. Middle School. Standing at the side door to the school, I peer over to the creek that runs through the school’s grounds. Covered in old, cracked, sinking concrete pads with a ripple from the far end of the creek off the school grounds barely slipping through the water where a stream once flourished, this section of Fascieux Creek was once a luscious wetland like the section of it I pass on my way to this school, the perfect learning environment on this school’s grounds. It was covered as a decision made by the school’s administration many years earlier and now the school benefits from a legal-sized soccer field and an uninterrupted sightline across the entire property.

I begin to open the door as it is opened for me from the other side by Michelle Hamilton and her students. These are young people who have pledged their efforts and energy to reversing this concrete problem by way of their time spent in classes as well as the time they volunteer outside of them. These students were originally challenged to raise $100,000 by their school board for this habitat’s restoration; multiple “generations” of students remarkably raised $86,000. As of this writing, the first phase of re-naturalization is nearly complete and funding for the final phase is almost in place. But this community, originally only a few students, now an impressive mass of parents, concerned citizens, local naturalists, and environmental consulting firm, and more, fought for almost a decade against points of concern everywhere from the size of that soccer field to the idea of children-turned-flower-thieves at the sight of fresh, local flora.

This is when I came in. Working with the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Eco-Art Incubator research initiative founded by UBC faculty members Nancy Holmes and Denise Kenney, I have been providing art as a means to attract attention to the work these students have been tirelessly committed to, while simultaneously providing a creative outlet for the environmental concerns directly impacting their education. This is why I wanted to be on time. We were going to the section of the Fascieux Creek on Casorso Road, which has not been disturbed or covered up, to approach this work a little differently.

In my backpack, I had three cameras, and attached to my bicycle were the accompanying tripods. Michelle Hamilton had given up this class (as one of quite a few over the years) to allow the students and me to create videos. Using visual storytelling. At that time, we had just begun tackling the concrete problem in the creek using art.

Fighting for the money to get their wetland restored was only one part of this work; fighting against the mainstream prioritization of what looks good on paper, such as outdated laptops for an entire school, versus what students want and need is another. This is the work these students have tirelessly been pushing for. In a stream like that of Fascieux Creek, fighting the current only gets so much attention; flowing gracefully up the stream can captivate passersby for the rest of their lives. In his book, Conversation Pieces, Grant H. Kester states, “[i]f any collective identity is inherently corrupt, then the only legitimate goal of community art practice is to challenge or unsettle the viewer’s reliance on such forms of identification”. [1] This is where eco-art comes into Fascieux Creek: when everyone else cannot imagine something changing, we began to make that change happen.

So how does art beat concrete? This is a question I asked myself when first starting the Daylighting the Classroom project. I wondered how this partnership with the University of British Columbia’s Eco Art Incubator, and École K.L.O. Middle School students and faculty could be used to restore the wetland habitat. This was a project for the home of Western Painted Turtles, a home currently occupied by the school grounds, and concrete pads sinking into the remains of what was once the main creek flowing through them, Fascieux Creek. I started out by picturing the whole project as a complex version of ‘rock, paper, scissors’; before even getting my feet on the ground, I was looking at a puzzle of what I could do to get the students to create change, or how to get an integrated learning ecological system for the students at École K.L.O. Middle school where they could have a mutually beneficial relationship with nature for the sake of their education. As is popular in artistic practice, however, my initial intentions were very far off the mark.

It turned out that the situation was far more complex than a logical puzzle of figuring out what paper I needed to write to remove the rock. When I first got to the school and met the people involved with this re-naturalization, I realized that a quick fix answer was not what was needed, and more importantly, was not going to get the job done. I became aware that the project of restoring this habitat at the school was a project that faculty member, Michelle Hamilton — the person who first contacted the University of British Columbia with this project proposal — had been working tirelessly towards for years now. More important than this was the fact that the students at École K.L.O. Middle school were already greatly invested in the project, and wanted to see it through for the benefit of their learning, their planet, and their community. Here my project quickly turned all the way around from being meant to restore a wetland through art, into a project meant to empower the students affected by this lack of integration with nature. This was not my own original idea: it was a problem they had already begun fighting for themselves.

As an artist, I drew from my performance background to give these students educational tools that would allow them to express themselves in the area of environmentalism as well as to expand their connection with nature for the sake of a more holistic learning experience. I work in applied drama, a form of performance which Helen Nicholson explains in her book of the same name to be “forms of dramatic activity which primarily exist outside conventional mainstream theatre institutions, and that are specifically intended to benefit individuals, communities and societies”,[2] meaning more or less, drama with an applicable, and direct, intended use. This is a necessity for students in today’s ecologically disconnected world; embodied, creative integration of a subject is vital to the learning of that subject. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv explains that our intuitive connection with nature should lie along the lines of existing as “the unquestioned belief that being in nature [is] about doing something, about direct experience — and about not being a spectator”.[3] Entering into this process, I took Louv as my first influence for content, and Nicholson as my initial influence for form. These were the first of many guideposts throughout this continually evolving artistic endeavour, but looking back at where I began now, I see this was where the Daylighting the Classroom project first stood up and began taking a tangible form. It was from these roots that everything else has grown.

In the work I have done thus far with the students at École K.L.O. Middle school, I have seen massive change in how students connect with what they are learning about in nature. This has been generated by both the approaches of Michelle Hamilton and myself, from the moment the students walk into the classroom from other classes, half asleep and in a deep state of non-interest and apathy towards any notion of learning. The difference when they begin their ‘hands on’ work in our classes is that they become alert, attentive and engaged in the work and learning they are doing. In this essay, I will be covering three ways in which I have used art and environmentalism to help these students overcome apathy in the classroom, and positively engage in learning outside the classroom over the course of the first year this project ran: having a class of grade eight students use video and the art of documentation; having grade seven classes put themselves at their ecosystem’s level and communicate with plant life through a participatory performance practice called ‘eco-drama,’ and through a dialogical performance series of lunchtime conversations which employed varying forms of communication between the students, myself and a camera.

Starting to work with such a compelling group of students, a young generation dedicated to saving their currently disappearing world by way of making it more sustainable, my first impulse was to gain their perspective. I wanted to capture that and share it with their community to help them build their own momentum for their own environmental actions, for it is truly an inspiring one to watch unfold. With the help of UBC’s Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies as well as the UBCO.TV media centre on UBC’s Okanagan Campus, I was able to get cameras into the hands of each of the students in Michelle Hamilton’s grade eight Environmental Education class. There I taught them how to put together a documentary video piece in small groups. Each of these students was passionate about integrating the natural ecological system we all depend on into their learning and every day lives more effectively. To see this through, each had already been involved extensively in initiatives such as the creek restoration, a school compost project, and gardening with local species of plants on school grounds. I had them document these initiatives on video, incorporating subjective and creative elements, to bring out their own points of view on each topic. I had these groups of students use creative storytelling tactics to show, through the lens of their cameras, what they saw in the work they were doing. This gave them the opportunity to creatively integrate themselves with what they were studying and align their passions accordingly. The resulting videos created by these students were inspiring. I saw this in both the positive tone, and their evident commitment. These videos ranged from a spoken word set, to a montage, to songs, and a music video inspired by social media trends. What these students did was share their perspectives, but in the process, they ended up doing what Helen Nicholson describes as being one key goal of drama in application, “traveling into another world […] which offers both new ways of seeing and different ways of looking at the familiar”.[4] Although they were all shooting the same setting, the familiar environment around their school’s creek, each video had a unique perspective to share. For example, the spoken word video just featured one student sitting on a bridge overlooking the flooded concrete covered creek. But when intercut with shots of ducks trying to eat garbage off of the concrete slabs, at the line “they put it there, and they didn’t care,” all of a sudden it becomes overwhelmingly apparent how out of place that concrete creek is in the everyday lives of those students, like the boy sitting on that bridge.

With the grade seven classes, I focused on a different angle. I wanted to take the brilliant Environmental Education class curriculum designed by Michelle Hamilton and provide a creative way in which her students could embody and explore this knowledge. In her classes, Hamilton’s students were already on their hands and knees in the dirt learning about local plant species, face-to-face with them. The class was broken into groups and each group was designated a section of the local-species-garden planted by Hamilton the year before. The school’s prioritizing of limited resources on a tight budget has put the restoration of an embodied natural learning ground below that of items such as a class set of laptop computers. My intention was to provide the students with a different kind of tool: eco-drama, a growing trend in eco-art discourse described by Dalia Levy — an eco-drama practitioner whose participatory research in education has directly influenced my own work: an art form that “employ[s] performance as a tool to explore and learn about complex issues [empowering people] to think critically and creatively, to be vulnerable and engaged, to be active about […] learning about the earth. […] It can take a host of forms and is a consistently inclusive forum in which everyone can participate”.[5]

The students had by this point in the year already developed a deep attachment to their sections of the large local-species-garden and were caring as well as learning from it with great attention. What I decided to do was put them on the next level with their garden by having them communicate with it. To use the term created by Robert A. Heinlein’s science fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, I did not want them to just understand the garden they were learning from, I wanted them to ‘grok’ the garden: to understand it as if it lived as part of themselves. In greeting, praising and giving performative gifts of sound and movement to the garden, these students used their knowledge of the plant life to communicate with it on a completely different level than they were used to. This was very well received by them (and the plants) and allowed them to land right into the system of the work they were learning about and from. The earliest of these conversations often consisted mainly of “hello plant, how are you,” but as these conversations progressed, the communication became more genuine. One student even spent an entire class period doing nothing but sitting between a Saskatoon and a dandelion that threatened it. When I asked her what she had done that class, she just told me she was listening to them.

In our information-saturated age, there is no doubt that knowledge is invaluable. We see the advantages the children of today have over the children of only a couple of generations ago such as intimate knowledge of other cultures, not just through websites, but through the kind of online social networking that can connect one to a stranger from the other side of the world at the click of a button. A lot of this is due to access to and availability of an infinite amount of information and opinions on the internet and interconnection through social media between people, ideas and things. However, having online databases and textbooks means nothing without the natural ecological system which can teach hands-on and without the context for information which the natural ecological system can provide. My experience as a performer has led me to believe this is because these sources lack the natural ecological system which can teach this through embodiment. In this practice, I look at that embodiment as the context for information which the natural ecological system which it comes from. A popular truism in the art world is that without context, there is nothing; anything could be anything else but what one is trying to learn about. Context comes from dialogue between the elements that are being explored and learned about and that just cannot happen holistically out of a text alone. One can use an audio/visual interactive software to learn every word, grammatical rule, possible syntax and inflection that could be used to speak a language such as Quebecois French, but when standing in the middle of Rue du Trésor in Quebec City admiring the outdoor oil paintings, you won’t be able to get more than a word in before the local passerby you are trying to hold a conversation with begins talking to you in English out of pity. Technically, your Quebecois French might have been perfect, and yet without learning it from being in contact directly with the culture, it doesn’t take three words to show how little you knew about what you thought you knew. My eco-drama work with the grade seven Environmental Education classes at École K.L.O. Middle school continued with the work Michelle Hamilton had begun putting the students I was working with right into the ecological system they were learning about, this time encouraging their creative faculties to more holistically experience their ecological system. This allowed them to take their database knowledge and place it into a tangible setting. In Conversation Pieces, Grant H. Kester plainly states, “[t]here is nothing inherent in a given work of art that allows it to play [a given] role; rather, particularly formal arrangements take on meaning only in relationship to specific cultural moments, institutional frameworks, and preceding art works”.[6] The formal arrangement here was what I consider to be the original arrangement: nature. We are natural creatures who benefit from natural experience and connection to everything comes out of our original, corporeal, sensory interaction with our natural ecological system. This is where we have come from for millions of years. With education, why would we break away from the very context that, from our origin as a species, has defined us? Through my eco-art work with these students, by pairing the scientific knowledge of the grade sevens with a creative tool to engage the knowledge about the ecological system they were learning in their classes, a context was forged and thus the presence of a noticeably fuller learning was at hand. Using movements and sounds as gifts to their more-than-human natural counterparts in the garden, I observed students beginning to change the simple ways they would interact with the plants they had worked so tirelessly to maintain in their school grounds. Initially, these plants were lucky to be addressed by their species label instead of “that plant there,” but throughout this process, I began to see students talk to me about the plants they were working with in similar ways to how they talked about the events of their day or another classmate, or even used a tone typically reserved exclusively for gossip. In her eco-art text book, To Life!, Linda Weintraub defined the eco-artist’s purpose as having to “align art’s expressive, narrative and ethical significance with the physical components of experience”.[7] This is not the experience gained from studying a plant from a text book. The text book experience is valuable but the very way that information is made available removes the student from what they are studying. Planting these plants to learn that same information brings a fuller connection to them. Then, creatively engaging the natural ecological system creates empathy and allows the student to learn in a fashion that appears to be almost instinctive, like how they might have learned to eat from a parent as an infant.

The eco-art work I have done with the students at École K.L.O. Middle school so far has been surprising, and rewarding. Working with them has reminded me how valuable it is to be able to have expectations broken. Coming in to work on a small summer project, I have now committed to working the next year with these students. They are aware of their natural ecological system and how that directly impacts their learning; they are also committed to taking action to change their world for the better. The dedication I have seen from these students to connect with the natural world that they (as we all do) depend on for survival is extremely refreshing in a world so eager to turn its back on that. But what was missing, and what I felt compelled to provide as an outside artist coming into this school’s ecological system, was an alternative to their school work and school-run extracurricular activities to freely express what these students were thinking and feeling in relation to their current situation. More and more the integration of the natural elements which they are learning about in their world is being blocked. This lack of integration is creating a disconnected form of learning that unfortunately can result in the disconnection of people from education and their world. People like Michelle Hamilton will not let this happen overnight but it is possible that a removed education will become the norm if it is not so already. This is why these students need creative expression. Spending time with roots in hand to learn about local flora will teach a student what the plant is, and planting and watering and maintaining that plant into maturity will teach that student to respect their natural ecological system, but when creatively engaging that same plant, that same student may learn what they didn’t know they could learn: they can learn compassion, they can learn sensation and ecstasy, they can learn to feel and think as their natural ecological system does, and with that they can grow.

Once to twice a week I would hold lunchtime conversations by the concrete-padded creek with a video camera and some free pizza for those willing to share their words — a very effective barter method with middle school students — in which students could speak their minds on environmental issues in an interactive performance-based dialogical series. Through the method of having a conversation and the added presence of a camera, these became a kind of performance which allowed the students to embody what they were talking about and to directly address the issues they care about critically and creatively. The methods we used in these interactive dialogical performances started out simply with our first conversation being a question and answer period on the students’ thoughts on the creek and what they would like to see there one day as well as why. As we gained momentum and a regular group of students began coming to these sessions, we delved deeper into our creative faculties to bring out more interesting ways to engage the issues we were talking about. One day we would only speak in questions: another day, only communicate in statements describing what we saw and what we wanted to see in the creek: and one day only in the animal noises of animals which would have lived in the creek but could not due to the concrete. This allowed the students to creatively express themselves without feeling like they had to fill a check box or pass a test: “working in the ‘imaginary space’ of drama enables participants to juxtapose different narrative perspectives, to fictionalize life as it is experienced and, conversely, to make the imaginary world of fiction tangible and ‘real’”.[8] In these conversations, opinions about the environmental situation I had not previously seen surface with these students came out, and in a way that was very well articulated. The students were adamant that they needed the natural habitat of their school grounds to be restored so that they can experience a better, more integrated, embodied learning. One girl who has been very committed to this project since she started attending École K.L.O. Middle School told me something very powerful that has stuck with me throughout the entire course of the Daylighting the Classroom project: “We learn from the garden so much. There’s lots of plants and stuff we can learn from.  If this was a wetland, we wouldn’t even need to be in class anymore, like we could do all our things out here and everyone would actually have fun actually being at school.” She later translated this into an appropriated language of BC’s local Lynx Canadensis with outrageous hisses and growls. That was coming from a student who, when I first met her, would barely speak a word to anyone unless she was asked to recite a fact in class. This was a common trend with even the most dedicated students to their cause. Though they may be passionate about the ecological promotion they were working on, they often would shy away from publicly expressing that. After some time engaging that same passion through eco-art experience, they have become comfortable embodying their own passions. Even though they have only just had a taste of this kind of learning through their work with Michelle Hamilton and myself, they are already fully aware of how valuable it is and how advantageous it can be for them. These students were not talking meaningless “L.O.L.s” as I was at their age; they were demanding that a peaceful coexistence and mutual learning be available for them with their natural ecological system. These students were aware of exactly how valuable their world is and exactly how vulnerable it is, particularly at this time.

Linda Weintraub asserts in, To Life!, “[t]he history of civilization is chronicled as a narrative of yearning and striving, not satisfaction and contentment”.[9] These students are hard set on yearning and striving, much more than I would have ever expected from a group of prepubescent school children. Against every cliché we know of this generation, I have seen students taking real action: building compost, planting gardens, fundraising, grant writing (with the assistance of passionate community members such as the school’s Green Parent committee), and everything else they can do to change their situation for the better just because they’ve had a taste of what they know they can get. What the students I have worked with over the past school term are fighting for is a better future, not just for them in their immediate trajectory, but for us all through better learning which, for reasons beyond reason, is not readily available to them: an embodied, integrated, applied learning that connects students to their ecological system. And that places those learning in direct contact with what they are learning about. Living with such a sense of corporeal connectivity to nature, as if it is living as part of you, is needed for this to work. Clearly these students thrive from this kind of integration. In the videos the students at École K.L.O. Middle School have created, the eco-drama they have done with me and the lunchtime conversation series I’ve conducted where they have expressed themselves and their desire for change in how their future is readied for them, these students have had a taste of the sustainable future they can have, and they see that it is not the world they currently have.

My hope is that these students will not settle for second best in a world that needs this particular brand of care. In all my work so far with these students, I have been a catalyst to help them get where they want and need to go; because of the inspiring spirit I have seen in them, three years later, I find myself still intensely committed to continuing my work with these students — and because of them, now students from many other schools in the Okanagan Valley — to see them gain more tools to help us all move into a better, more sustainable state of being. Art might just beat out concrete after all, if not this round, then in round two or three.


We are walking back now. The students, Michelle, and I are headed back towards the school. The dry, unforgiving heat of the day has not yielded but instead feels as if it has doubled. I wish I had brought a hat. The undisturbed, wild Fascieux Creek at Casorso Road is behind us, almost as behind as Michelle’s students who are trying to find a balance between keeping up with our pace and talking to each other about the videos they have just shot.

One girl in the class steps up her pace, dragging her two close friends with her until the three have broken clear of the pack and are keeping up with Michelle and me. She begins talking to us about the creek; her and her friends’ video focused specifically on the work the three of them have been doing for the creek’s restoration. She begins complaining about how long it has taken and how they have seen no progress: “I think they should make it easier for this to really happen already,” she complains. “It’s so stupid how long this takes […] we have the money, why can’t we do it already? Can’t [the school’s administration] just let us have the creek? It’s not like it’ll hurt anyone.” Michelle reminds her that they are still about fifteen thousand dollars short of their goal and that it is important to work from within a system to achieve an objective rather than pushing people too far, too fast. It isn’t until Michelle and I are clear of the pack and back at the front of class that she expands on this point.

She told me then, in her warm French Canadian accent, that she wished she could just push all this through, that it hadn’t taken five years, that they had had more support from the school.  However, she restated to me what she had told Daylath moments earlier, “You can’t fight everyone, Shimshon. You will be alone if you do. You have to show them why they want what we want. That’s why I have you here.  That’s too much work for me to do and teach them. You think I don’t need to eat or sleep too?” She was right.  This is not all about the fight to get up the stream; it’s about the flow to get up there pleasurably and playfully so that everyone can learn and benefit.

[1] Kester,  “Conversation Pieces,159

[2] Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 2

[3] Louv “Last Child in the Woods”

[4] Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 13

[5] Levy, “Participatory eco-drama,” 40

[6] Kester,  “Conversation Pieces,” 90

[7] Weintraub “To Life!”

[8] Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 64

[9] Weintraub “To Life!”


Kester, Grant H. Conversation Pieces. London: University of California Press, 2004. Print.
Levy, Dalia. “Participatory eco-drama: unconventional dramatic forms that foster critical thinking and environmental learning.” Green Teacher 91 (2011): 40-43. Print.
Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods. 2nd ed. New York: Algonquin, 2008. Ebook.
Nicholson, Helen. Applied Drama: the gift of theatre. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. Print.
Weintraub, Linda. To Life! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2012. Ebook.


Shimshon Obadia is an Eco Artist living in Kelowna where he studies Interdisciplinary Performance at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. Obadia has presented this essay in 2014 at the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences annual conference in New York, and the International Association for Ecology and Health’s biannual conference in Montreal. Obadia works as a research assistant for the Eco Art Incubator Research Initiative. There, he is currently leading this project, Daylighting the Classroom, working with public school students to merge environmentalism, education, science and art.

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.

A While in the Wild: Educating for Environmental Empathy

A While in the Wild: Educating for Environmental Empathy

Womens couleeA While in the Wild: Educating for Environmental Empathy

Experiences in wild nature, the leadership of a significant adult, and the educational support of the classroom offer powerful tools in shaping students toward lifelong leadership in environmental stewardship.


by Fay Mascher M.Ed., Cayley School
Jonas Cox Ph.D., Gonzaga University
Charles Salina Ph.D., Gonzaga University

On a visit to the coulee, a startled owl exploded off of a nest that we thought was empty. On the bus ride back to school, one boy reached for my hand, “Feel my heart,” he said. “It’s still going really fast.” –from the Cayley School action research project

Since the 1980’s, researchers in environmental education have explored this basic question: Why do some people care about the natural environment enough to protect it, while others do not? Current environmental education, taught as a unit of instruction within the science curriculum, tends to assume that imparting information about the environment will inspire students to care for it. But a generation of young people educated in this way has not yielded a generation of adults committed to caring for the natural world.

The people of Cayley School, situated in a rural hamlet about one hour south Calgary, Alberta, struggled with a similar dynamic. In the spring of 2005, the teachers, parents, community members, and students of this small school (150 students in kindergarten through eighth grade) met with the Stewardship Centre of Canada to explore what their school could do to foster care of the natural environment.

The Youth Environmental Stewardship Program (YES) was born, sparking much activity at Cayley School. The school maintains ten photovoltaic units and a small wind turbine to provide three kilowatts of power to the grid. Students and staff participate in a thorough recycling program. An environment club meets weekly. Classroom instruction pursues cross-curricular inquiry into many environmental issues. Recognized in the media, and given multiple awards for environmental projects, Cayley School has laid strong ground work for meeting the goals of the YES project.

However, in a meeting of YES stakeholders in the fall of 2007, consensus emerged that the specific vision of the program—shaping students toward lifelong leadership in environmental stewardship—was not being realized. Students did not display a general ethic of stewardship, nor were they eager to fill leadership roles in the YES program .

Thorough environmental instruction combined with exciting school-wide environmental projects had failed to translate into genuine environmental stewardship. Why? There it was again, that thirty-year-old question: Why do some people care about the natural environment enough to protect it, and others do not?

Where does environmental stewardship come from?

Researchers in the field of environmental education have approached that question in a variety of ways. Tanner read the biographies of conservationists looking for patterns in their early experiences that might explain their lifelong care of the environment. In these biographies, and in a subsequent survey, he discovered that conservationists consistently report having spent a significant amount of time as children in wild or semi-wild places.

Subsequent studies had similar findings: time spent in wild or “domesticated” nature correlates significantly with subsequent environmentally responsible behavior. Wells and Lekies investigated the optimal age for these experiences and concluded that, “participation with ‘wild’ nature before age 11 is a particularly potent pathway toward shaping both environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood” .

AwhileQuote1Many of these studies discovered that when these nature experiences are shared with an important adult–a family member or a teacher—positive environmental behaviors are strengthened. During shared experiences in nature, a child becomes aware of the environment by attending to the bird, leaf, or rock that has captured the attention of the adult companion. Chawla calls this the power of joint attention. The child turns his or her attention to things pointed out by an adult, and then begins to do the same, pointing at things and calling out their names. An adult noticing nature helps a child take the first steps toward becoming environmentally aware.

Shared adult/child experiences in wild nature moves a child into a process by which stewardship behavior develops. The stages of that development can be compared to the evolution of a loving relationship between two people. In both cases there is a five step process: awareness, knowledge gathering, coming to appreciate, coming to love, and acting to protect.

Once the child has become aware of the natural environment, through the power of joint attention, she begins to gain knowledge about nature by interacting with it, by experimenting first-hand. The theory of ecological psychology describes how the natural world provides opportunities for interactive learning.   For example, a low tree branch allows a child to climb; rough ground affords the opportunity to establish balance. Nature offers a rich environment for these interactions, and provides immediate and often powerful feedback to all of the senses. Free play in nature, then, begins a relationship between the child and the natural world.

First a child is exposed to nature, then, he spends times interacting with it. Now he is ready for the knowledge building activities he finds in environmental education curricula in the schools. Students learn facts about the local environment from books and teachers. The more this learning serves to directly explain, support, and deepen the students’ hands-on outdoor experiences, the more meaningful it is.

In the grassThe more children learn about a place the more they appreciate it.   Going forward, they maintain interest in it and show simple, environmentally responsible behavior when they are there. Lindemann and Matthies found that the more plants and animals children could identify in the field, the more appreciation they would show for all kinds of plants and animals.   Increased knowledge of nature leads to increased appreciation of nature. Increased appreciation sparks more frequent visits to the natural world and increases the length of each visit.

Appreciation deepens to a feeling of love as the child begins to identify and empathize with the natural world. Once that attachment is formed, the child consistently exhibits environmentally responsible behavior in that place. Attachment to one special place will often generalize to changed behavior in other settings.

Unfortunately, most children today have little, if any, experience in wild nature, with or without a significant adult. In his fifteen years of interviewing families across the United States, Louv found:

With few exceptions, even in rural areas, parents say the same thing: Most children aren’t playing outside anymore, not in the woods or fields or canyons. A fifth-grader in San Diego described his world succinctly: ‘I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are’

As outdoor experience becomes less common, environmental education gains importance. It is here that children can be reconnected with “the restorative, challenging, primal qualities of nature” and guided through hands-on, personally meaningful activities, that construct an empathetic knowledge of the natural world.

Effective Environmental Education—three considerations

Experiences in wild nature shared with an important adult are vital components of successful environmental education. Further studies insist, however, that they are not the only considerations when designing experiences aimed at forming an ethic of stewardship.

Effective environmental education programs share several common features. They are experiential and personally meaningful . They are developmentally appropriate. They provide opportunity both for deeper understanding and for the application of new insights.

Experiential and personally meaningful

John Dewey, in 1891, articulated the importance of building connections between school and personal life:

From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while, on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning at school. That is the isolation of the school, its isolation from life

Duffin and Gostev and Weiss show that environmental education programs that succeed in increasing environmentally responsible behavior provide students with hands-on learning and abundant opportunities to make personal connections.

Developmentally appropriate

Research investigating children’s relationship with the natural world shows three clear stages of development. From age four to six a child connects with the immediate world through his empathy for living things, particularly animals. From age seven to eleven the child’s desire to explore becomes stronger–exploration activities become appropriate. It is not until the age of twelve that students typically can begin to deal with tragedies, so at this age social action can become a focus.

Environmental education that is developmentally insensitive can do more harm than good. Sobel especially cautions against introducing ecological problems to a child who has not developed the power of abstract thinking. Such premature calls to action will distance the child from the natural environment.

Developmentally appropriate curriculum, on the other hand, nurtures a strong connection to the natural environment in stages. First a child connects with her immediate environment, then to an expanding local landscape, and finally to the global environment. Formed in those experiences, she takes action when she is ready.

Opportunities for deeper understanding

Environmental education explores situations where the “correct” answer can be ambiguous. Students become equipped to respond to such complexity when, in the context of nature, they are coached through a process of assessment and judgment. Educators begin by teaching basic environmental knowledge, but the process does not stop there. Students learn to weigh the competing values that often make environmental decision-making difficult. Such experiences equip students to take action and allow them to assume increasing ownership of environmental problems.   Students feel empowered and confident as they apply knowledge to action. Students who have been coached in this way—prepared to think critically when faced with complex problems–are more likely to exhibit complex, environmentally responsible behavior.

Developing environmental empathy at Cayley School

Armed with research and eager to realize Cayley School’s vision to foster environmental stewardship, we designed a five-month environmental experience for the kindergarten class. From October ‘07 to March ’08 fourteen five and six year olds,eight boys and six girls of mixed socio-economic circumstances and academic and social ability, participated in a place-based environmental education model aimed at building environmental empathy and responsibility.

Because research emphasizes the powerful outcomes of time spent in wild nature with an important adult, our program design involved frequent outdoor experiences led by the kindergarten teacher. There were two components to the outdoor experience. The class frequently visited and explored natural environments within walking distance of the school. We also designated a more distant, wilder location (fifteen minutes away by bus) as Our Special Place and visited it several times throughout the duration of the project.

SloughTime in wild nature

Outdoor experiences in the surrounding environment happened daily. These were initially scheduled for the same time each day in order to create a habit of outdoor learning time. As outdoor time became entrenched in the day, access to the outdoors became more spontaneous and flexible.

Planned outdoor activities were drawn from resources such as Thomson and Arledge. (2002). Five Minute Field Trips: Teaching about Nature in Your Schoolyard; Cornell, J.B. (1979). Sharing Nature with Children; and Sobel, D. (2004). Place Based Education.   Planning was informed by Wilson’s (1986) guidelines: begin with simple experiences, provide frequent positive outdoor experiences, and focus on experiencing versus teaching.

The schoolyard at Cayley School offered many rich opportunities. Off the gravel of the play structure, there is a terraced, bushy Memorial Garden, big poplar trees, long grass, and ready access to fields. A fifteen minute walk north of the school yard offers a hay field and slough. Activities in the schoolyard and at the slough were planned with “wildness in mind” in order to maximize the positive influence of wild nature mentioned in the literature. Over the course of the five month study, a new subdivision being built north of Cayley expanded toward the slough and blocked the walking path for two weeks. The new construction presented an unexpected opportunity for conversation and questions.

Five times over the course of the project the class visited Our Special Place, an intact buffalo jump surrounded by native grassland called “Women’s Coulee.” We timed our visits so that students could experience the coulee across the seasons–late fall, winter and spring. Our activities at the coulee mirrored our daily outdoor activities within Cayley; however the trips to the coulee were far richer and more spontaneous due to its diversity and wildness. On one trip the students were able to study large, perfectly formed snowflakes that covered the ground. On another the group startled a female great horned owl off of a nest that we had assumed to be empty. On a return trip, with binoculars to study the owl, the students found prairie crocuses blooming.

An important adult

Remembering the role of a significant adult in shaping environmental responsibility, we carefully considered the teacher’s contribution to the children’s experience. The teacher enthusiastically supported the children’s budding sensitivity for wild places, demonstrating personal interest and enjoyment, and modeling care and respect for the natural environment. In order to broaden the network of important adults, parents and other community members were invited to join as assistants and fellow nature-learners.

Supporting nature experiences in the classroom

We made changes within the classroom to support our outdoor experiences. Curricular instruction integrated environmental themes. The space and routines within the classroom were also re-designed. Following their explorations, students came into the classroom to record their observations and research their questions. Reference books were readily available. Art materials were on hand to encourage students to represent their nature discoveries with their own hands and in various media. Nature journaling became a regular part of the experience as it is “hands-on learning at its best”.

The room decorations reflected a focus on our natural place, as well as the human penchant for displaying nature in interior spaces.   Natural materials were used as much as possible. Students were given an opportunity to share nature treasures on a well-lit discovery table at their viewing height.


Quantitative and qualitative data, gathered in pre-tests and post-tests, show that the kindergarten children at Cayley School built greater knowledge, developed keener interest, and formed more positive attitudes toward the natural environment as a result of our five-month trial.

Asked to identify the photographs of 16 local native animals in a pre-test and post-test, the group increased their correct answers by 32 percent. An increase in animal knowledge is a very powerful first step toward environmental stewardship. Lindemann and Matthies found that the more plants and animals children could identify in the field, the more appreciation they would show for all kinds of plants and animals.

An attitude questionnaire administered as a pre-test and post-test, measured the students’ empathy and emotional affinity with the natural world. Questions were designed to explore their concern for animals and plants, their participation in animal make-believe, evidence of love of nature, and whether they have feelings of freedom, of safety, and of oneness while in nature. A response of “no” to a question such as: Is it a good idea to pick wildflowers? was marked “positive” because it showed a protective attitude toward the natural environment.   Positive student responses on the attitude questionnaire increased 23% on the post-test.

When students were invited to explain why and why not on their answers to the post-test attitude survey, an interesting change emerged. Many students took longer to answer the questions than they had on the pre-test, now having to sort out an issue that was no longer obvious to them. For example, on the pre-test many students quickly and confidently stated that the spider should not be put outside, but should be killed. On the post-test students talked about the fact that spiders might bite or make a mess with their webs, explained methods for picking the spider up, and considered carefully before giving their response. Some students felt the need to explain behaviors that they now felt were inconsistent with what we had been learning.   When asked if it was a good idea to pick wild flowers, some explained that they did pick wild flowers, but only in places where there were lots of flowers.

Prior to and again following the trial, students drew a map showing special places that they could go to around the school. Pre-test maps showed a fairly equal representation of natural and man-made features. On the post-test, however, 83% of the features drawn on the post-test maps were natural. There were no animal drawings in the pre-test maps, but animal drawings were included in almost all of the post-test maps. The scope of the maps also expanded. Pre-test maps were almost all restricted to the boundaries of the school yard. The post-test maps showed a much wider geographic scope, indicating a broadening view of the world around the school and an expanding awareness that other creatures live in the places close to us.


The children of Cayley School kindergarten will perhaps never forget the excitement of seeing a startled owl explode off of a nest that we thought was empty. One boy said to his teacher on the bus ride back to school, “Feel my heart. It’s still going really fast.” The children who participated in the project developed a genuine, excited sense of connection to the natural world. They became eager to learn more. They developed more complex environmental thinking and showed a willingness to consider their decisions in relation to nature much more carefully.

Our educational trial brought the people of Cayley School closer to the vision they formed back in the spring 2005 when the Youth Environmental Stewardship Program (YES) was born. Experiences in wild nature, the leadership of a significant adult, and the educational support of the classroom offer powerful tools in shaping students toward lifelong leadership in environmental stewardship.


Fay Mascher began her teaching career with a variety of special education teaching positions in B.C. and Alberta. In 1992 she settled in High River and soon thereafter began her work at Cayley School where her focus has been primary education. In addition to her keen interest in environmental education, Fay was instrumental in the founding of the Cayley School strings program which now delivers violin instruction to students from Kindergarten to Grade 5. 

Jonas Cox teaches Learning Theory to undergraduate teacher candidates and currently serves as the Chair of Teacher Education at Gonzaga University. He has been active in the Environmental Education field for some time working with the Pacific Education Institute and recently serving as the Treasurer of EEAW. He can be reached at coxj@gonzaga.edu.

Chuck Salina is on the Gonzaga University School of Education faculty and is currently serving as the Turn Around Principal for the high school in Sunnyside Washington. His interest in social justice issues and high quality educational experience for youth has drawn him into environmental education. Chuck can be reached salina@gonzaga.edu.



Ear to the Ground – Ryan Monger, Sultan High School

Ear to the Ground – Ryan Monger, Sultan High School

An Interview with Ryan Monger

Winner of 2015 EPA Presidential Award for Innovation in Environmental Education


region_9_-ryan_monger_cropped_resizedRyan Monger, Sultan High School
Sultan, Washington

Ryan Monger, an environmental education teacher of students in grades 9 through 12 at Sultan High School in Sultan, Washington, uses this small, rural community as an outdoor classroom to encourage his students to explore science and learn about the local ecosystem. Students in Ryan’s classes participate in hands-on projects, including maintaining a salmon hatchery on the school’s grounds and releasing the fish into a local stream, surveying bacteria living on common surfaces such as those in the school’s weight room and on students’ cell phones, tapping maple trees at the school to make maple syrup, identifying trees and growing edible plants in the school greenhouse using environmentally sustainable, small-scale farming practices. Ryan’s students also participate in community-based projects, including environmental restoration projects to mitigate the impact of clear-cutting and the runoff of pollutants, and conducting an ongoing salmon study.

Ryan’s efforts to educate his students about the importance of environmental stewardship has garnered a great deal of support from the community. Local nurseries, hardware stores and seed companies donate supplies for the projects, and his students received recognition for their hard work when a local newspaper wrote a cover story on his unique curriculum. Students in his class are also working to integrate environmental education into the district’s preschool curriculum by involving preschoolers with the salmon hatchery project.

CLEARING: Tell us a little bit about yourself… how did you get started in environmental education?
Ryan Monger: I used to teach a pretty standard science curriculum, which was fun: explosions in chemistry and lasers in physics. However, when I got the job at Sultan, it was just Biology and there was not much money for fancy equipment. What we did have was a nearby river, a greenhouse, open fields, a salmon hatchery and a wonderful forest with trails behind the school. More than anything else, I was just taking advantage of the resources that I had.

CLEARING: Do you recall anything from your childhood growing up (vacations, time in the woods, etc.) that may have played a role in your becoming an environmental educator?
RM: When I was growing up I lived in the suburbs of Bellevue, but there happened to be a few acres of woods right next to our suburban home. I used to walk in those woods every day and I think they made a pretty profound impression on me. I loved catching frogs and salamanders, collecting plants, climbing trees and looking at forest flowers. Ever since, I have felt more at home and at peace in the woods than anywhere else. When I was about 10 the woods were developed into more suburban housing and I can remember feeling very angry and hopeless about this. I suppose I have wanted to do whatever I could to help the forest since that day.

CLEARING: Were you inspired or influenced by anybody in particular or anything you read or saw?
RM: I have been and always will be inspired by the natural world. I have never been into fantasy or science fiction because I always thought the real world was good enough for me.

CLEARING: How long have you been in the classroom?
RM: About nine years. I taught 4 years in England, 1.5 years on the Tulalip Indian Reservation and I have been at Sultan for almost 4 years now.

CLEARING: Talk about the inquiry and community-based projects that earned you the Presidential Award for Innovation.
RM: I think that I received the award for my work in helping to run our school’s salmon hatchery, starting gardens on school grounds, and doing habitat restoration in our forest. The hatchery could not have been successful without the help and guidance of community member Don Foltz. I have also received lots of help from Kelli Mack of Everett Steelhead and Salmon club, Trevor Jenison of the Wallace Falls State Hatchery, and our librarian Conan has helped tremendously by maintaining the trails in our forest. The district has also been helpful in their willingness to maintain the hatchery and our administration has given me the freedom to teach how I feel is right. Our students are also incredible people: helpful, humble, intelligent, and enthusiastic. I could not have done any of these projects successfully without their help.

monger photoCLEARING: What do you find most rewarding about inquiry-based learning?
RM: I love watching students figure out problems on their own. I feel like learning to problem solve is far more important than memorizing scientific facts and vocabulary. The only way that I have ever learned in my life is by trying things for myself, so I am trying to give my students that same experience. It is both more enjoyable for me and for them when they get to explore the world around them on their own terms.

CLEARING: Are there any resources (books, curriculum, community-based) that you use that you have found particularly valuable?
RM: I have found the river and the forest to be particularly valuable. They are ever changing and are full of teaching resources. I learn more in one minute in the forest than I could over a lifetime of studying pre-prescribed curriculum. In just the last few weeks, we have seen an owl, a hawk, deer and deer tracks, nursery logs, a forest floor golden with cottonwood leaves, salmon spawning, and the most beautiful mushrooms on earth. What more could you ask for?

CLEARING: What has been the response to your program from parents and the community?
RM: Overwhelmingly positive. As far as I can tell, most (if not all) students love learning outside, even in bad weather. I have received nothing but positive comments from parents and lots of help from people in the community, particularly those listed above. My most important community asset by far has been the help of my students. They have all shown interest and I have had many helpful TA’s. Of particular help have been students who were in the running start program, but have chosen to come back and to help. Jazmen Griggs, Liam McDonell, Olivia Gasselsdorfer, Logan Berti, and Josh Morehead have a spent countless hours helping me in the classroom when they did not have to be there. I would have been lost without them.

CLEARING: Have you been able to expand your program?
RM: Yes I have. We continue to restore habitat in the woods, garden, collect mushrooms, and run the salmon hatchery. Every year, we spend more time outside. I am currently applying for grants to build an outdoor classroom and take students to visit old-growth forest.

CLEARING: Can you share a particularly memorable moment from your student projects over the past couple of years?
RM: I love walking through the forest with them. They have taught me so much about life and how to appreciate it. I love kneeling before a tree or a mushroom and admiring them together.

CLEARING: What keeps you motivated to do the work that you do?
RM: The enthusiasm of the students and the serenity of the forest.

CLEARING: Who are your environmental heroes?
RM: Salmon, cedar trees, huckleberry bushes, douglas firs, big leaf maples, black bears, bald eagles, and beavers. Anyone who has done anything to help educate about or preserve our local forests.

CLEARING: What book(s) are you currently reading?
RM: ‘Salmon’ by Peter Coates and ‘The Final Forest’ by William Dietrich.

CLEARING: Do you have any advise for young teachers just getting started?
RM: Do what you feel is right and make sure your primary feedback comes from the students and the look in their eyes. This will tell you more about your teaching successes than a whole mountain of data will. Also, treat the students with respect and they will do the same to you.

CLEARING: Any final thoughts that you’d like to share?
RM: I love teaching about the forest and the river. I hope to be able to do it until the day that I die.

CLEARING: Thank you so much for your time, and best wishes for your continued success!