Place-Based Education Lets Kids Learn Where They Live
Little kids love to learn. They’re hard-wired to investigate and explore. Watch a small child observe a ladybug on a leaf or line up toy cars by color, and the joy they take in what they’re doing is obvious.
But studies have shown that from third grade on, the enjoyment a child gets from learning drops continuously. If you’ve ever had to take away a skateboard so the homework gets done or sat with a kid struggling through a book report, you’ve seen it. For many kids, classroom learning just isn’t the best fit. Nor is staring at a screen for hours. Stuck inside all day, memorizing facts from textbooks and lectures, unable to see the real-world relevance of what they’re learning, a lot of kids check out.
Place-based education might be the very thing we need to slow us down, free us up, and keep us connected to others.
Place-based education may be able to help. It’s a way of learning that enlists students, teachers, and families to study their local history, environment, and culture, and use that knowledge to solve problems in their communities. It’s not a new idea. Before the 20th century, the majority of children learned from watching their own parents and other adults in their communities. This approach fell out of favor with the advent of the Industrial Age—but there’s a movement to bring it back. Think of it as recycling an old idea for the modern world.
What does place-based education look like?
Here are some examples from Promise of Place, a project of the Center for Place-Based Learning and Community Engagement:
• High school interns in Purchase Knob, North Carolina, help run a bird-banding station in the Great Smokies National Park. Up with the sun, the students use nets to catch birds. They measure, identify, band, and release them unharmed as part of an effort to better understand the population dynamics of the area’s many species.
• The town of Malden, Massachusetts, currently has no city-wide recycling program. A student leadership group there has been tasked by the mayor to create and implement a recycling program at their school. The program they design will be used as a model for other schools and businesses in the area.
• Fourth and fifth graders in Dane County, Wisconsin, spent a year studying the cultural history of the county. The project culminated in a four-day, 370-mile road trip of the county. The students visited a cheese factory, a Cambodian Buddhist temple, three farms, and a fiddle maker. They also interviewed folk artists, musicians, and community historians.
• High school science club students in Darrington, Washington, teamed up with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to monitor local air quality. Through their analysis they identified a correlation between wood burning and air pollution in the region.
And here in Portland, Oregon, Trackers Earth — an outdoor education organization we partnered with for Camp KEEN this summer — offers year-round Forest School, blending academics with hands-on learning and connection to the natural world.
What are the coolest things about place-based education?
Well, for one thing, it helps kids spend more time outside. Connecting kids to the natural world is a big deal at KEEN. In 2014, we started the KEEN Effect Youth Grant Program to fund grassroots organizations that are getting kids outside for recreation, nature-based education, and environmental stewardship. In 2019, we helped over 7,000 children get outside and spend a total of over 200,000 hours connecting to nature.
Place-based education gives students more autonomy, as they help decide what projects to work on. It’s collaborative, and they get the chance to work together and with teachers, parents, and community members. It’s hands-on, and gets kids excited about learning as they see the ways in which their work has a real-world impact. All the excitement might even motivate you to cancel your calls for the day and get out there with them.
Place-based education might be the very thing we need to slow us down, free us up, and keep us connected to others while we make our little patch of the Earth better than we found it. And who doesn’t want that?
Want to learn more?
Here are some resources to help you get started:
KEEN Effect 2018 grantee Winter Wildlands Alliance brings kids outside for snow school.