Theory and practice

What is place-based learning in early education?

Outdoor learning can work in the city, too. Here’s how.
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November 17, 2021
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In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • Today, we’ll take a look at place-based learning. It’s a form of outdoor learning, but it’s got more emphasis on doing so within a more urban environment, like a city or a suburb.
  • You might have heard the term used with older children, too. But in early education, you can think of place-based learning as a way to get the little ones outside and exploring the environment, even if you don’t live near big open fields and forests.
  • We’ll talk about where the idea came from, why it’s good for young learners, and where you can go to learn more about doing place-based learning with your own children.

The buzz about outdoor learning is bigger than ever. But sometimes, it can all feel out of reach.

When you read about forest schools, you often get images of children in knit sweaters darting between tall pines, or floating a birchwood boat down a trickling stream. These ideas are beautiful — but if you don’t live next to a national park, you might feel like you don’t have what you need to do outdoor learning.

That’s where place-based learning comes in.

It’s a form of outdoor learning that’s got a bigger focus on built-up urban environments. If you’ve ever taken your children for a walk to the local park, or perhaps gone for a field trip to the community vegetable garden, you’ve likely tapped into key elements of place-based learning. The term just gives structure to make those benefits brighter, more consistent and more beneficial for children.

In this story, we’ll look at how place-based learning can help you get the best benefits of outdoor learning, even if you’re in the middle of the city. We won’t be able to tackle place-based learning from A to Z, but you’ll learn where it comes from, why it’s great for children, and where you can go to learn more.

And to start off, we’ll talk to one of the people that invented the term itself.

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Where did place-based learning come from?

David Sobel, Professor Emeritus at Antioch University, was one of the people who coined the term ‘place-based learning’ in the 1990s. As he explains, the movement expressed a growing interest not only in giving children active, outdoor learning, but to help them grow roots in their immediate community.

“We developed the term to be more widely inclusive. It’s not just about learning in nature, but also about exploring the built environment, local culture, the arts, and history,” David says.

Place-based learning is a form of outdoor learning, but with more emphasis on finding ways to knit that practice into urban surroundings. Sure, the woods can be a great place to play and learn. But so can your neighborhood vegetable patch, the local park, or a grassy boulevard on a quiet street.

The concept isn’t exclusive to early education. In fact, lots of it is directed toward older children and teenagers, as it can be more practical to take them out to explore their local neighborhood, and to take on bigger projects within the community. 

But that doesn’t mean that place-based learning has nothing to offer early educators.

“Nature should play a more prominent role in early childhood education. The cultural surroundings should become more and more a part of the education experience as children get older,” David explains.

You might read about place-based learning projects with older children, where they do a fundraiser for a community center, or write a newspaper article exploring local history. That shows how, at higher levels, the concept can help children plant close roots in your community. But within the scope of early education, it’s enough to think of place-based learning as a tool to help you get you children outside, active and learning within an urban setting.

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What do young children get from place-based learning?

Place-based learning taps into children’s inherent fascination with nature, and makes it accessible no matter where you are. Splashing in puddles, picking dandelions, and climbing trees aren’t things we teach to children — it just springs from their natural curiosity. Place-based learning frames your activities in this curious, active context, and helps keep nature close at hand.

Here are some of the biggest benefits that children get from place-based learning:

• Being outside makes for healthier children. In a 2021 study comparing outdoor preschools with conventional preschools, David and his research team found that spending more time outdoors helps children become more confident, better at taking initiative, more focused during lessons, and better able to form relationships with other children as well as adults.

• It helps make learning more engaging for children. “Real-world stuff, objects that are concrete and solid, are more engaging for children than images of things,” David says. “When you’re learning concepts outside, in relation to real objects, it’s much more compelling than learning those ideas in relation to something more abstract, like pictures in a book.”

• It connects children to their community. Young children are often shuttled from place to place, and can miss the opportunity to explore on their own, and get to know the in-between spaces that shape our cities and communities. Place-based learning allows children to explore the landscapes, communities, nature, and local history that defines the places we live. In that sense, it can give children a greater sense of connection to, and responsibility for, the communities around them.

Boys reading a book

How can you get started with place-based learning in early education?

This one’s easy: Just go outside.

“Starting to move your classroom outside, either for chunks of each day or for one day a week, is a really good starting point for doing place- and nature-based education,” David says. Starting small makes this process more accessible, and is often an easier goal to set with your little learners.

And it’s okay if you start moving outside without a fine-detailed master plan in place. 

As David says, the simple commitment to moving things outdoors is the biggest, most important step. Think about everything you do indoors — does all of it have to be indoors? Could you do story time outside, or move your messy play out into a park or a garden? David suggests the 2018 mini documentary Best Day Ever as an example of how two kindergartens in Vermont began moving more of their learning outside.

Here are a few small, easy examples of what those outdoor days might look like:

  • You and your children could collect twigs in your local park, and use them to spell out the letters of the alphabet, or everybody’s names.
  • You could make music using sticks and a chain-link fence, as you take a walk to learn about the history behind your nearby park. What was there before they built the park?
  • You could invite a trusted neighbor or community member to help start a garden with your children, and tend it throughout the season.

For more ideas on simple, accessible activities to help move your day outside, you can dive into these suggestions from Matt Flowers and the Urban Ecology Center, as published in David’s own book, The Sky Above and the Mud Below: Lessons from Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens.

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The big ideas

Safety precautions with place-based learning

We’ve got to make sure we’re doing place-based learning safely.

In early education, it’s important that you adjust the scope of your adventures to suit your children’s age and development. With younger children, just a little trip down the block might be plenty. If you’re working with five- and six-year-olds, you can wander a little more. 

It’s always important to plan ahead with your team, to make sure you’ve got plenty of prepared adults to supervise everybody's exploration.

And of course, it helps to come well-equipped: You may need to coordinate with parents, to make sure everybody’s got the right clothes for the weather. Having plenty of activities on hand is also great, to help ensure you’ve got a bit of structure to your excursions.

As you think about what else you might need, you should also consider these three tips:

  • Establish a meeting area. Just like where you’d do during circle time, having an outdoor meeting spot is a must for trips to parks, gardens or nature reserves. It gives you a place to gather, and gives children a place to come back to.
  • Mark some boundaries for where children can roam. Educator Hannah Lindner-Finlay, also published in The Sky Above and the Mud Below, recommends marking off “stop spots” for your first few visits to a new area, to help children adjust their expectations toward where they can move.
  • Make sure you’ve got key safety supplies. A first aid kit, list of emergency contacts, cell phone with good coverage, and toileting supplies in case of accidents are all essential to have on hand.

How you can learn more about place-based learning

If you’d like to get more involved with place-based learning in your own early education practice, you can start by checking out these resources:

Inside-Outside Network: Created by faculty at Antioch University, the Inside-Outside Network is a growing community of early educators looking to support each other in practicing place-based learning. You can find state-based chapters to connect with educators in your area, or access webinars, training and resources to help explore the practical details of practicing place-based learning.

Promise of Place: This public-private partnership organization offers state-based curriculum resources, planning tools, and research to help you understand how you can get the most out of place-based learning, and how it might work in your own city.

Famly Early Years blog: If you’d just like to explore the basics of doing more outdoor learning, we’ve got plenty of information on tackling things like gardening with children, the surprising health benefits of forest schooling, or how to get outdoors, even in the winter.

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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