prairie grasses

Developing a Sense of Place

forest floor

What is a “Sense of Place”?

A “sense of place” refers to a child’s connection with their community and natural environment. A sense of place is developed with a place-based education approach that fosters those connections. Place-based education immerses children in their local community, landscapes, heritage, and experiences. It is using the local natural and human world to learn science, social studies, math, art, music, and language.

Research has shown that children lose their sense of place when they are focused too quickly or exclusively on national or global issues. It follows the idea that before children can tackle the problems of the rain forest in Brazil they need to love the woods down the street. By exploring the local environment children learn a fundamental connection to the natural world and their place in it. Place-based education does not overlook global or national issues but simply strives to give children a sense of their own place and a love of their own place first. Through hands-on, project-based learning children get involved in the real world right outside their door.

Where am I? What is the nature of this place? What sustains this community?

These are simple questions. Or are they? To children today these questions might be anything but simple. As our society moves into cities and suburbs, and away from the natural world, our children’s connection to the natural world has started to disappear. Children today spend more time in front of screens, both television and computer, than they do outside. Most do not know what is outside their own backdoor – let alone what is down the street. Also lost is the connection to the community and what sustains it. Where did their dinner come from? Ask a child and most likely they will tell you the grocery store.

What can we do?

Make plans to take the classroom outside into the local natural world and into the community. Start with your schoolyard. Look, really look, at what is there. What lives there? How does it live there? What is growing? How are those connected? Try using Project WILD’s “Learning to Look, Looking to See.” We see things every day that we don’t really LOOK at anymore. Change that. You will be amazed at what you will start to notice.

Once you have learned your schoolyard – go further. The pond down the road. The creek in the woods behind the school. The local park. Go into the community. What is grown in your area? What is it used for? How does that support the community? How does the community support the local natural resources? Learn the history of the local land. Have a guest speaker who has lived in the area for a long time, a member of the local retirement center, a community group member, a local wildlife biologist, someone from your local County Conservation Board, or even a member of a local chapter of Pheasants Forever or Ducks Unlimited.

Next – what can YOU do?

As a class what can you do to help the local community? The local natural resources? Is there a project at the local community park that your school can take on? A prairie planting? Tree planting? Community garden? Get children into the community and involved.

Activity Ideas

  • Project WILD Learning to Look, Looking to See – Students write what they remember seeing in a familiar setting, then apply their experience to an unfamiliar setting.
  • Create a Brochure – As a class create a brochure for your local natural resources, or local community, promoting the area. Students learn about their local area as they “sell” it to others.

Cross-reference to these units for additional information: