boy examining birds nest with magnifying glass

Three Reasons Why Place-Based Education Can Transform Your Teaching Right Now

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Many educators like the idea of place-based education and have considered integrating this method into their teaching practice, but have not yet taken the next steps. We get it. Teachers are among the busiest people around, especially these days. Here are a few reasons why now might be *just* the right time to check it out.


1. You could probably use a reminder that you are not alone.

In a year that has tested the resilience of students and educators alike, it’s important to remember that we are in this together. Teachers everywhere have been quietly working behind the scenes, learning to connect with students across new media and innovating in ways they might not have dreamed possible just one year ago. Understandably, the continual need for adaptability and creativity has led to exhaustion and burnout. Surprisingly, it has also led to hope and a vision for lasting change moving forward.

students wearing backpacks walking down trail with arms around one another

Place-based education (PBE), or aligning learning with tangible experiences and ideas happening beyond the classroom, is naturally wired for connection. By integrating learners with their local communities, teachers use PBE to connect students with the people, places, and experiences around them to lend greater meaning and context to what students are taught in school. In this sense, place-based learning can transcend and include screen-based learning by opening students’ eyes to what they can learn from a conversation with a grandparent or a hike on a local trail. PBE also moves the needle of student engagement by starting with the premise that students take an active role in shaping what and how they learn.

curiosity bulletin board

2. Because we all need to unlock more curiosity and wonder – in ourselves and our students.

Children ask questions all the time. It is traditional for teachers (and adults in general) to respond to those questions with answers that fit within predetermined curricula and often, to end the conversation there. But what if students’ wonderings directly shaped the curriculum? Picture a class of lively preschoolers busy at play in their recess yard. Suddenly one student calls out, “Dead bird!” Their teacher heads over and sure enough, a small songbird has met its end. What happens next may surprise you. Rather than diverting attention away from the minor tragedy, Elise Pierce, Faculty at Mountain Academy’s Teton Valley Campus, sees a teachable moment. After removing the bird to a safe viewing area, she hands out field guides and helps the children identify the bird species. Once they have learned its proper name, the children make observations and create sketches of the bird. In a matter of moments, she has incorporated literacy, science, and fine motor skills into the day, all inspired by an unplanned event that caught the children’s notice.

children observing bird

But there’s more. The next day as the children settle into their places for a morning meeting it quickly becomes apparent that interest in the dead bird has continued to grow. They share theories of what might have happened to the bird. “I think it hit a tree and fell down,” says one. “I think it bonked into a house. I’ve seen that before,” says another. During an outing to a local forest the following week, Ms. Pierce observes the children pretending to be birds building a nest of sticks and grass. She decides to fuel their budding interest. Upon entering their classroom the following morning, they discover an actual bird’s nest in one corner of the room. Excitedly, they rush over for a closer look. The teacher supplies the young observers with magnifying glasses to aid their exploring. A flurry of discussion follows. “There are no eggs in it. Where are the eggs?” “Maybe the bird moved the eggs to a new nest. This one is old.” “I see grass in the nest.”  

boy examining birds nest with magnifying glass

Through the teachers’ keen observations of children’s curiosity, a new project was born and the teacher began to artfully develop curriculum themed around her students’ interest in birds. They went on to construct a bird hospital in part of their classroom where sick and injured (toy) birds were rehabilitated. An owl expert visited the class via Zoom to share her knowledge and answer the students’ many questions. They made observations and sketches of bird bones. They spent time watching the behavior of the birds they saw outside their homes and local businesses. And it all started with one little bird and a teacher with the eyes to see something more.

For other project ideas, see these stories about students impacting their community through a local wildlife project and teachers elevating a playground game into a full-blown PBE project.

3. You already have what you need.

The unique nature of your students and surroundings can be strong partners in education. Paying attention to student interest and making room for them to explore their curiosity can be a feasible endeavor using resources already at hand in your community. In the words of Caitlin Nichols, an elementary teacher in Columbia, Missouri, “Listen to the students. When they have an interest in something, chase it. Work around what the kids want to learn about and I promise your efforts will be rewarded.” 

children posing with the bee homes they builtFor Ms. Nichols, her students discovered an interest in native bees and chased after the question, “How might we share our knowledge of bees and encourage our community to work together to create a healthier environment for our native bee populations?” They began to learn more about the nature and needs of their local bee population and discovered that one way they could help the bees was providing them with specially designed “bee hotels.” Bee experts volunteered their time to consult with the children on the best prototypes for bee housing. Then they got to work. Utilizing donated materials, the students built homes for their local bees and distributed them to the local community. Reflecting on the undertaking, Ms. Nichols shared, “This project was initially very overwhelming and I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. But once I started meeting with local experts, reaching out for community support, and learning about bees, things started to click into place. When the children are passionate about what they are learning and they see how they can make a difference, they will absorb information at an outstanding rate.”

Take the next step!

Join a community of leaders who are finding new ways to bring learning to life – through Zoom, in their classrooms, and right outside their school doors. Explore the possibilities of place-based education at your own pace with asynchronous lessons during this seven-week virtual course that begins February 8, 2021.


Learn more and register for our Virtual Introduction to Place-Based Education course

Interested in Spanish translations of place-based education materials? Find two great resources here!

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