Exploring Our Experiences With Place-based Learning

by Naomi Radawiecnradawiec

 Vancouver Island University


Figure 1. Stories in this place. This is the front cover of our class book that we published in June 2016, with a photo of the forest near our school that we visited frequently. 




The purpose of this study was to explore the experiences of participants in a K-6 program of choice that focused on place-based learning combined with Skwxwú7mesh language and culture. My research sought to answer the following question: If I focus on teaching that incorporates ways of knowing within a place-based learning approach, in what ways will I see evidence of a strong sense of self and learner identity develop among my students? My source of data was a Year End Sharing Circle held in my classroom after the school year was complete, and a class book that was self-published about my Grade 4/5/6 students reflecting on learning in nature.

In this research, my focus was threefold: 1) practical (action research with my Grade 4/5/6 class), 2) philosophical (reading existing literature on place and place-based learning), and 3) personal (exploring her own personal experiences in place). Analysis of the data revealed three themes: 1) Land - how we experience and connect with the land; 2) Community - our school community and how we interact with each other, and 3) Self - Personal identity. Themes revealed participant changes in perspective toward places through repeated visits, environmental stewardship, the way they interact with a place, their sense of self and overall wellbeing, and ability to reflect on their learning. Participants shared the benefits of cross-age learning, mentorship, and feeling cared for by all members of the school community. This study illustrated the possibilities for place-based learning connected to First Nations culture. Place-based learning was described as being more purposeful, memorable, and meaningful than traditional Eurocentric schooling as students were able to experience places through different ways of knowing, being and doing.

The Case for Place

 As a society we are becoming increasingly separate from the natural world, disconnected from place and from each other. Children in this generation seem to spend less time outdoors immersing themselves in natural places, and more time inside on technological devices.

As I think about my own connection with various places and my experiences traveling, I’m grateful for the way in which those places have impacted who I am. These experiences have led me to hope for a similar impact on the learners in my care. With a focus on place-based learning, I believe we can help reconnect children with the world and with the communities they live in. Not only might this benefit each individual learner as they connect with these places, but also help society as we encourage a culture of contributing citizens.

Rationale for Place-based Learning

 How can we develop our relationship with place as a way to “understand who we are, how we connect with others and how we both give and take meanings from the places in which we live and learn” (Brown, 2008, p. 7). Place-based learning is about the interactions between people and places, and the elements of nature and culture forming together (Relph, 1976).


Outdoor Education and Place-based Learning: Different Intentions

 Multiple interpretations of outdoor education and place-based learning can lead to confusion about the the intentions of these approaches. “Outdoor Education” is often confused with place-based learning because they both take place in learning environments outside of the regular school building. You could argue that place-based learning is a style of outdoor education with a different intention.

Although outdoor education focuses on the important task of personal development, it often misses the unique attributes of each place that we can learn from. In these cases, ‘place’ is viewed as a venue for learning, rather than something we can learn from before, during and after our time in that place. My goal was to provide opportunities for our learning community to get to know each place deeply for what it is, see it through multiple lenses, and recognize what it can teach us about ourselves and who we are, thus the approaches that I chose were more aligned to the intentions of place-based learning than those of outdoor education. 

Place-based learning involves time and many repeated visits, whereas outdoor education often involves single trips away from home to a larger variety of sites. The task of place-based learning is to uncover the story of a place and experience it in an embodied way. According to Preston and Griffiths (2004), “Purposeful and repeated experiences that encourage different ways of knowing a natural place, help deepen connections” (p. 12). Instead of viewing field studies as extraordinary privileges and rewards, place-based learning then becomes the norm and place is our learning environment.

Research Question

 How do purposeful and repeated experiences that encourage different ways of knowing a naturalplace deepen person-place connections and contribute to a person’s sense of self/identity?


Background and Overview of Research

 Aya7ayulh Chet (Cultural Journeys) is a program of choice within the Sea to Sky School District No. 48 that focuses on Skwxwú7mesh language and culture, and outdoor place-based learning. A video was created to help communicate our school focus (Youtube: “Cultural Journeys School - Squamish BC,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cb1XN1udack).   

 Throughout the school year, I did action research with my Grade 4/5/6 class at Cultural Journeys, read existing literature on place and place-based learning, and wrote vignettes about my personal connection with places. The intention of this study was to explore experiences focused on place-based learning combined with Skwxwú7mesh language and culture. My researcher’s journal helped me to reflect on these experiences in relation to my research question. As a researcher, I hope to learn more about how to deepen person-place connections, enabling my students to explore places through different ways of knowing, being, and doing.

Literature Review Themes

 Three themes were found during the review of literature: 1) Land - experiencing and connecting with places, 2) The role of place-based learning and stories in cultural identity, and 3) The role of place-based learning in personal and collective identity. I looked for articles related to place and place-based learning, which were written from a variety of perspectives: philosophy, psychology, phenomenology, ecology, geography, environmental education, outdoor adventure education, arts, sciences, and education in general (cross-disciplinary).


Prominent Place and Place-based Learning Researchers, Writers and Educators in the field

 While exploring the concept of place and the field of place-based learning, I noted prominent place philosophers, researchers and educators that are contributing to the field of study (Wattchow & Brown, 2008; Casey, 1993, 1997, 2003, Griffiths & Preston, 2004; Gruenewald, 2003; Harrison, 2011; Wells & Zeece, 2007). “A Pedagogy of Place,” is a helpful first book to read for those interested in place-based learning (Wattchow & Brown, 2011).

Bringing the Literature Review Themes Together

 Literature related to place-based learning in connection to identity and culture has inspired me to look deeper into how we experience place in our daily lives. It provides numerous ideas about the different frames or lenses we can use, and the role of culture within a place. Research studies have explored different ways of knowing a place (Preston and Griffiths, 2004; Wattchow & Brown, 2011), the roles we may have (Orr, 1992), and the importance of embedding Aboriginal ways of knowing into our curriculum and everyday learning experiences (Anderson, et al, 1994; Chrona, 2014; Hill, 2002; Robson, Miller, Idrobo, Burlando, Deutsch, Kocho-Schellenberg, Pengelly & Turner, 2009; Smith, 2002). Other authors refer to the impact of colonization, and how stories can be used to pass down traditional knowledge and learn about First Nations history/culture (Chrona, 2014; Hill & Stairs, 2002; Sykes, 2008). Studies suggest it is possible to connect with history and people in a place through experiential learning (Brown, 2008; Harrison, 2011; Nabhan, 1994; Powers, 2004; Preston and Griffiths, 2004; Smith, 2002).  A few authors describe the power of place in building identity and impacting our sense of self (Brown, 2008; Wattchow & Brown, 2011; Down, McInerney & Smyth, 2011; Hadjitheodoulou-Loizidou, et Al., 2011; White & Reid, 2008, p. 7). This self-awareness and connection with natural places creates agency, which may contribute to a sense of ownership and willingness to take care of our earth (Dolan, 2016; Gray, et al., 2015; Gleeson, 2013; Howard, 2007; Louv, 2008; Lundahl, 2011; McInerney, et al., 2011; Wason-Ellam, 2010; Wells & Zeece, 2007).


Research Methodology

 As a researcher, my focus was threefold: 1) practical (action research with my grade 4/5/6 class), 2) philosophical (reading existing literature on place and place-based learning), and 3) personal (exploring my own personal experiences in place).


I engaged in the following actions as a teacher/researcher:

1) As a class, we visited different places numerous times in order to develop a connection, and experience different ways of knowing a place.

2) We learned about multiple lenses or frames with which you can experience a place (e.g. historical, cultural, scientific, ecological, experiential, artistic, etc.).

3) Students learned Skwxwú7mesh history and culture with a focus on traditional ecological knowledge in connection to the local places we visited regularly.

4) Students reflected on and responded to their experiences in a variety of ways (e.g., journaling, discussions, presentations, projects, poetry, photography, and a class book about their reflections on learning in nature).

5) In their journals and in teacher-student interviews, all students were asked questions such as:  What was your experience like? What did you find interesting? What were you learning? What do you wonder? What have you learned about yourself from nature? What did you learn about yourself from this experience? 

6) I kept an ongoing blog about my class and reflected in my researcher’s journal about what I noticed during the learning process. I used these reflections to help plan subsequent experiences.

7) New insights from reading literature about place-based learning also informed my practice and pedagogical decisions as a teacher.

Autoethnography and Narrative Inquiry

 As a researcher, I also focused on a form of narrative inquiry called autoethnography. My connection with place has allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of how places shape who we are and contribute to a positive sense of self. Going through this process enabled me to better understand myself, and how I can help students uncover their own stories about place in relation to who they are.


Year End Sharing Circle and Data Collection

 At the end of the school year I asked students, parents, Elders, and other community members connected with our school to join a circle to talk about their learning/experiences related to the study. I asked participants to reflect on their perception of place, how they connect with different places, what they have learned, and how place has contributed to their sense of self/identity.


Data Analysis and Themes

 Data was obtained from three sources: The Year End Sharing Circle, our class book: Stories in This Place: Cultural Journeys Students Reflect on Learning in Nature, and my researcher’s journal. Quotes from those sources were combined to look for overarching themes.When looking closely at this information, I noticed three main themes: 1) Self (identity, personal growth), 2) Community (school culture), and 3) Land (experiencing places and learning on the land).

Theme One: Land - Experiencing and connecting with places

 Analysis of the data revealed the different ways participants connect with and experience places over time. A sense of place and attachment to local places was described in their stories. Participant interactions with each place showed the variety of roles they had, and the different lenses they used for each experience. Both the research and data support that places must be visited multiple times in order to develop a connection. These findings were further illustrated by the participants in this study. Participants described how they got to know a place on a deeper level over a period of time. As they learned traditional ecological knowledge and experienced the places in different ways, this helped develop a connection with that place. Through repeated visits participants could notice changes and also to develop a sense of being home.

It was also evident, in the literature and data, that person-place interactions cannot be fully planned prior to the visit. An intention may help the learning be more purposeful, but the subtle nuances of a place determine what the learning will actually look like on any given day. The most memorable experiences that had an impact on learners in my class emerged naturally and were not pre-determined. How can we decide what we will learn from nature, in nature, when we are unaware of what we may discover in that place and in that particular moment? Being open to emerging possibility has been a powerful shift in thinking for me as a teacher. It was hard to let go of control at first. However, this type of learning has enabled me to better meet the needs of each individual learner, their differences in personality, desires, and interests. I have come to believe that letting go of control is essential for true place-based learning to occur.


Rethinking how we learn: place-based learning versus traditional schooling

 Several participants in the sharing circle made comments regarding the difference they saw between place-based learning versus traditional schooling which they had been a part of in previous years. Place-based learning was described by participants as being cross-disciplinary, and cross-curricular. One study showed improved levels of academic engagement when students were working outdoors (Powers, 2004). Data from the Year End Sharing Circle supported this research further, as participants commented on increased commitment, motivation, understanding, retention, and sense of purpose. Learning at our school did not occur as a result of the teachers imparting knowledge on the students. Instead, students were given the space to explore, play, develop competencies, connect with places, and foster a love for the natural world. These experiences exemplified the “fluid nature of learning” as described by place-based educator and researcher Sam Harrison (2016).

Student reflections on learning in nature illustrated their engagement in experiential learning and embodied knowing. Embodied knowing helped the learners become attuned to the sensing body and connect with the places. This kind of play is natural for many children, and something adults need to be reminded of because we are too often in our head and focused on the mind. Experiential learning and embodied knowing allows us to move away from a focus solely on cognition and get back into the body.

Wattchow and Brown (2011) discuss the mutualism of body-mind which “becomes deeply enmeshed with the place that is experienced” (p. 74). Embodied knowing creates affective ties to these places which became evident during analysis of the data. Student stories about being in their favorite places demonstrated that they took part in experiential learning, and embodied knowing. Participants described using their senses to explore places and some were able to slow down and “just be.” They were able to escape from the distraction of daily life, technology and pop culture, and experience places through the body. Embodied knowing was a natural way of connecting with places for my students as they immersed themselves in childhood play and exploration.

At first it was difficult to convince our school community about the benefits of place-based learning. Several parents were skeptical, worried that a focus on culture and outdoor learning would take away from more academic type learning. Some asked for more homework while others wanted a specific amount of each subject taught every day...compartmentalizing math, science, language arts, and social studies into their separate duotangs. Over time they became aware of the shift in education that is happening all around the world, a move away from the factory and industrial style of schooling that has been so prominent for the last hundred years.

Many of us adults have been indoctrinated into thinking of learning as completing paper/pencil tasks, handing in “work” at the end of the class, and regurgitating information on a test. It was not easy to let go of the belief that students need to be involved in numerous academic worksheet-type activities in school everyday. For some, the amount of pages a child has in their duotang at the end of the year, or the amount of homework they come home with, determine how much they are “learning” at school. Such thinking might actually be detrimental to student learning and suffocates innovation, creativity, and the development of core competencies that are essential in our society today. It also disconnects learners from local places, and does not engender a commitment to caring for our earth. Place-based learning has proven to be far more engaging, purposeful, and memorable for the students at our school.


Aboriginal ways of knowing, Skwxwú7mesh culture and traditional ecological knowledge.

 Both the existing literature and the data within this study, point to the importance of promoting First Nations culture, Aboriginal ways of knowing, and awareness of the history and effects of colonization in the U.S. and Canada. Research suggests that stories play a role in how we experience places and how we perceive them (Johnson, 2010; Chrona; 2014). Participants in the Year End Sharing Circle told numerous stories about taking part in First Nations cultural traditions. Non-Aboriginal and First Nations students commented on the benefits of learning Skwxwú7mesh culture, especially traditional ecological knowledge. An Elder in the circle expressed gratitude for the openness of the school district and their support in promoting First Nations culture. Other participants declared the need to “keep it going” and “pass it on.” Stories told in the Sharing Circle contributed to the discussion around the importance of integrating Aboriginal culture, ways of knowing, being and doing in the daily learning.

In our school, the goal was to provide educational experiences centered on Indigenous learning. Ancestral knowledge was an important source as opposed to basing our curriculum around history written and publicized by colonizers. First Nations Elders joined us to share stories and take part in the learning. A focus on Indigenous perspectives allowed us to discover places through a cultural/historical lens. We believe that cultural immersion helped students learn more about who they are, where they come from, and their connections with different places.

This experience was especially powerful for our First Nations students because they had the opportunity to connect deeply with their heritage/roots. Rather than viewing First Nations culture and learning as a separate unit of study, educators should seek to embed it within all learning experiences in and outside of the classroom. With a strong focus on culture, I believe this place-based learning program has demonstrated its potential to integrate and support Indigenous perspectives, history, and ways of knowing. This finding leads me to believe there is great potential in this program to achieve the aims laid out in the new curriculum.

Theme Two: Community

 Analysis of the data revealed strong connections to the theme of “Community.” Participants reflected on the family feel within the school community, as well as the amount of cross-age mentorship and intergenerational learning.

Community is a large part of Aboriginal culture, you cannot separate the two. Data analysis showed that a focus on Skwxwú7mesh culture and place-based learning helped strengthen our school community. Learning on the land provided opportunities for the natural development of teamwork and leadership skills. Cultural traditions such as cedar harvesting helped bring our community of learners together as we each played a role in the process. Our community of learners was also strengthened through the sharing of stories and passing the talking piece around during circle. Author Daniel Siegal (2014) asserts that, “Storytelling is fundamental to all human cultures, and our shared stories create a connection to others that builds a sense of belonging to a particular community” (p. 39). The studies referred to in the literature and the participant’s responses both revealed the importance of storytelling in building community and experiencing places.

Elders and culture teachers were able to share traditional ecological knowledge by interacting with students. This intergenerational, experiential learning occurred in the places we visited frequently, places loaded with history. Learning in relation with one another helped build a sense of community and collective identity that was revealed in the Year End Sharing Circle, class book, and my researcher’s journal. Further research needs to examine the possibilities for community building, mentorship, and intergenerational learning within the field of place-based learning.


Theme Three: Self (identity)

 Place should not be viewed and used as a venue that is void of meaning, for the purpose of personal development. The intention of place-based learning is not about learning outdoors; it’s about learning from the outdoors through multiple ways of knowing. Repeated visits to a few local places allowed students in our school to get to know each place deeply for what it is. Participants were able to describe various ways they experienced and connected with the places. Literature within the field critiques a focus on personal development that doesn’t address unique attributes of the places we are in. Nevertheless, the theme of personal growth emerged from our Year End Sharing Circle. I believe this emergence was largely due to the nature of place-based learning in connection with First Nations culture, within a supportive school community.

My research into how places shape our identity, has little to do with building character traits. It is more of a shift in perspective within the person...a re-connection with the natural world which changes the way we see ourselves in it. Instead of focusing on building perseverance for example, my research aims to reconnect children with the natural world, developing a person-place attachment.Personal growth is a subset of this primary goal of attachment, exploration of stories and history, and experiencing places through different ways of knowing, being and doing.

Data showed that connecting with each place and developing person-place attachments strengthened students positive sense of self and pride in who they are. This theme of identity in connection with place is evident amongst literature within the field. Mike Brown (2011) describes how he has “been drawn to home because of a realization that who I am is intimately connected to where I am...the waters...the motion of a boat at anchor, and the contours of the land are not only embedded in my memory, they form part of who I am” (p. 24).

Data analysis revealed that students recognized personal growth and how their experiences this year had influenced their sense of self. Several students identified themselves as leaders and told stories about helping their peers, younger buddies, or teaching adults in their lives. Further research could go deeper into students’ self perceptions and identity connected to place-based learning.

            Participants in the Year End Sharing Circle noted students’ increased ability to reflect on their learning. I believe that high engagement motivated students to share their learning with others. Cohen and Sodhi (2012) suggest that “Research participants involved in embodied ways of knowing places described reflection as integral to their learning, which supports the notion of reflective practice as integral to new learning” (p. 132). Sharing stories appeared to help students reflect on the purpose behind what they were learning. Daily class circles, conversations, and journaling also helped students interpret their experiences. Parents and teachers reported the difference they noticed in students’ recollection of events that occurred each day at school.

            Environmental Stewardship was a theme that emerged in the place-based literature and data analysis of this study. Wason-Ellam (2010) stated that appreciation for place precedes commitments to stewardship, and described how learning from the local (land) fosters opportunities “for children to think about creating long-term caring and in knowing that they, too, can take action for places where they live throughout a lifetime” (p. 283). Circle participants talked about respecting and taking care of the land. I believe a deeper connection with the natural world makes us more appreciative of it. Student comments confirmed this belief as they described the importance of respecting the land. If we want students to be advocates for environmental sustainability, then a connection with place will help them develop the compassion and desire to take care of the earth.

Next steps

 My next step as a teacher is to continue reading literature within the field, exploring place-based learning with my class, and reflecting on my experiences. I want to learn more about how to deepen person-place connections so that students are positively impacted in a way that changes their lifestyle choices, perspective of place, stewardship behavior, and their sense of self. My hope is that, by helping students connect with outdoor places, they will develop a desire to be in nature outside of school hours and in their adult lives. Connecting to places will hopefully heighten their self awareness and ability to reflect on their learning. Place-based learning might also impact their desire to care for the earth and contribute locally and globally.

I am aware of the fear many educators experience when thinking about taking their students outdoors and exploring local places repeated times - I experienced this fear myself in the beginning. First times for anything are scary. In my researcher’s journal from September I reflected on the uncertainty I felt about taking the learning outdoors:

I have to admit I was afraid at first to take the students outside. I felt hesitant, as if something was holding me back. I was uncertain about about student engagement, safety, and whether or not the learning would be meaningful and memorable. I was so caught up on the big picture, thinking big (unit plans and where to go next) that I overwhelmed myself and made it hard to move forward at first. I’ve heard advice from many people that when starting something new you need to start with small steps. My advice: just get outside! Don’t overthink everything at first. Go with the intention of connecting with the land, getting to know it, and experiencing it different ways. Allow time for students to engage in childhood passions, embodied knowing, and looking at places through a variety of lenses over repeated visits. From there, your eyes will be opened to the limitless possibilities for learning.



  I urge educators who have not yet engaged in place-based learning to explore, to open the doors, and to get outside. The first exploration need not be groundbreaking. Little planning is needed the first time you visit a place - the learning unfolds as you interact with the place, getting to know it’s subtleties through play and exploration. Getting out of my comfort zone within the four walls of the classroom was the best move I’ve made as an educator. It has changed my perspective on learning, the endless possibilities for exploration, and for connecting with places.

This program offered a unique combination of First Nations culture and outdoor place-based learning. I encourage other educators to not only include First Nations culture and language in their schools, but to immerse it within the learning each day. The “First Peoples Principles of Learning” help guide planning and support Aboriginal ways of knowing, being and doing (Chrona, 2014). Place-based learning provides opportunities for students to learn traditional ecological knowledge, core values and the power of storytelling with a focus on First Nations culture. Non-Aboriginal students also benefit from learning about other cultures different from their own. Culture is a foundational aspect of overall health and wellness, which greatly impacts growth and one's ability to learn. It is important to maintain oral traditions and the Aboriginal culture that is deeply ingrained in the places we visit. If we don’t teach it here, then where else will it be taught? Acknowledge the traditional territory, maintain communication with First Nations community members in your area, dialogue openly, get to know the history, and this will open doors to rich cultural exploration and the sharing of knowledge.

Place-based learning has also inspired me to tread differently on this planet that we live on. My desire to take care of the earth is greater. I’ve been inspired by my students, their creativity and ability to experience places through play. Their ability to immerse themselves in the present moment and discover places through their senses, has helped me to look more closely, enjoy the moment, and to see things as they truly are. Experiencing places shapes how we see the world, it shapes our world as we know it.


About the Author

Naomi Radawiec completed a Masters of Education in Educational Leadership at Vancouver Island University in 2017. After teaching at Gitwinksihlkw Elementary in the Nisga’a School District 92, she moved back to her hometown Squamish and helped begin a new program of choice called Aya7ayulh Chet (Cultural Journeys) within School District 48 (Sea to Sky). She is passionate about First Nations language and culture and outdoor place-based learning. Naomi is an active member within the Network of Inquiry and Innovation and Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network. She has recently moved to the Comox Valley and is working in School District No. 71.



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Keywords: Place-based learning, place, outdoor education, storytelling, First Nations, Aboriginal Education, identity, stewardship, connectedness, contribute, reconciliation, culture