Inspiration for lifelong learning, a place-based approach

Inspiration for lifelong learning, a place-based approach

What is place-based learning?

To me, California is a magical place. It is a place where the mountains meet the ocean, the sun shines year round, the trees grow to incomprehensible sizes, and state and national parks abound. But mostly, it is the place where I discovered my passion for the environment and connected with nature on such a deep level that I was forever changed. This connection amplified my personal drive to conserve, to sustain, and to care for the environment and the precious, limited resources that it provides us.

The type of learning I described above falls under the category of ‘place-based learning’. Place-based learning involves the development of a bond between a person and a place (Kudryavtsev, Stedman, and Krasny 2012). In addition to everyday experiences, out-of-school educational programs, well-planned field trips, and short outings combined with inquiry-based activities can be used to develop these bonds.

Although my focus here is on science education, place-based learning can be incorporated into any educational program. It simply requires a link between subject matter and direct experience.

For environmental science place-based education, instructors give students the opportunity to build a connection with their environment and to express wonder over its intricacies. Curiosity, the scientific method, and imagination are some of the most valuable tools a person can have, and they cannot be fully developed from books alone. 

Learning outside the classroom

People spend the vast majority of their lives outside of school and, unsurprisingly, this is where most of their learning occurs. Spontaneous everyday science learning grows from curiosity at a very young age. For example, questions such as, “how do fish breathe under water?”, “how many eyes does a spider have?”, and the simple “why?”, are indicative of a child’s quest for knowledge.

Beyond everyday science learning are informal science programs. These place-based learning programs, in museums, parks, zoos, aquariums, on school yards, farms, or elsewhere, inspire emotional connections between people and those places. In addition, they open people’s eyes to the fact that science is everywhere.  They help them develop an appreciation for science and an understanding of what science entails, and quite frankly, they teach everyone that science can be fun!  

Nonscientists tend to think of science as a static set of facts, but scientists see it as a dynamic field that relies on the scientific method to continuously grow and evolve. People must overcome this hurdle in order to both understand and appreciate science. Informal science learning environments address this through interactive activities that encourage inquiry, experimentation, observation and imagination (Bell et al. 2009)

Doing place-based learning in nature

I volunteer at Hidden Villa, a non-profit devoted to environmental education. Every week I lead groups of elementary students on day-long tours of Hidden Villa’s organic farms and wilderness. It’s amazing to see the way their surroundings affect their thinking.

By the end of the day, even the kids that start out apprehensive of invertebrates are flipping over logs looking for slender salamanders, spiders and banana slugs. Their interest in the wilderness and farm sparks their imagination and they shoot out questions faster than I can answer them. They've begun to think like scientists.

Share your experiences with place-based teaching or learning below.


Mandy McLean is a graduate student in Environmental Earth System Science.


Bell, Philip, Bruce Lewenstein, Andrew W Shouse, and Micheal A. Feder. 2009. Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Kudryavtsev, Alex, Richard C Stedman, and Marianne E Krasny. 2012. “Sense of Place in Environmental Education.” Environmental Education Research 18 (2): 229–250.