2. The Importance of Connection to Place: Traditional Education Systems and Reframed Place-Based Learning

Katie Hargus, Climate Action Youth Ambassador. June 26, 2019. Victoria BC.

As articulated last week, one of the central themes guiding the content of this blog is the understanding that the global climate crisis is underpinned by pervasive currents of disconnection between people and their local systems (including food systems, energy production, etc.). Ensuring connection is particularly important for children, who are broadly restricted from accessing meaningful education and engagement with their local landscapes, ecosystems, green spaces, biodiversities, and communities. This restriction largely results from the interacting dynamics of urbanization, habitat destruction, mass-media messaging, increases in screen use, and the isolation of teaching material within traditional education systems.

Curious about every plant and loving to all.

Curious about every plant and loving to all.

Slowing down to appreciate the beauty of a pine cone.

Slowing down to appreciate the beauty of a pine cone.

Learning about sunlight and shadows.

Learning about sunlight and shadows.

Traditional Education Systems

These traditional education systems (largely reflective of the disconnection that saturates industrialized society as a whole) tend to function on the separation of children and educational material. They often place emphasis on ‘universal’ concepts, such that isolated material is prioritized over relevant material. Without this relevance, children are distanced from understanding their personal contexts, and are found to perceive learning as broad, abstract, uninspiring, and irrelevant. Furthermore, these forms of education also rarely incorporate components of experiential learning - described by the Association for Experiential Education (2002) as “a process crucial to student learning through which a learner constructs knowledge, skill, and value from direct, active, and immersive experiences” (p. 2).  Overall, children are barricaded from comprehending the interconnected, complex, and context-dependent relationships all natural systems have with each other - including their own personal relation to these systems.

Place-Based Learning

Despite the challenges and barriers faced by traditional approaches to education in providing children with local, engaging, and connective approaches to exploring natural systems, place-based education (PBL) offers one avenue to reconnect children with their environments.  According to O’Conner & Sharp (2015), PBL can be considered as  

emerging from particular attributes of place, and is specific to geography, ecology, sociology, politics, and other dynamics. It is inherently multidisciplinary and experiential, including participatory action …it is reflective of an educational philosophy broader than ‘learn to earn’. It connects place with self and community. Because of the ecological lens through which curricula are envisioned, connections are pervasive…curricula include multigenerational and multicultural dimensions as they interface with communities (p.7).

The specifics of PBL described above broadly serve to deepen children’s learning and engagement with material, through the prioritization of relevant rather than global contexts. Furthermore, PBL’s emphasis on a close connection with place (through projects and on-the-land learning) facilitates responsibility, stewardship, and activism for the care of that place. To make the most of this connection, it’s crucial that teachings incorporate local outdoor areas - including parks, gardens, orchards, or forests. Learning from and within these spaces can help create a sense of community, instil concern for the environment, foster a connection with nature, and help students to develop self-confidence, discipline, skills in cooperation, and multi-cultural understanding.

Reframing Place-Based Learning (PBL) in Saanich

Based on all discussions above, it’s clear that connection to place is vital for children’s learning. For this reason, every morning at 9:30 the little one I work with and I head out the door, down the sidewalk, and turn uphill to follow a winding wooded path to Marigold Park. The playground is average, all things considered. Its notable features include two swings, two slides, a slackline connecting a couple scalable plastic boulders, several sets of stairs and ladders to enable climbers of varying leg lengths, and plenty of shade-engulfed cubbies to explore underneath. Several towering Douglas firs surround the grassy shore of the playground’s woodchip sea, and a short meandering path leads away from the structures into an expansive but plain-looking haven of boulders, blackberries, firs, ferns, and grass.

Certainly, Victoria contains more magnificent places - more innovative and expansive playgrounds, more exquisite wooded areas, more beautiful settings. These places are not inaccessible; with a car, I am more than able to cart us all over the city to explore new zones. So, why Marigold Park?

The answer lies in the importance of place. Because we follow the same path to the park every day (with minor variations, as is to be expected with a 2-year-old), the little one learns to recognize and observe patterns that fluctuate or stay similar from day to day. Through my careful questioning and her immersion in as much kinesthetic experience as possible (tasting, smelling, prodding, stroking), she learns to notice changes in cloud cover, intensity of bird noises, strength of wind gusts, level of insect activity, and shifts in flowering times for different plants. She recognizes and recalls familiar places where specific events happened – whether it was the tree base where she found an incredible iridescent beetle, the brambles where she plucked and tasted a rose petal, the root clump where she bumped her knee, or the maple leaf-covered pathway where an unexpected gust of wind rustled her hair. Because her memory is constantly refreshed and added to each time we visit these spots, she retains acute recollections of these happenings, and is able to forge ever more connections every time we return.  

Why Marigold Park? It’s because of the divine power of place in instilling connection, observation, awareness, and interest. Without our reliable returns, which she gleefully anticipates every morning, she would not be allowed to connect with the land and with herself in quite the same way. 

Thanks for reading and talk to you next week! If you have any questions feel free to email me at katie@iisaakolam.ca.

Monica Shore