Place-Based Education Essay

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Place-based education is a philosophical orientation to teaching and learning that emphasizes the study of geographic context, particularly the local community, as a focus of elementary, secondary, and higher education. Its lasting contribution to contemporary Western education is the requisite community study unit in elementary school, which only hints at the potential for place-based education in schools. This entry looks at the idea’s development and current status.


The study of place can trace its philosophical roots back to Aristotle’s notion of topos, which refers to feelings of belongingness that are evoked by the “where” dimension of a person’s relationship to the spaces he or she inhabits. This ancient Greek concept points to place-based education’s disciplinary lineage— psychology and geography—which together frame its perceptual and spatial roots.

Place-based educators are interested in spaces, not solely in and of themselves, but also as natural and cultural spheres to which humans assign meaning and from which they derive meaning and purpose and locate their individual and collective identities. Hence, the sense of place, the quality of place, the utilitarian use of space, and the study of urban and rural communities are all reoccurring themes within the academic study of place.

In higher education, place-based education also draws from a number of interdisciplinary traditions that define both its conceptual foundations and research priorities. Working from a phenomenological perspective, some place-based educators are interested in the deeply personal experience of place that is rooted in feelings of attachment and belongingness to particular environments. Home and childhood environments are prominent themes in this regard. Closely related to this research is the study of spatial perception in childhood, including nearby and faraway places. Place-based research also incorporates elements of critical sociology. By deconstructing the physical environment as a visual text, some critical pedagogics aim to expose schools and other places as contested spaces of power rooted in imbalances of environmental quality and equity of access.

From a historical perspective, place-based K–12 education is rooted in the progressive tradition of educational practice and reform. In recent centuries, some of the most prominent progressive educators in Europe incorporated place-based education as a key component of their instructional practice. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827), for example, would routinely take his students on regular excursions outside of the school into the local villages and countryside for the purpose of studying the local flora and landforms. Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) called on educators to incorporate the local community context, including local farming practices and cultural traditions, into the school’s curricula.

Contemporary Role

As noted above, place-based education’s most notable contribution to contemporary education is the requisite community study unit in elementary school in which children learn about the basic functioning and infrastructure of their local community (e.g., community helpers and their tools). In addition to in-class work, such a unit may also comprise walking tours, the sketching of local buildings, the analysis of local artifacts and monuments, the study of maps and city plans, interviews with local residents, and other forms of community data gathering.

Most place study proponents see the traditional community study unit only as a starting point for place study in school. They also advocate for the more advanced study of place in the secondary grades and higher education. So, too, place-based educators link the study of place to environmental advocacy, child psychology, social psychology, human geography, and rural schooling, among other topics.

Architecture is an often neglected subject in elementary and secondary education that is also promoted in schools by some place-based educators.

Other place-based educators are especially concerned with promoting a developmental congruence between how geography is taught to students in elementary and secondary school and the unique ways in which children and youth make sense of the world. Aligning a place-based curriculum with what researchers know about the development of children’s spatial perception is judged to be critically important in this regard.

There is a clear biocentric line of thought running through many place-based advocacy arguments. Most place-based educators lament the loss of natural spaces in cities. Responding to this concern, environmental educators have argued that place-based education should take into full account the natural as well as cultural environments of local communities in the design of place-based curriculum. Working within an environmental education context, many place-based educators have sought to align their teaching with other holistic traditions in education, such as gardening and the ecological restoration movement.

Place-based education also honors the “think global, act local” axiom of the more progressive forms of global education. For example, students may study the local implications of global environmental change and resource scarcities. They may also learn social action skills which they then put into practice in improving their local community. Cyber places as virtual settings for online and distance learning via the Internet are relatively new contexts for place-based educational research. Studies exploring the similarities and differences between face-to-face teaching in traditional classrooms and online learning in Web-based classrooms explore, in part, the transformations to the experience of place that Internet-based education entails.


  1. Center for Ecoliteracy. (1999). The edible schoolyard. Berkeley, CA: Learning in the Real World.
  2. Chawla, L. (1994). In the first country of places: Nature, poetry, and childhood memory. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  3. Hart, R. (1979). Children’s experience of place. New York: Irvington.
  4. Hutchison, D. (2004). A natural history of place in education. New York: Teachers College Press.
  5. Matthews, M. H. (1992). Making sense of place: Children’s understanding of large-scale environments. Hemel Hempstead, UK: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
  6. Orr, D. (1992). Ecological literacy: Education and the transition to a post-modern world. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  7. Sobel, D. (2004). Place-based education: Connecting classrooms and communities. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.
  8. Theobald, P. (1997). Teaching the commons: Place, pride, and the renewal of community. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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