The Value of “Place” in Education

by Denny Olson

Denny Olson

In Montana, we are lucky in that education has always had a tradition of local control. Unfortunately, it has seldom had a tradition of local emphasis. In fact, the primary key to living well politically, economically, ecologically, spiritually and as a community member (on all levels) may well be “place education”. Whether we recognize it or not, most of us need a sense of “home” which extends beyond the fenced yard (or worse, the immediate area of the television and the couch). We need a sense of “family” which extends beyond our own offspring. We gather subtle hints about these senses of connection when we take a refreshing walk in the woods, go hunting and fishing, attend summer camp or even simply join a club. Deep inside of most humans is strong urge to “belong” somewhere. We often interpret that urge as a need to circle the wagons around home and property, but it goes broader and deeper than that obvious response. If we further examine our own motives and needs, perhaps there is an obvious gap that our culture actually widens. It could be that we need a sense of “place”, a level of comfort with our surroundings that is brought about through familiarity and interaction, instead of distance and isolation. Simply put, “place” adds an essential context to life, or rather, it is the context out of which life operates.

Teaching a sense of place, by its very scope, demands a teaching partnership between schools, families, other human communities (political, business, church, etc.) and nature. In order to make education a true community partnership, children must be seen (and function) as contributing members of the community, no matter what their age. In our present culture children are protected, but also insulated from active participation in the affairs of the community, and adult voices advocating children’s interests are few and largely ignored. Children are seen as being in a constant state of preparation for adulthood, an unpaid and largely ignored apprenticeship for the real life of the marketplace later on. To illustrate with two examples, adults must admit that (1) the users of a playground might be qualified to review and recommend changes in the playground’s design, or (2) that the future users of a natural area might have more stake in that area’s welfare than those presently being asked to decide its fate.

To create a healthy community through a sense of place, this educational partnership must realize that the where and how of learning are as important as the what. If we examine our own educational experience in terms of what we learned best, we realize that respect for something is a prerequisite for learning about it. From an examination of our own “place” (natural, familial, political, spiritual, etc.) we can begin to understand the more abstract nature of all places. The way education is now practiced, we learn the abstract, global things first, get bored with it because it has so little relationship to our own lives, and therefore never get around to learning about here. By studying the tropical rainforest, we are asked to develop a sense of stewardship for our home, when we have never had the chance to know, love and respect the places just outside our doors.

As an example, the concept of global climate change is almost ridiculously abstract and complex. Conversely, wondering why I have so many fewer days of cross-country skiing (which I dearly love) in my home valley, and watching January rain soak layers of snow and then re-freeze – locking many animals from the safety of insulating snow, or breathing August and September smoke from wildfires across the west – these things happen to me. They are immediate and “in my face”, and they are happening more and more often. These observations about my place bring the abstraction of climate change down to a reality I can understand, and prompt me to want to do something about it. It is accidental place education at work. Imagine how effective it could be if we did some planning around it.

This is why I lead kids into the woods of Owen Sowerwine Natural Area. If they experience, then know, then bond with this place literally walking distance from where they live, they will someday be asked to protect what they already feel they own. If they are anything like me, and probably you, they will guard it with their lives.