Guest Author

Place-Based Learning: Solid Ground in Troubled Waters

place-based learning
Image used with permission of National Outdoor Learning Initiative; photo credit: Thomas Kuoh

By: Jack Chin

As the pandemic unfolded in March 2020, educators were in uncharted waters, forced to adapt quickly by pivoting to alternative modes of instruction. Community partners also had to navigate the rapidly shifting conditions – with field trips and in-class demonstrations scrapped, program providers last year used a combination of live Zoom sessions, pre-recorded media, and kits to engage students in projects at home or in nearby neighborhood locations. Through close relationships with the communities they serve, these partners played a key mediating role between remote teachers and students learning at home.

One such partner, KIDS for the BAY, works with elementary school teachers to meet Next Generation Science Standards by engaging students with their local watershed. Here’s how their staff modified their program to make sure community connections happened, even via remote instruction:

“When schools closed, we quickly developed At-Home Activities on our website to provide resources for teachers, students, and families. When schools switched to distance learning, we transitioned all our programs to an online format. All participants received multiple experiences including Zoom lessons, going outside to connect with nature and complete observations, nature art, and trash cleanup projects, and online group poster-making and video-making Environmental Action Projects.”

 “Students loved investigating our interactive Virtual Watershed and completing hands-on experiments at home. A favorite activity was creating mini watersheds using crumpled paper to create mountains and valleys, marker pens to outline ridges, and spray bottles to simulate rain. KIDS for the BAY staff spotlighted student scientists on Zoom, eager to share their predictions and the watersheds they created. Breakout rooms, Jamboard, Flipgrid, and other tools helped to make Zoom lessons interactive. Parents joined lessons and supported their children learning at home.”

Kids for the bay Watershed project
Mini watershed model using crumpled paper; image used with permission of KIDS for the BAY

“In distance learning, students were eager to go outside to complete watershed scavenger hunts in their neighborhoods. They observed animal and plant adaptations, storm drains leading to creeks, and signs of pollution including litter. After learning how trash can harm animals in the local watershed and impact connected creek, bay and ocean environments, our students were eager to lead their families in ‘quaranteam’ litter cleanup projects in their neighborhoods, completing a total of 4,034 environmental stewardship hours in trash cleanup projects, poster, and video presentations.”

Student on Kids for the Bay Watershed Action Project scavenger hunt, James Madison Elementary School, San Leandro CA
Watershed scavenger hunt; image used with permission of KIDS for the BAY

Another community partner, The Watershed Project, similarly used video lessons and kits to connect students with their local community and natural environment. They observed:

“Amidst the challenges of virtual learning this year, students have experienced moments of connection with each other and with nearby nature as a result of our programs. Their jaws dropped when they saw our interactive watershed model on the Zoom screen, and they laughed and danced their way through the water cycle boogie together. They demonstrated care for the nearby nature around their homes: one student brought a leaf from a tree in their yard to our lesson, another was upset about a tree that was cut down near their home, and another beamed with excitement about the lemons growing in their backyard. Another changed his Zoom name to I am a water protector during one of our lessons.”

Watershed project
Interactive watershed model; image used with permission of The Watershed Project

By doubling down on hands-on, project- and place-based approaches, these educators were able to sustain student engagement, even in distance learning. This was especially important for students in under-resourced schools; outdoor activities gave these students opportunities to enjoy the physical and mental health benefits of connecting with nature in their local community and to take much-needed screen-time breaks. By effectively partnering with teachers and families, programs like KIDS for the BAY and The Watershed Project increased students’ access to equitable, engaging learning opportunities during the pandemic.

These successes during trying times underscore what is known about connecting youth, schools, and their communities through place-based strategies. As chronicled in the All of a Place Institute report, written some 20 years ago:

“In whatever form, by incorporating a sense of place in instruction, teachers have developed programs that are professionally stimulating and that are engaging for students. With instruction based on students’ experiences, learning is grounded in what they know and builds on actualities, not abstractions. Students develop competencies that matter to them; the growing sense of doing things that are valued, in turn, helps them learn better. And the sense of building community and rootedness beyond the “age-based ghetto” of the schoolhouse gives students an opportunity to address problems in the “real world,” instilling a sense of stewardship and hope.

 “By placing education within the local context and scale:

  • The content of the curriculum becomes richer and more relevant, not generic as is the case in a text-based curriculum – students become more engaged, teachers are revitalized, the community is more invested;
  • The quality of teaching and learning improves because teachers, students and community members care more – students get better grades, teachers raise expectations for what students can achieve, families get directly involved with their children’s learning; and
  • The high level of connectivity promotes synergistic effects – students apply what they learn in school to improve the community and local environment, teachers collaborate with each other and with members of the community, the community replenishes its social capital through intergenerational interactions.”

As students and teachers return to classrooms this fall, uncertain as to whether instruction will have to revert to hybrid or remote modes given the Delta variant surge, educators should keep in mind that incorporating a sense of place can provide solid ground when waters are placid and when they are troubled. Check out the National Outdoor Learning Library for ideas and resources on how to use the outdoors for learning during the pandemic and beyond.

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Jack Chin is an independent strategy consultant who works with foundations and nonprofit programs to enhance their impact. Jack helped start San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance (dba Education Outsideand the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and has served on the governance bodies of the Student Conservation Association, Climate Access, Environmental Grantmakers Association, Pacific Primary Pre-school, and Lick-Wilmerding High School.

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