Explore the Community with Place-Based Education

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November 21, 2023

This is the third in a series of guest blogs by the 2023-24 Michigan Regional Teachers of the Year. Stephanie Nielsen is a kindergarten teacher at Shawmut Hills Academy in Grand Rapids Public Schools.

It is a joy and honor to teach in the incredible state of Michigan. From its precious Great Lakes to its diverse urban communities, our state enchants with joy and wonder.

One of my favorite things about teaching kindergarten in Michigan is the excitement of exploring all four seasons throughout the year. These experiences create joyful memories that allow young children to create a critical bond with their community and environment.

As an educator who is passionate about place-based education, I believe strongly that connecting scholars to school yards, neighborhoods and larger communities will empower the next generation to innovatively and empathetically care for our beautiful state for years to come.

The Benefits

There are many benefits to implementing place-based education. Scholars are shaped by the places around them, and by engaging with the community, they understand the impact they have on their place, as well. It is a win-win!

Community spaces are better when classrooms connect to them, while scholar identities are positively developed at the same time.

Some benefits of place-based education I have noticed in my own school building are:
  • Exposure to the outdoors reduces stress.
  • Exploring schoolyard plants and fauna sparks joy and wonder.
  • There’s an increased sense of purpose/agency (empowerment). 
  • Community partners thrive when schools engage with them.
  • Scholars take more pride in their community and their school.
  • More interdisciplinary connections to curriculum standards are made.
  • Relatable, hands-on experiences bring learning to life.

Getting Started

If you are an educator who would like to provide more community-based instruction, here are a few things to get you started:
  • Know your district’s policies: Find out what resources and restrictions are there for walking field trips, field trips, guest speakers, outdoor drill procedures, etc.
  • Follow the children’s lead: Develop experiences and projects around what the scholars are most interested in.
  • Find community partners: Network and find out who would like to invest in your classroom and/or school.
  • Strengths-based mindset: Scholars will find issues with their place while engaging in this work but be sure to highlight the strengths of their schoolyards and community, as well, and be sure the issues you choose to focus on are developmentally appropriate for that age.
  • Develop procedures and routines: Take time to develop regular procedures and routines with your scholars, and expect some hiccups and failure. It gets better over time!
  • Tools for success: Create an “adventure toolkit.” I recommend outdoor sit mats (yoga mats cut in half work great!), field guidebooks (such as Michigan tree, bird and flower guides), and a backpack or wagon filled with clipboards, pencils and magnifying glasses! There are grants that will fund projects like this or try adding these items to an Amazon Wishlist or Donors Choose project.
  • Collaborate: Find another teacher or two to collaborate with. Implementing place-based education practices have only been effective for me because I have incredible educators in my building and district to engage in with this work together.
  • Do less, well: Don’t do too much too soon. Getting scholars observing schoolyards and community spaces, developing projects around those observations, all while managing behaviors and ensuring activities are anchored in curriculum standards, is a daunting task! Choose one small way to be more schoolyard- or community-focused and do that one thing well.
  • Get families involved: Invite families to be a part of this work! Many have expertise that can enhance place-based projects and children love to have their family involved.

Final Thoughts

It is important to keep in mind that place-based education does not require being outdoors necessarily. As Sarah Anderson states in her book “Bringing School to Life,” “One of the main goals of place-based education is to help raise citizens who understand how everything in a community is interconnected. Place-based education extends learning into both nature and human-made aspects of a community. Learning revolves around environment, culture, economics and governance.”

The diversity, natural resources and people that make up the great state of Michigan create the perfect space to engage in this type of learning. We would be missing a huge opportunity to not invest in our Michigan schoolyards, neighborhoods and communities as classrooms.