Research Summary

Imagination and the Cognitive Tools of Place-Making

Researchers Offer Tools for Using Imagination to Build a Sense of Place

The Journal of Environmental Education

Many environmental education researchers have argued that people’s connection to the places they live (or places they care about), often termed a “sense of place,” is an important aspect of human identity, psychological health, and sustainability. The authors of this paper argue that teachers should help students build a sense of place (a process the authors call “place-making”), and that some important place-making tools have been ignored in the modern educational system.

“The model we propose here,” the authors explain, “is intended to assist teachers in bringing imagination to the fore of their teaching.” The authors argue that place-making and imagination share three key features: emotional engagement, active cognition, and a sense of possibility. According to the authors, “Imagination is fuelled not only by emotional engagement and intellectual effort, but also by the fullness of our physical being-in-environment.” They believe that imaginative education and place-making can go hand in hand, if teachers are committed. The authors argue that “much in contemporary culture tends to stunt and deaden” children’s imaginations.

The authors pull from Egan’s theory of imaginative education and Fettes’s tools of imaginative engagement to build an approach to place-making. Egan describes what he calls “cognitive toolkits,” or styles of thinking. Mythic understanding refers to oral language and involves stories, rhyme, jokes, play, and mystery. This toolkit is most often used by children up to the age of about eight. Romantic understanding, used up to the age of about 15, refers to the tools of literacy and involves aspects such as building a sense of reality and the limits of reality, narrative understanding, a sense of wonder, and the capacity for idealism. Finally, philosophic understanding, employed in the last years of high school, refers to the tools of theoretical thinking and includes building a sense of abstract reality and a search for truth.

The authors explain that these tools are at work when children and adults use their imaginations in place-making. Children use their mythic imagination when they select one treasured object such as a bear or blanket or feel comfort in their family’s structured rituals. These objects and rituals have the “capacity for representing home-ness to the child.” Likewise, when older children build forts or decorate their rooms or lockers, they are using their “romantic predilection for creating special places.” And, lastly, the authors argue that people use their philosophic imagination when they create maps and plans.

The authors give two examples of how these strategies—“enacting place through symbol and ritual, creating special personal places, and the making of maps and plans”—can be applied in traditional school settings to teach concepts from British Columbia’s science and social studies curriculum.

Their first example relates to how a teacher might approach a set of grade 4 science concepts related to the habitats of local plants and animals, food chains, the Aboriginal concept of respect for the environment, and how personal choices affect the environment. In this example, the authors suggest that the teacher might begin by asking students to brainstorm about all the plants and animals that live nearby. The teacher can set up a basic tension that contrasts a human-centered view of the local area with the perspective of those plants and animals. The students could model or diagram the special places of each of the plants and animals that live nearby. The students could then imagine an urban planning conference of all the plants and animals: what would they need to thrive? And what would happen if humans requested permission to immigrate? The students might develop guidelines for how humans could enter the ecosystem and live in harmony with the other residents, introducing the topic of the Aboriginal point of view.

In another example, the authors demonstrate how even grade 10 social studies concepts can be approached with an imaginative place-making twist. The concepts covered include understanding identity, society, and culture in Canada from 1815–1914. The authors suggest that rather than relying on sweeping concepts and trends across the nation during the time period, the teacher could instead focus on the characters and changes in just one community during that time period. The students could imagine life in the community, and only after establishing a connection to one place would they consider how that place relates to the national picture, comparing and contrasting different communities and investigating the complex connections between the interlinked communities that formed the nation during that time period.

The authors see great value in helping students build a sense of place and build their imagination. And, they argue, approaches that engage the imagination will be more likely to help students build a sense of place.

The Bottom Line

Sense of place is a key element of environmental literacy. The authors believe that educational approaches that use students’ imagination are more effective at helping them build a sense of place. They argue that place-based imaginative education is more effective than many forms of traditional environmental education and offer specific examples of how teachers can implement it.