Research Summary

The Place of Experience and the Experience of Place: Intersections Between Sustainability Education and Outdoor Learning

Place-Based Learning Connects Experience, Outdoors, and Sustainability

Australian Journal of Environmental Education

As the focus on promoting sustainability through environmental education has increased, so has the scrutiny on outdoor education programs, which may not always lead to increased sustainable behaviors. In fact, this paper’s author suggests that some outdoor education programs may have an adverse effect on attitudes and perceptions of sustainability by making nature seem remote, pristine, and disconnected from students’ day-to-day lives. Drawing on an extensive body of research and interviews with educators, the author makes a case for the potential of place-based education to connect experiential learning and sustainability education. He also argues that place-based learning is a remedy for some of the problems that outdoor education programs face in fostering sustainable behavior.

As part of his research, the author partnered with eight educators in New Zealand—six secondary teachers and two preservice teachers. These teachers participated in three phases of research: first, they critiqued their current school-based outdoor education program; second, they engaged in professional development to generate individual action plans for aligning their programs with sustainability learning goals; and third, they reflected on their own learning process. The author analyzed the data from current experiential learning and place-based learning research; in the process, he uncovered common themes.

The first theme relates to the long tradition of using experiential learning within outdoor education and sustainability education programs. Experiential learning engages the learner in doing—creating sensory experiences that foster both cognitive and emotional connections. Developing connections to nature through experiential learning may encourage students to protect it. This has been supported by research demonstrating that people are more likely to act on experiences than on knowledge. The teachers in this study described how bonds of love and gratitude toward natural places are fostered within their students when they engage with the natural world. They also spoke of the critical importance of fostering this connection prior to asking students to protect nature or behave in more sustainable ways.

The second theme that emerged related to the common misconception that the natural world is removed and separate from humans and human activity: that humans are not part of nature. This separation creates a dichotomy between beautiful, pristine wilderness and “home,” or where people live. The author argues that many outdoor education programs focus on pristine wild places, which allows students to connect to these wild places and develop a bond to nature. But, he wonders, do students’ wilderness experiences transfer to their home experiences and their daily actions? While the teachers interviewed assumed the transfer does occur for their students, the author cites evidence in the education literature that shows this isn’t always the case.

Finally, the author argues that place-based learning shifts the focus from pristine, untouched environments to local environments, including the physical space and how people interact with it. It connects educational experiences with the local community and to the place where students live. This local education allows students to see how they, too, are a part of nature, and how their behaviors can directly influence their local environment in either adverse or positive ways. At the same time, local education provides the students with the skills and knowledge needed to sustain and regenerate their community and place. After making the shift to place-based outdoor learning, the participating teachers described that students felt a sense of ownership, familiarity, and call for stewardship, demonstrating the powerful potential of learning and fostering sustainable behaviors in one’s greater backyard.

The Bottom Line

By connecting and experiencing their local place, students develop a sense of how their actions directly influence their community and local environment. This is a critical connection for students to make, as many environmental issues, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, are huge and abstract. Students who engage in place-based outdoor learning demonstrate a sense of ownership and the spurring actions of stewardship. Place-based outdoor learning projects meet the needs of the community. Students themselves might be able to identify these needs, which could be related to habitat loss, local watershed contamination, or the spreading of invasive species. Engagement in local projects is empowering to students and fosters a sense of ecological citizenship.