Research Summary

Sense of place in environmental education

Sense of Place Research Can Inform Environmental Education

Environmental Education Research

What is “sense of place,” and how does it relate to environmental education? The authors of this study reviewed the literature to explain common terminology in the place literature and draw connections between that robust literature and the field of environmental education. Because the place literature is broad, the authors focused on research from the areas of social and environmental psychology.

Researchers studying sense of place use specific terminology to describe several important concepts. For example, they highlight two important sense of place subcategories—place attachment and place meaning. Place attachment typically refers to the bond people feel to a place, which can be positive, negative, or ambivalent. Place meaning refers to more symbolic affiliations with a place that may be influenced by social, economic, or aesthetic considerations. The authors summarized their discussion of place attachment and meaning by describing how these concepts come together to influence a sense of place: “Place attachment reflects how strongly people are attracted towards places, while place meaning describes the reasons for this attraction.” Because of the variety of emotional experiences and intellectual interpretations people may have as they interact with any given place, the sense of place different people experience can vary widely.

So how does this relate to environmental education? By examining and applying relevant research from the place attachment and place meaning literature, the authors hope to expand the framework of sense of place to environmental education. For example, several studies cited by the authors suggest that there is a positive correlation between strong sense of place and pro-environmental behaviors. Furthermore, the authors cited studies that suggest “a cause-and-effect relationship between place attachment and pro-environmental behavior.” In these studies, place attachment could predict positive environmental behavior. Similarly, studies of place meaning showed positive relationships to behavior: “These studies suggest that what we call ‘ecological place meaning’—one of the dimensions of place meanings reflecting natural elements or ecological features of places—may be related to behaviors that protect these elements.” The authors posited that the strongest influence on pro-environmental behavior via a place-related connection may be through a combination of place attachment and ecological place meaning.

If place attachment and ecological place meaning contribute to pro-environmental behavior, then how can we nurture these particular aspects of place connections to encourage environmental behavior? The authors identified two possible methods. First, the literature shows evidence that experience in a particular place that is long, frequent, and positive can predict both increased place attachment and place meaning. Second, it may be possible to develop place meaning through indirect means, with people forming connections to places they have never visited. For example, some people may express some level of attachment to the Grand Canyon, even if they have never visited it. Their feelings might be based on what they have learned about the canyon indirectly through photographs, stories, films, paintings, or other means. That is, both direct experience and interpretive learning can enhance place meaning which, in turn, may lead to positive environmental behaviors.

Having identified some methods for nurturing and enhancing a sense of place, how can we use these strategies to inform environmental education? The authors examined two specific approaches frequently used in environmental education—experiential and instructional. In the experiential approach, students are taken to places where they can physically explore the outdoors. With the instructional approach, students are familiarized with places through methods such as explanation, storytelling, and conversation. The authors suggested that a combination of experiential and instructional approaches is “an effective strategy to nurture place meaning and strengthen place attachment.”

These environmental education techniques are very similar to experiential and interpretive strategies that have been cited by environmental psychologists in the sense of place literature. Because sense of place has been extensively studied by environmental psychologists, the authors suggested that “it is possible to apply the sense of place literature—including terminology and relationships among various constructs—to environmental education practice and research,” and that doing so “may enrich an already vibrant place-informed scholarship in environmental education.” The two fields have similar missions and similar approaches, so the authors encourage environmental educators to take advantage of the vast research available in environmental psychology to enhance their instruction around sense of place and pro-environmental behaviors.

The Bottom Line

Research suggests that, among other important benefits, people with a strong sense of place may be more likely to engage in environmental behaviors, which often is an ultimate goal of environmental education programs. The authors of this paper believe that a combination of experiential and instructional approaches in education programs may be the most effective way for environmental educators to boost sense of place. Experiential approaches involve educational experiences in the field, while instructional approaches are more intellectual exercises, such as writing or discussion that takes place in other locations. The authors hope that further research will connect research from environmental psychology, anthropology, cultural geography, and other disciplines to link sense of place theories to environmental education practice.