Take It Outside
Exploring Place-Based Learning and Risk
What does outdoor education mean to you? What images do you conjure in your mind when you hear this term? Is it hiking through rugged wilderness? A gripping tree-top adventure climb? Or perhaps rafting a raging river?
For too long, I anchored myself inside the relative safety of the classroom because I thought taking lessons outside required special training and content knowledge that I simply didn't have. I conflated learning outdoors with the aforementioned thrills and skills activities offered by some traditional outdoor ed programs.
What I eventually came to realise is that outdoor education isn’t an event; taking learning outside doesn’t require specialist expertise or training; and that good pedagogy is good pedagogy is good pedagogy, inside or out.
Learning in, with and through nature is vital for children and the social, cognitive, physical, and emotional benefits for children are well documented. So what barriers stop more educators from pursuing outdoor learning? I think two of the biggest issues are not knowing where to start and managing risk.
I’m a big advocate for what Ira Socol and Pam Moran describe as P-Based learning. Three of the most common types of P-based learning that I see in schools are project, problem, and passion. But I would argue that place-based learning is the most powerful of them all.
Place-based learning, the story of the land, is central to building contextual understanding and relationships within communities. In the essay “A literature of place”, Barry Lopez suggests,
“If you’re intimate with a place, a place with whose history you’re familiar, and you establish an ethical conversation with it, the implication that follows is this: the place knows you’re there. It feels you. You will not be forgotten, cut off, abandoned.”
Lopez describes our attachment to nature and place as “a fundamental human defense against loneliness.” This matters because despite being more digitally connected than at any other time in history, levels of social isolation and loneliness have soared in recent years, described by some as an “epidemic of loneliness”.
What was possibly headline-grabbing hyperbole before the pandemic, has been compounded by rolling lockdowns and the constant threat of quarantine. To combat this isolation, many of us turn to social media to stay connected. However, increased amounts of social media time have been shown to lead to higher levels of anxiety and depression. The impact of social isolation and loneliness is equal to or surpasses well-known risk factors like obesity leading to early death.
A Connection to Place
When children have a storied relationship with a place, when they know its history and understand the flora and fauna that call it home, they care.
It doesn’t matter where that place is, it could be an abandoned corner of the yard, under a magnificent tree or even atop a barren dirt patch. Start where you are with whatever you have available.
For Project Reimaginate, our class took polluted, neglected, and out-of-bounds spaces and turned them into meaningful, functional and diverse places. We used our lack of special places to identify and solve problems and pursue our projects and passions. Without a doubt, we strengthened our community and created spaces and places that students love. As Sarah Sutter, CEO of Nature Play SA, says: “When you love something, you will protect it.” Are we doing enough to help children love “their” places? I wonder how many children would say they have a connection to place at their school?
According to Barry Lopez, a framework for developing a lasting connection to place should go beyond function or beauty. Lopez posits three qualities are required, paying intimate attention, creating a storied relationship rather than a purely sensory awareness, and engaging in reciprocal ethical unity. Nowhere is the importance of a reciprocal relationship with place more evident than in the deep spiritual connection Indigenous Australians have with country. As Ambelin Kwaymullina describes:
“For Aboriginal peoples, country is much more than a place. Rock, tree, river, hill, animal, human — all were formed of the same substance by the Ancestors who continue to live in land, water, sky. Country is filled with relations speaking language and following Law, no matter whether the shape of that relation is human, rock, crow, wattle. Country is loved, needed, and cared for, and country loves, needs, and cares for her peoples in turn. Country is family, culture, identity. Country is self.” — Seeing the Light: Aboriginal Law, Learning and Sustainable Living in Country.
Developing a Relationship with Risk
When I speak with educators about the barriers that prevent them from taking learning outside, the answer almost always boils down to risk. We live in an increasingly risk-averse society and it stands to reason this would extend to schools. So how can educators increase their comfort level with risk?
The Four Zones of Outdoor Learning invites educators to think about risk like the concentric circles on a tree stump. With the classroom in the centre, the further we venture from the safety of the indoors, the greater the risk. But there are some simple strategies that can be used to expand our comfort levels with risk.
When taking learners outdoors, particularly very young children, there are four main elements to consider:
- Be clear about why you are going outdoors and what students will be doing in the chosen space.
- Work out how you're going to get there. What are the risks involved with travelling to the location? What happens when you arrive?
- Establish clear boundaries about how far students can move from the meeting point. This might include using natural or built features in the environment to set boundaries. For younger students, it could include taking a certain number of steps or a short amount of time.
- Know how you will get everyone back together. It could be a simple “Cooee” or a whistle or bell.
Consider doing an informal “pre-mortem” with children to identify some things that might go wrong which would ruin the learning. By identifying potential risks and consequences, kids are more likely to be aware of potential problems. And this is the point, ultimately we want children to be risk aware, not become risk-averse.
Our comfort level with risk is a very personal and subjective one. But if we, the adults, can increase our comfort levels with risk, we can provide meaningful and memorable experiences with place in and beyond our school grounds.
If you are interested to learn more about place-based learning, check out these 18 book recommendations which include authors like Richard Louv and David Sobel.