Place-Based Education

milkweed flower with bee

For decades educators have been grappling with how to transform the education system away from one that upholds relationships of oppression and power into one that is more liberatory. One example of engaged, transformative pedagogy is place-based learning. Developing a connection to place is a good way of helping people to develop feelings of responsibility and respectful relationships (Evering and Longboat, 2013, p. 249). Many people feel a sense of connectedness with the natural world, so exposing them to nature is a good place to start. Many settler parents and educators conduct place-based programs seeking opportunities for their children to learn about land-based survival skills, experience opportunities for ‘risky play’ and enhanced development of motor skills, or for some, to find the spiritual connection to land that they themselves crave, and that they want their children to have.

Sobel, Greenwod/Gruenwald, Louv, and countless outdoor educators write about the need to know, and even love a place before you are expected to heal its wounds. This concept has led to a huge body of research around the importance of outdoor, place-based learning as a way of introducing environmental education. “Indigenous and non-Indigenous environmental educators alike are working to bridge cultural gaps as well as to revive and preserve Indigenous traditions and ecological knowledge, ever conscious of the delicate balance between respectful sharing and misappropriating or misusing Indigenous knowledge” (Lowan-Trudeau, 2015, p. 6). This shift is in the interests of preserving a place for future generations, including human and more-than-human—a goal that is shared by anyone who recognizes the alarming symptoms of the anthropocene.

Settler educators have also sought ways to connect their children to the land in order to heal the children themselves. This seemingly urgent connection to place is in response to writers such as Louv who identified the concept of Nature Deficit Disorder, which he observed as an increase in behavioural issues emerging in the younger generations due to a lack of connection with nature. Another astounding and dramatic deficit is that of children’s gross motor development, which has led to programs like TimberNook, developed by an occupational therapist, as a therapeutic intervention into these issues due to a societal disconnection with risk. While these motivations are certainly part of the picture, they place children at the centre, and see nature as something of benefit without considering the reciprocal relationship with nature. Viewing it in this way reinforces a binary that has emerged throughout Western thought, where humans and nature are seen as separate. Seeing the forest only for our benefit is an extractive idea that needs deeper analysis and discussion.

Other place-based programs arise from a desire for a deepened connectedness with nature, and seem to be inspired by the many Indigenous traditions from across Turtle Island. When these programs are decontextualized from their original places, histories and peoples they can easily become a source of appropriative, re-colonizing behaviours. It is important to recognize the importance of grounding place-based learning in the existing rich traditional knowledge of the land they are on.

The first step toward developing land-based programs is to learn the history of the land and then to find ways to bring the stories of the land you are on to life. Educators who have not formed relationships with Indigenous people should find opportunities to spend time learning from the Indigenous people in their communities who can offer their worldview. Learning from Indigenous Elders, knowledge keepers is the first step toward rebuilding trust, and toward understanding Indigenous perspectives so that they can be meaningfully and respectfully reflected in the programming. This also means that each program will look unique to that area, rather than a cookie-cutter version of another program from across the country or the world. ‘Two-Eyed’ or ‘Multiple-Eyed Seeing’ allows programs and educators to simultaneously draw on Western, Indigenous and other worldviews and perspectives in order to understand complex issues (Lowan-Trudeau, 2015, p. 6). “Two-Eyed Seeing avoids a clash or “domination and assimilation” of knowledges” and provides “fertile ground” for interdisciplinary educational projects.” (Hatcher et. al, as cited in Lowan-Trudeau, 2015, p. 69) Settler educators can use two-eyed seeing as a way to develop and conduct programs on the land as a meaningful act of reconciliation.

One of the other ways settlers can begin to root their programs in Indigenous ways of knowing is through learning some of the language of the territory they are on. Caleb Musgrave, an Anishnaabe educator, knowledge keeper and friend explains, “Our language is land-based.” He explains what he means by saying, “When we look at wiigob, which is a basswood. It means basswood? No, it means the tree that makes the rope” (Musgrave, 2018). In an attempt to deepen our understanding of the land we are learning and teaching on, we can learn some of the original language of this land to better understand how to build relationships with the human and more-than-human world. In this practice, we start to value and respect the land, and consider the ways we can give back to the land through our interactions.

I continue to grapple with how we reach every child with a new way of approaching place-based learning that is grounded in Indigenous ways of knowing and is more connected to treaty relationships. Everyone should have opportunities to learn directly from Indigenous knowledge holders like Caleb. It is important to find ways to build relationships with Indigenous people in your community in order to gain perspectives from the people of the land you are on. There are many ways of bringing first-person experiences into the classrooom, such as Zoom visits, watching videos, reading stories, and inviting families and community members into relationship. Educators can create space and time to develop relationships in their communities, focus on their role as treaty people, rather than trying to recreate Indigenous knowledge for their own consumption and benefit. I am confident that we can find ways to change our approach around place-based education, from one that benefits and centres children toward one that awakens reciprocal relationships with people and land, and situates children with their communities, including within the more-than-human world.


Additional Resources:

National Centre for Collaboration in Indigenous Education: and specifically, the land-based learning playlist: 

Beedahbin Peltier: