Place-based Learning and Outdoor Experiences

By Dr. Michele Larson


What is Place-based Learning?

Place-based learning is an instructional approach that focuses on developing student’s sense of place and learning through exploring their environment. Thus, most place-based learning activities need to be designed specifically to aid students in understanding how the place interacts with the content in the course and to incorporate the student’s lived experiences as part of the learning process (Smith 2002, Knapp 2005). Depending on how the activities are implemented, place-based learning can contain aspects of problem-based learning, experiential learning, outdoor education, indigenous education, multicultural education, community-based education, constructivism, and critical pedagogy (Gruenewald 2003, Knapp 2005, Zandvliet 2014). Thus, place-based learning can take many forms and occur in urban areas, cultural centers (e.g., museums), or rural environments (Gruenewald 2003). The location can be within the local community (near or on-campus) or at distant locations (field excursions) depending on the goals of the course and how students are asked to interact with each location. Common locations for place-based learning include on-campus sites (green spaces, college museums, performing arts centers, etc.), within the local community (community gardens, non-profit outreach, local businesses, etc.) or further afield (wildlife refuges, distant cities, place-specific organizations, etc.). Additionally, study abroad programs provide students opportunities to experience many different aspects of the culture and environment of other countries.

Place-based learning has been shown to foster a sense of belonging, increase student learning, improve student academic persistence, and narrow equity gaps (Johnson et al. 2020). Although students can become anxious and have concerns about leaving the classroom (Boyle et al. 2007, Goodlad and Leonard 2018), most students report positive feelings (with high responses to “thoroughly enjoyed”, “wanted to go again”, and “worthwhile”) regarding outdoor field experiences while also perceiving the experience as increasing their understanding of the course content (Boyle et al. 2007). Instructors report higher student engagement with place-based learning than traditional classroom lectures (Goodlad and Leonard 2018).


Thematic Patterns in Placed-based Learning

Within place-based learning, five thematic patterns emerge for how to implement this instructional strategy (Smith 2022, Knapp 2005).

  1. In history or social sciences, cultural studies are often used to explore local or historical events and students are asked to collect data, record oral histories, or develop narratives around a specific place.
  2. A different approach is incorporating place-based and problem-based learning by having students investigate a community issue that is specific to a location and develop plans or solutions to mediate the issue for the community. In some courses, usually capstone courses, students continue with the process and work to implement the solution or conduct research to aid in determining the best solution for the problem.
  3. Within the natural sciences, students are often asked to observe and investigate an environmental issue and collect data to better understand the problems effecting a specific location. These projects can be extended by having students plan and implement restoration projects at the natural area.
  4. A common form of place-based learning that can occur in most disciplines are internships. Students experience a place and role in that environment to develop a stronger understanding of the actual duties and responsibilities of a profession. These experiences can occur at on-campus programs, local businesses, large corporations, or non-profit organizations as a stand-alone experience or be incorporated into a course (or degree program) as a short-term experience that meets the requirements for a specific aspect of the course (or program). In addition to internships, job shadowing or volunteering are often used for this type of place-based learning.
  5. The final type of place-based learning involves students fully participating in an aspect of community life that includes decision-making activities. The students are active participants in civil society including attending town meetings, city councils, and other public aspects of government. Students are expected to speak on topics, ask questions of government officials, write letters to legislators, conduct community surveys, and create public service messages.

In all these different themes for place-based learning, a few common elements are found that make these activities place-based learning (Smith 2002, Knapp 2005). First, the place is a foundational aspect of the learning. Second, students are asked in different ways to become the creators of knowledge and use inquiry methods to study a place or issues surrounding a specific location. Third, teachers become facilitators and co-learners with the students and are instrumental in fostering relationships between community or business partners. And finally, students are assessed on the benefits or contributions their work has made on the community.


Implementing Place-based Learning

Place-based learning is more than just a field trip. To provide lasting and beneficial learning experiences, instructors need to plan activities that engage students with the place they will be exploring. Three key guidelines for implementing place-based learning include (1) facilitating participation with conversations and activities that provide information on disciplinary topics while allowing students to express personal connections with the topic or place; (2) create activities that require students to make observations that are specific to the discipline; and (3) provide opportunities for students to explore other perspectives on the topic or use data to argue another perspective (Zimmerman and Land 2014). Methods for providing prior information on the location or topic include using concepts maps or similar tools to determine student’s prior knowledge, promoting inquiry-based activities that have students use resources to learn basic information, and providing a diversity of reference materials for students to explore on the topic or location before going on the excursion. Once at the location, students can become overwhelmed by the complexity of a place they visit, so it is essential to create activities or assignments that help students focus on what they need to be doing while exploring and observing the location. Activities that require students to draw and label their observations increase learning (Merkle 2018) and if their artistic ability is not graded (unless it is an art course) most students enjoy sketching aspects of the environment to show their learning. Additionally, guided inquiry activities or assignments can help students understand which aspects of the location they need to focus on while on the field trip. If your location changes seasonally, historically, or on another timeline, it can be helpful to show students images of the site at different times and have them compare what they are seeing now to these images. Finally, depending on the subject and topic, students should be collecting data (qualitative surveys or actual experimental data) or gaining insights into different people’s perspectives of the location. This can be done directly (collecting data or interviewing people using the space) or indirectly using historical data, writings, or other resources. Not all trips to new locations will need to incorporate all these aspects, but instructors need plan well in advance for what students will be expected to learn and then create assignments that align with the learning objectives for the excursion.


Challenges to Outdoor and Off-campus Place-based Learning

Fieldwork and other off-campus experiences can present unique concerns that need to be addressed prior to leaving campus. One major challenge is adequate funding (Boyle et al. 2007) especially for institutions that require university-provided transportation for all enrolled students in the course. Another challenge is enrollment caps in courses with field trips. Most courses with required outdoor activities are limited to smaller (less than 24 students) enrollment which can make it difficult for students to enroll and can provide equity challenges (e.g., which students are being excluded due to limited enrollment; Boyle et al. 2007). Most field trips can also be challenging for including access for students with disabilities (depending on the location of the off-campus trip and the specific student’s needs). Additionally, small class sizes can make it difficult to defend the use of so many resources (funding, instructor time, etc.) for a limited number of students. The planning and execution of off-campus experiences can also be time consuming and require instructors to invest more time preparing and implementing a field-based course compared to their other courses or aspects of their work (Boyle et al. 2007). Finally, many institutions are growing more concerned with possible risks to student safety and the potential legal consequences if students are hurt during field excursions (Boyle et al. 2007, Goodlad and Leonard 2018).

One method for elevating the issues with planning and implementation of outdoor experiences is by conducting on-campus outdoor experiences. Students can use open green spaces on-campus to make observations, conduct experiments, or collect data and then return to the classroom to analyze their data. Alternatively, individual outdoor experiences could be created that allow students to complete them as “homework” with many locations and opportunities for students to complete the assignments on their own.


Related Links


Related Online Articles



Boyle, A., S. Maguire, A. Martin, C. Milson, R. Nash, S. Rawlinson, A. Turner, S. Wurthmann, and S. Conchie (2007). Fieldwork is Good: the student perception and the affective domain. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 31:299-317.

Gruenewald, D. A. (2003). The best of both worlds: a critical pedagogy of place. Educational Researcher 32:3-12.

Goodlad, K. and A. E. Leonard (2018). Place-based learning across the disciplines: a living laboratory approach to pedagogy. CUNY Academic Works 13:150-164.

Knapp, C. E. (2005). The “I-Thou” Relationship, Place-based learning, and Aldo Leopold. Journal of Experimental Education 27:277-285.

Johnson, M. D., A. E. Sprowles, K. R. Goldenberg, S. T. Margell, and L. Castellino (2020). Effect of a place-based learning community on belonging, persistence, and equity gaps for first-year STEM students. Innovative Higher Education 45:509-531.

Merkle, B. G (2018). Drawn to Science. Nature 562:S8-9.

Smith, G. A. (2002). Learning to be where we are. Phi Delta Kappan April 584-594.

Zandvliet, D. B. (2014). PLACES and SPACES: Case studies in the evaluation of post-secondary, place-based learning environments. Studies in Educational Evaluation 41:18-28.

Zimmerman, H. T. and S. M. Land (2014). Facilitating place-based learning in outdoor informal environments with mobile computers. TechTrends 58: 77-83.