Teaching Primary School Children Sustainability Through Place Based Learning

In the past, I thought environmental sustainability meant to do more recycling; however, listening to lectures on sustainability has provoked a change in my thoughts and led me to think more deeply about the subject. Sustainability, as I understand it, is the ability to meet current needs without infringing on the ability of future generations to meet their needs (Gruenewald, 2003). Sobel (2004) also supports the idea that sustainability goes beyond the necessity of environment.

The walk with Dr Susan Brown on 13 March 2018 inspired me and led me to acknowledge the importance of pedagogy of place learning and encouraged me to apply this technique at my school in my home country. As a primary school teacher, I believe that it is important to teach children from a young age about the connection between learning and the outside environment as well as engaging learners by surrounding them with nature.

My aim for teaching sustainability to children is to first explain what sustainability means, which they may not understand, and then engage them with the environment so that they see, feel and experience the environment itself. The children will then begin to understand and make this type of learning a way of life. This method is a great opportunity for children to engage with the school’s natural environment, allowing them to learn through the environment and align with a deeper knowledge than normal teaching methods would allow.

The value of place-based learning or environmental education, is connecting children’s learning with the outside environment, as well as engaging learners within nature itself.  The work that really underpinned my current project is presented by Gruenewald (2003) and Smith (2002), which have helped me understand deeper placed-based learning as a way of teaching children.

Since place-based learning as a teacher involves using the school environment as a tool for teaching and learning. Connecting school lessons to the reality children see, feel and experience so that what they learn at school is more relevant than the traditional school lessons normally taught in a classroom (Smith, 2002; Gruenewald, 2003).

Therefore, environment-based education allows children to grasp information far better than that learned inside the classroom. This may bring into question why teachers concentrate on teaching landforms to children in class when schools have yards (Sobel, 2004).

Place-based teaching is effective for not only learning academic subjects, but also raising pupils’ awareness of the importance of maintaining their school environment. Children may not harm a place they have already love and engage with.

Therefore, children will connect maintaining the environment and with a sustainable future. Teaching children outdoors allows children to be creative, imaginative and caring of their schoolyard (Smith and Sobel, 2014). Place-based learning also plants problem-solving skills and inquiry learning in children (Green and Somerville, 2015). Hence, this makes learning real and valid, helping to create a bond between the child and the natural world from an early age. This creates ‘homogenising’, which ingrains a love of nature in children and makes them responsible for environmental conservation and restoration to get a healthy ecosystem (Gruenewald, 2003, p 6).

Evidence of the suitability of this method is exemplified in the Green and Somerville (2015) study, which shows that practicing sustainability exposes children to leaning skills that relate to nature. They also claimed that ‘school grounds provide all of the pedagogical material for this lesson’ (Green and Somerville, 2015, p 836). This method is beneficial for teachers to adapt especially in terms of teaching young children in school to make them aware of the environment they surround. I think this will broaden children’s mind by thinking how, why they learn what the environment means to children and how to have sustainable future.

Sustainability, as I see is an approach that is developmentally appropriate at all levels of early primary grades. This embeds the habit of taking care of the environment from a young age, nurturing children on the importance of nature (Green and Somerville, 2015). As well, it teaches children sustainability by interacting with human and non-human beings and by exploring their surroundings independently (Duhn, 2012; Rautio, 2013).

Some scholars may express concern about the health and safety of the children as children are vulnerable to injures and bites from insects (Brookes, 2007). How do we maintain a safe environment for children and protect them from harm? I agree that teaching children through place-based learning can display children to injures but, these are some kinds of everyday problems children face and even at their homes with their parent supervision. According to Wilson (2007), stating that ‘indoor environments are more dangerous to children’s health than most outdoor environments’ (Wilson, 2007, p 12). This shows the strong emphasis on outdoor learning.

Whereas, from my perceptive, I argue that health and safety vary from one context to another; in some countries like Australia, it is part of the education system to teach student outdoors. As well, primary schools tend to discourage long lessons in closed classes,

so encouraging outdoor learning allows children to overcome fears of personal safety in order to enjoy the natural environment (Gough, 2016).

The teacher’s role is to spread the sustainability message that outdoor leaning promotes, and the students’ experience with the outside world breaks academic education barriers that are in a closed environment; thus, teaching and learning will be more effective.

Place-based learning is an important investment in teaching children at primary stages to help them become environmentally friendly and more aware of future issues that will need to be controlled. As Gough (2016) suggests, teachers play an important role in school in terms of increasing pupils’ accountability to the environment and taking care of it, even though they are not experts, thus embedding the pedagogy of sustainable education in which ‘environmental problems are everyone’s business’ (Gough, 2016, p 8).

Thanks to the value of place-based learning that can lead to developing the habit of maintaining natural resources and having sustainable education in which children can influence their learning.



Brookes, Andrew. (2007). Preventing death and serious injury from falling trees and branches. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 11(2), 50–59.

Duhn, I. (2012). ‘Places for Pedagogies, Pedagogies for Places’. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 13 (2): 99–107.

Gough, N., (2016). Australian outdoor (and) environmental education research: Senses of” place” in two constituencies. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 19(2), p.2.

Green, M. and Somerville, M., (2015). Sustainability education: Researching practice in primary schools. Environmental Education Research, 21(6), pp.832-845.

Gruenewald, D. (2003). ‘The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place’. Educational Researcher 32 (4): 3–12.

Wilson, R., (2007). Nature and young children: Encouraging creative play and learning in natural environments. Routledge

Rautio, P. (2013). ‘Children Who Carry Stones in Their Pockets: On Autotelic Material Practices in Everyday Life’. Children’s Geographies 11 (4): 394–408.

Smith, G.A. and Sobel, D., (2014). Place-and community-based education in schools. Routledge.

Smith, G.A., (2002). Place-based education: Learning to be where we are. Phi delta kappan, 83(8), pp.584-594.

Sobel, D., (2004). Place-based education: Connecting classroom and community. Nature and Listening4, pp.1-7.