Place/Sense of Place: Engaging with Context

Everyone everywhere ascribes meaning to the spaces of their daily lives. We are, in Gruenewald’s (2003a, 2003b) terms, “place-makers.” The meanings we attribute to contexts help us to situate ourselves in the world and to feel a sense of belonging. Underlying ecological understanding is sense of place that has, at its heart, an understanding of, and emotional connection to, nature. Engaging with context, with place, the third principle of IEE, is centrally concerned with developing students’ sense of place—a personal relationship with one’s context as well as a certain depth of knowledge about it. Affective and cognitive dimensions weave together to form a sense of place that involves feeling close to nature and knowing about the soil underfoot, the flora, fauna, sources of water, and rock structures. A sense of place is valuable not only for the knowledge one gains of context but, perhaps more importantly, for the emotional bond that can form. It is this emotional bond that may inspire people to live sustainably.

Everyone everywhere can help to develop students’ sense of place in teaching. IEE is not a project for the rural teacher but, rather, for all teachers. Building on the premise that wildness or wild nature is everywhere, and that we are born with an innate sense of connection with nature, there is a potential in all contexts, whether urban, suburban, or rural, to bring the natural context into focus as one situates oneself in the world. Could this be easier in rural Saskatchewan than in downtown Detroit? Probably. Even so, is it not possible, by teaching in a certain way, and by providing students with opportunities to emotionally engage with nature wherever they live, to bring into focus the natural dimension of their contexts? Yes. This is where IEE can play a role. Through engaging students in place-making activities we can nurture our students’ emotional attachments to features of their local natural community. Whether in vacant lots, local parks, or in forests, we can afford children opportunities to develop emotional bonds with the natural world and to explore and to create special places as they situate themselves in the world. By doing so, we may nurture students’ attachment to place.

IEE considers the imaginative ways in which we make meaning of our contexts—that is, the ways we build a sense of place through what might be called place-making (cognitive) tools. There are at least three place-making (cognitive) tools that may be employed to nurture students’ sense of relationship to their natural contexts. Whether it be in the baby’s initial sensory explorations of the world (the sense of relation tool), the young child’s emotional connection to “binky” or to some other object, process or person (the formation of emotional attachments tool), or the child’s interest in creating forts and hide-outs (the creation of special places tool), human beings actively engage their imaginations and emotions in building a sense of place. Place-making tools will take a prominent place in the imaginative ecological educator’s toolkit, supporting ecological understanding through increased knowledge of and connection to place.

Place-making (cognitive) tools

The sense of relation tool

Awareness of our own bodies’ positioning and movement in space represents one of the earliest ways the body situates itself in the world.

Proprioception (from the Latin proprius meaning one’s own, belonging to oneself, and perception) refers to the body’s awareness of its positioning in space and how different body parts are positioned in relation to one another. It is “the perception by an animal of stimuli relating to its own position, posture, equilibrium, or internal condition” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2008). If one’s proprioceptive sense deals with the location of the body in space, it may be considered one of the first tools the body employs to situate itself in its context. Knowing where our limbs are in space and how they move in terms of direction and speed has biological significance. It enables us to use our bodies to survive, to attain food and water, to find or build shelter, etc. Our emotions and other senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch allow us to connect with the cultural and ecological community into which we are born, contributing further to one’s initial understanding of the world. We reach out to and encounter the world through the use of the body’s tools. But what drives this engagement?

The body’s first and arguably most important place-making tool may be described as the sense of relation: the innate human desire to form relationships and, in this way, to engage with its surroundings. We are born with a body that is equipped with “tools” for making sense of the world. What may drive or inspire human beings to engage the body’s tools to engage with the world around them? One might argue that their use is automatic, that we come hard-wired to use our bodies. While I do not disagree with this, I suspect there is something else at work, something that contributes to what it means to be human. It may be a sense of relation that actually drives us to employ our somatic tools.

Human beings are not only relational animals, but are also innately ecological animals. If one observes babies and young children relating to the world, a particularly ecological dimension of human relationality emerges. The body’s innate desire to relate to the world has an ecological dimension. This innate sense of “biophilia,” as E. O. Wilson (1984) first called it, is demonstrated in children’s fascination with the natural world. Children seem to have an urge to relate to nature and an innate sympathy for natural things. It may be biophilia that informs their sense of participation in the world and their desire to encounter nature. Our sense of relation may be considered the body’s tool for place-making—a force that compels us to engage with the world around us. It is out of this sense of relation that other place-making tools may develop.



Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

The formation of emotional attachments tool

Children everywhere develop emotional attachments to features of the world they encounter on a daily basis. Whether it be objects such as blankets, teddy bears, articles of clothing, toys, or books, particular people, or processes, a child’s emotional attachments to features of her immediate environment seem closely tied to her emotional stability. I know many parents (myself included) who would rather lose their wallets than misplace the beloved “binky” or “bear bear.” It is the role of a child’s emotional attachment to particular objects in her environment that I explore here as a place-making (cognitive) tool. For young children the favourite object often represents a familiar, constant aspect of a “new” environment. The emotional attachment to the object can provide a needed sense of security and belonging. Because the object with which children form emotional attachments is often of their own choosing, it may also offer them a sense of control, an initial experience of a sense of autonomy in the world. In this sense, then, the teddy bear or other object is a central feature of a child’s understanding of place. A child can situate him or herself in the world and gain a sense of belonging when the teddy bear is near.

IEE pumkins

To include the emotional attachments place-making (cognitive) tool in their practice teachers could consider the following questions:

How can students learn about the topic in a way that engages them emotionally and imaginatively with some aspect of the natural world around them?

How does the topic connect to the local environment?

What does it mean here?

There are many ways to engage this particular tool in teaching; how a teacher employs this tool will depend, of course, on what she is teaching and where. To support emotional connections with the natural world a teacher should consider how to engage children with natural things. Getting outdoors in any context, is, thus, crucial. A few ideas: Could you provide students with opportunities to “apprentice” to place—to have time to get to know at a personal level some aspect or aspects of their local natural context? Could you afford students opportunities to symbolically “adopt” different aspects of the natural world? Could the natural world be used in your teaching as an integrative theme for learning? Through opportunities to engage with their senses, to study and observe features of the natural environment, students may strengthen their sense of emotional attachment tool in a way that brings the natural world into focus. The more opportunities children are given to learn experientially, the stronger their somatic understanding can be, and the richer their emotional bond with the natural world. A stream, tree, grassy field, or whatever aspect of nature students are studying, may begin, in even a small way, to contribute to students’ sense of place.

The creation of special places tool

Whether it be tree houses perched precariously amongst the branches of neighborhood trees, inviting hollows in dense shrubbery, lean-to structures of scrap material in vacant lots, or a sheltered space under the jungle gym at a nearby park, children everywhere seem to love forts. Sobel’s (1993) research suggests just that: building or laying claim to special places—what he refers to in his research as forts, dens and bush houses—is a universal feature of middle childhood. Sobel’s (1993) work indicates the emotional significance of special places for children. In addition to helping them situate themselves in the social world, creating special places also assists children in making sense of their natural context. Special places may symbolically protect the child’s developing sense of self and may assist the child in the transition to adolescence.

We may consider the creation of special places by children of this age to be a place-making tool. Creating special places—indeed, symbolically claiming a space for oneself—can support children in situating themselves in the social and natural contexts in which they live. Driven, in part, by the sense of relation we discussed earlier, and an extension perhaps of the young child’s emotional attachment to objects, creating special places supports children in making sense of a broader sense of reality, and their wider physical explorations of it. Creating or laying claim to special places is another way a child can situate him or herself in the world. Depending on children’s encounters with nature and the contexts in which they have opportunities to create special places, this place-making tool has the potential to support children’s emotional connections to nature and forge an ecological sense of place in childhood, a crucial time for establishing a long-term sense of care for the natural world. Sobel (1993) goes so far as to situate a concern for nature as adults with children’s exploration of nature and creation of special places: “the sense of place is born in children’s special places” (p. 161). Given opportunities to learn about and explore nature, and to create special places in natural contexts, children may not only gain knowledge of the natural context, but may develop emotional connections with it.

To employ the creation of special places tool in planning a teacher might consider the following guiding questions in his or her planning:

What aspect of the topic might be learned in a way that affords students the opportunity to explore the natural world around them?

How might learning about the topic support a sense of belonging in the natural environment?


Reference: Sobel, D. (1993). Children’s special places: Exploring the role of forts, dens, and bush houses in middle childhood. Tucson, Arizona: Zephyr Press.


Gruenewald, D. (2003a). Foundations of place: A multidisciplinary framework for place-conscious education. American Educational Research Journal, 40(3), 619-654.

Gruenewald, D. (2003b). The best of both worlds: A critical pedagogy of place. Educational Researcher, 32(4), 3-12.