What does it mean to create a sense of place?

According to Wikipedia, the term “sense of place” has a great many meanings. I personally gravitate toward a more emotional definition. “Places said to have a strong ‘sense of place’ have a strong identity that is deeply felt by inhabitants and visitors… characteristics that make a place special or unique [and] foster a sense of authentic human attachment and belonging.”

One of the most significant influences on the feel and character of your school is its site. More than just a geographic location, your site will fundamentally shape how a child feels when they arrive; it will color their memories and mold their experiences.

My colleagues and I refer to the complex and diverse set of influences that a site exerts as its “Locale.” And one of our first steps—particularly in outdoor classroom and education design—is to define a site’s physical, historical and experiential context. As with all good investigations, ours starts with a series of questions that both inform the design process and will live on as an educational resource for the school.

Physical: Where are we?

Physical attributes of outdoor classrooms may include sidewalk planters in urban locations or observation decks in rural locationsAnswering this question includes collecting and documenting all the physical attributes of our site and community. What is the geographic location, topography, weather, water, vegetation and security? Are we urban, suburban or rural? What is the current environmental condition of our site? Are we in a forest or field, a hill or valley?

Each of your answers offers unique opportunities, challenges and limitations. Going beyond recording data, we examine what exists for opportunities of wonder, discovery, development and learning beyond the project and out into the community.

For example, a rural site with an active nearby creek might present opportunities for an outdoor observation deck and teaching space. Built-in benches could serve as both a seating area and as platforms for recording the birds, trees, plants and water creatures children can see.

On the other hand, urban sites offer their own unique characteristics. Imagine a barren patch of dirt—a long-missing square of pavement, perhaps—just in front of your school. Add a fence   post, a climbing vine, clusters of succulents and flowering plants and a seedling. Suddenly, that dusty, forgotten square has been transformed into a tiny, colorful garden. (Maybe a fairy will even take up residence among the petals!)

The uniqueness of a place is defined as locale. Outdoor classroom design includes assessing the physical site: geographic location, topography, weather, water, vegetation and security.

Historical: What happened here?

There are two avenues of history that are intertwined when we seek to define locale. First is the natural history, the story of the earth, of things not resulting from human manipulation. Humans sometimes have the tendency to limit the history of a place

to “us.” Natural spaces have histories all their own. Our goal in asking “What is the history of this place?” is to consider what else happened in this location before humans controlled it. Was it a forest, prairie or wetland? What plant and animal life existed? What would happen if we weren’t here; what would this place turn into if we didn’t maintain it?

The second aspect of defining a locale’s history is to consider the human story. In this exercise, we must step outside of ourselves; we can’t evaluate a locale’s history through our filters and viewpoints. For example, an area with a rich Native American history was “settled” in one perspective, but was “conquered” in another. Shifting our viewpoints just a little – stepping out of our shoes – allows us to better understand people as persons and places as locale.

Experience: Day in the life of our community?

The internet offers us limitless exposure to information, images and videos that can help

us better imagine locales both mundane and exotic, near and far. But, there is absolutely no substitute for physically inhabiting a place. That’s what we attempt to understand when we document a day in the life of your site: the things, people and community that truly define locale.

Of course, we can’t truly understand all there is to know in a single day; rather, “a day in the life” is a multi-layered, ongoing process of observation and conversation with members of the community. That includes all members of the community: young and old, stakeholders, advocates and friends, school administrators and teaching staff, neighbors and more.

Some of the most fascinating experiential observations come from young children. While older students generate well thought-out lists of spaces and activities, preschool-aged students often resort to drawing maps. The results can be remarkable, offering insights into important relationships and priorities that could be difficult—if not impossible—for that same child to put into words.

(This is not uncommon: As any early childhood educator knows, kids love to make maps. There is a reason that the pivotal element to any episode of Dora the Explorer is the creation of a map! Maps are one of their most effective tools, offering ways in which to understand, communicate with and even own the world.)

Once the process is underway and the team has begun to hone in on one direction, we start to make strategic visits to places that share characteristics with your site. The key is to devote a great deal of energy and attention to specific reactions and anecdotal side-conversations. “This place makes me think of this other place…” and “Wouldn’t it be cool if that thing was like this thing over here?” These little asides take on even greater meaning when applied to the design of outdoor learning spaces, where both the physical and historical context of place must be balanced with the experience your school wants to deliver.

Two added benefits of defining a day in the life?  Consensus and camaraderie. We often find ourselves eliminating weeks of discussion and months of misunderstanding, gaining clarity and building consensus within your team as we dig into the “fun work” of field trips. The shared experience, tends to generate a great deal of camaraderie and partnership among the team, too!