Guest Post: The Educational Role of Transformative places

We have a special guest post for you tonight from a friend and colleague of Meaghan’s with the UVIC Research project that has been mentioned here a few times. Nick Stanger is going to share with you how our stories of place have a transformative impact on our lives. The video is a preview of his research and then he will explain his background and project in the post so please read, enjoy, participate, and share. Thank you!

It was the first time I had really been on my own.  I was ten, and I was exploring the local hill, probably with my family dog.  I had convinced my parents, who were very protective of me, that I could responsibly walk my dog alone and told them I was going around the block.  Instead, I headed up the hill that had a little regional park on the top of it, an unused observatory, and some buildings originating from WWII.  This hill, though heavily urbanized, represented the wilderness to me.  While standing on the highest peak of the hill, I could see across the Salish Sea to the Gulf Islands and the Olympic Mountains.  But it wasn’t only the epic views that made it so exciting; It was that feeling of autonomy and connection to place.  I built forts, scrambled on rocks, climbed trees, got lost, found secret hiding places, and developed a love for this funny rocky park.

This place taught me something:  That exploration without goals often leads to wonderful adventures and meaningful moments.  I found myself learning about the systems up there: the water cycle, biology of the Garry Oak ecosystem, and the weather patterns. At the time, I had no language to describe this understanding, but it seeped into my skin and affected me profoundly.  These experiences also left me with a life-long curiosity about what was going on.  Since then, I have always been curious about the human connection to place.

After my undergrad degree in natural resources conservation, a Masters degree in Environmental Education and Communication, and my PhD in Environmental Education, I feel I am a little closer to understanding how humans connect to place.  For me it all relates back to that age when I was ten and the unstructured play I was engaged in.  By having the space and time to play without intentional outcomes, I had rich learning that were transformative and distinctly mine.  These experiences continue to transform me through my life.

With an increased interest in nature-based Kindergartens and Forest Schools in Canada, many school systems and teachers acknowledge that early connection to nature can lead to great learning.  I am of the mind that in addition to research stating that early exposure is critical, I believe that any exposure at all points of our life can be transformative and indeed critical.   This is why, for my research, I wanted to interview adults who do not readily identify as environmentalists.  In the summer of 2013 I identified four exemplary individuals and interviewed them in their childhood or adolescent transformative outdoor places. My participants included Tsartlip Elder and Cowichan Sweater knitter, May Sam; National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence, Dr. Wade Davis and his wife Gail Percy; Her Honour, the former Lieutenant Governor for British Columbia, Iona Campagnolo; and Hua Foundation co-founder, Claudia Li.

I filmed my participants during these interviews so that I could see beyond the words they were saying and have insights into their non-verbal communication.  I then created a website to share these films.  The goal of this site is to celebrate these places as a way to show their relevance throughout these four people’s lives.  Yet there is more.  Interviewing these four made me wonder about you and your story.

Likely you have been thinking about your transformative place throughout this blog.   Where would you go if you were to go to a transformative place?  You are encouraged to write about this place on the interactive map on the website.  You can upload movies, songs, poems, artwork, and stories.

As teachers, be sure that you pay attention to your students’ concepts of place.  Where are they going right now?  What are they doing in these places?  I would bet that they are finding solace, exploring and learning with nature, playing in unstructured ways, and discovering new things about themselves.  Our current education system has missed many opportunities to teach about the ecological and cultural communities that surround us.  Take this opportunity to do that.  Share your place with your classroom and then ask them to do the same.

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