Skip Navigation
archived information
REL Pacific

Integrating Place-based Education Into Classroom or Distance Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic

REL Pacific
Faith Connolly
November 5, 2020

student video conference e-learning with teacher and classmates on computer at home

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unparalleled interest in and a need for alternative education options, whether students are attending school solely online or via a blended model in which students attend a mix of online and in-person classes. Educators are examining a wide range of options to adapt their instruction, including place-based education (PBE), a curriculum and instruction approach in which educators use their local environment to teach academic content using hands-on, relevant real-world examples. PBE has the potential to flexibly support whatever form instruction takes in the 2020/21 school year and may be particularly useful for rural and remote locations where access to technology and internet options or connectivity are sometimes limited. PBE can foster student and family engagement by leveraging local natural settings (woods, beaches, deserts, and forests) and cultural assets (traditional dance, sculpture, storytelling, and cooking) and can build on and develop students' interests, increasing the relevancy of learning for students and fostering stronger relationships between educators and the local community by encouraging conversations, joint projects, and curriculum development with community members.1

Distance Learning

Teachers can use PBE principles while designing take-home learning packets and virtual instruction to help students make connections with their communities, especially when social distancing requirements make in-person learning challenging or impossible. Teachers can first start by examining the overarching content to be taught and then can consider how to align their lessons and assignments to the content within a PBE framework. To situate learning within the local context, teachers can capitalize on the environment and/or available resources to design virtual lessons and assignments. For example, for a lesson about a Pacific jurisdiction ecosystem, students might engage in a “scavenger hunt” to locate and describe (but not disturb) various flora and fauna. Other possibilities might include asking students to engage with their household members or virtually with community members to discuss local events (current or historical) to complete their assignments. Teachers can also provide students with instructions, either online or in take-home packets, for conducting experiments or completing a project with, about, or in their community. Take-home packets might include experiment instructions, data collection forms, information on how to summarize findings, and a format or template for reporting the results of the work.

Specific examples of lessons from a larger curriculum unit might include:

  • Developing a rainy-day experiment packet asking students to use a glass or empty can to measure daily rainfall over the month. The provided packet could include a grid for daily data collection, instructions on how to graph findings (either in print or via a YouTube video, if students have access to the appropriate technology), and a report template for summarizing activities.
  • Asking students to find a poem about rain online, in a book, or that is a family favorite. Have them identify the main theme(s). Can they write a poem that captures their feelings about rain?
  • Discussing the amount of sunlight and water needed for different plant types commonly found in the community. Students can work in groups to develop hypotheses about whether plants need high, medium, or low amounts of light and water. Then, on their own, each student can categorize the plants in their neighborhoods, document where they fall in their light versus water grid and share their grid with the class.
  • Prerecording a lesson about seasonal changes in trees and plant life and asking students to draw, write, or photograph changes they see in their neighborhoods over the semester. Students can then document the changes and describe why they think they occur.

In-Person PBE, Within and Outside of the Classroom

PBE can also be used for in-person instruction while adhering to local social distancing requirements—for example, by holding class outdoors. Lessons can be located in natural settings or at sites of local interest. Teachers can also provide instruction grounded within the local context and assign homework to be completed by students outside of the classroom, which can be particularly useful when available instruction time is limited.

Examples for integrating PBE in and outside the classroom might include:

  • Adapting classroom math lessons on counting, addition, and subtraction by using nearby objects. For example, students can use shells at the beach as manipulatives or perform simple math problems using trees and rocks in the woods.
  • Preparing students for a visit to a nearby beach or lake by having students read and discuss a story about animals living around the shoreline.
  • Discussing the protective of animals or lead a discussion on how animals find homes. Students can identify where animals live in their neighborhood. Can they draw or take pictures and describe them in a report?
  • Adapting a math or physics lesson to describe how waves are formed. Through observation and guided questioning, students can learn about erosion and how it impacts the shape of beaches.

PBE fosters connections between teachers, families, and communities

While COVID-19 impacts on continuity of learning and academic losses are a concern across education systems, there is an added concern about the effects of social isolation on children.2 PBE may help mitigate these negative effects by increasing social connections, through providing strategies and opportunities for building stronger relationships between educators, students, and the community by encouraging conversations, joint projects, and curriculum development with community members. These collaborations can be intergenerational and build on local knowledge and community expertise. PBE was, and is, how education occurs when there is no school and can be an avenue for collaborating with Indigenous communities and community members who hold traditional knowledge, so that students can learn about local histories and cultural practices specific to the place. PBE may lead to strong relationships in which teachers and students can learn about ethical research practices and develop a project aimed at addressing an issue identified by the local community.3

PBE creates relevancy for both teachers and students

PBE grounds the learning process in the local and familiar. Linking instruction to the local context can help educators increase the relevance of their teaching to students. In one documented example, a Pacific northwest university developed a course to train elementary school pre-service teachers in PBE to increase pre-service teachers' interest in STEM.4 The pre-service teachers participated in an immersive experience in which they learned and practiced teaching STEM at an outdoor science school with Indigenous students from a local elementary school. After this hands-on experience, the pre-service teachers reported that place-based activities helped them understand how science content is learned and that they believed it would help them teach their own students. Participants also reported that PBE helped them engage with students, who then became curious and asked questions. Pre-service teachers reported that the shift from lectures and classrooms to an outdoor student-guided inquiry practice was as exciting for them as it was for students.5 Research shows that this level of student engagement is necessary for students to learn new concepts.

PBE can be an opportunity for teachers to look at their work differently and to use local context, history, culture, and environment to develop relevant lessons for their students. Teachers can use PBE strategies now as they continue to adapt to the changing education environment, but the strategies learned and lessons developed to meet current education demands can remain relevant, regardless of how and where teaching and learning happen.6

Additional Resources



1 Sobel, D. (2004). Place-based education: Connecting classroom and community. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society and the Myrin Institute. excerpt.pdf

2 Golberstein, E. Wen, H, & Miller, B. F. (2020) Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and mental health for children and adolescents. JAMA Pediatrics. 174(9):819–820. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.1456

3 Davidson-Hunt, I. J., & O'Flaherty, R. M. (2007) Researchers, indigenous peoples, and place-based learning communities. Society & Natural Resources, 20(4), 291–305. doi: 10.1080/08941920601161312

4 Adams, A. E., Miller, B. G., Saul, M., & Pegg, J. (2014). Supporting elementary pre-service teachers to teach STEM through place-based teaching and learning experiences. Electronic Journal of Science Education (Southwestern University).

5 Ibid

6 National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school: Expanded edition. Washington D.C. The National Academies Press.