Building Students Sense of Place

I spend a lot of time building my students sense of place through our daily activities.  My first degree was in geography and this has greatly impacted my teaching. I still consider myself a geographer at heart and hope to share my love of this discipline with my students. BC’s current curriculum encourages learning related to place across many disciplines.  As a geographer I draw on that background to help create placed based learning opportunities for my students. While field trips are amazing experiences and a great way for students to experience a place it’s not something that we can do on a daily basis. Even walks in our neighbourhood can help develop sense of place but in an intermediate classroom this isn’t practical.  I have been working on ways to help my students develop a sense of place.


Before I write any more I feel like I should explain the term “sense of place” as I understand it. I come at sense of place from the perspective of a geographer. One of my geography professors at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in BC explained “Place” as a space that has meaning. Using “place is a space with meaning” my students cannot connect to a space or location until there is something that connects them to it. For many of my student’s place would include our school, their homes, the Boys and Girls club and our classroom. These are places that they have a personal connection to. A place in this sense has both a physical location and meaning to a specific person. Something that is a place to me could only be a space location to someone else.  I wrote more about Sense of Place and its importance here ( .


I am learning this year as I get to know some of my students who are refugees how important sense of place is. These students have been ripped in most cases fairly traumatically from their place and they are feeling slightly lost without a connection to a new place. It is part of our role as teachers of these students to help them connect to their new place and make them feel safe and at home here. Having a place to call your own helps people to feel secure. I am also working with all of my students to help them understand the large place we call Canada.


I have been using a variety of tools to help connect my students to place and build their understanding. As we progress into discussions of Canada and Canada’s unique physical, social and political features this becomes a more pressing task. While I have not seen most of Canada, having only seen a couple cities outside of my home province myself I do feel a sense of connection to other parts of the country. I have been able to build this through reading both fiction and non-fiction as well as my post-secondary studies, and most importantly attending geography conferences where I was able to learn more about other people’s places from them and to learn more about Canada from my fellow students, as well as professors.   My geography professors, well the 4 that I worked with the most, as a rule went above and beyond to help us connect to the places that we were learning about. Weather through field trips to the local mall to study urban geography, a brewery to discuss global economics, or outdoor trips like hikes along mountain sides to explore rock formations or to the beach to look at coastal erosion patterns. My teachers also brought in objects and samples for us to explore the most memorable being food in a geography of food course.  We also used many maps, Ariel photos, satellite images and photographs to enhance the learning and our sense of place in many lessons.


I am hoping to use some of the techniques that my own teachers at KPU used to help my students connect to the content and develop their own sense of place. I am looking forward to using many of the place based learning techniques I benefited from more in my own classroom. I want my students to have the same tools for understanding that I had. Even though I benefited from these as a university student my own grade 4/5 students will be able to learn something valuable from them two. Using real life materials in the classroom as well as maps, photos and satellite images will help my students connect to Canada and begin developing a sense of place.


I have already started doing a few things in day to day classroom routines to build our sense of place and am looking forward to adding more ways.  The main way I have started using visuals to help build sense of place is through “Photo of the day”. We do Photo of the Day every morning as students enter the room, this is an easy transition that promotes sense of place and builds oral language.  I use my projector to display the photo of the day but have also done it with printed photos, I prefer to project it as it saves trees and has all students looking at the same image in the same orientation. While looking at a normal photo upside down may not change the story it tells looking at a map, satellite image or Ariel photo upside down can change its story.  My students work in their table groups to discuss the photo or image on the screen, they make observations about what they see, ask questions about things they wonder about and often make inferences about the photo drawing on their background knowledge. While I started using the photos as a strictly oral language activity to get my students talking and working together in the morning through my choice of photos it has become an activity for building sense of place.


One of our most powerful photos was an Ariel photo I found on google of Langley and projected. I put it up like a normal photo of the day without a lot of pre talking. I wanted to see what my students could figure out on their own. Students immediately recognized that it was take from above and many began asking where the photo was taken. They noticed that they could see farms and pointed out that the straight lines (roads) were probably made by people. They recognized that the Fraser River was water but guessed that it was a lake or ocean from its size and shape. As we discussed it as a class I did give the students some clues to help them make sense of what they were seeing, letting them know that the large body of water is the Fraser River and pointing out Brae Island that we had seen on a field trip the week before. My students were intrigued by the phot for sure and have asked if we can do Ariel photos of other places. I’m now on a mission to find good ones.


The second way I have started bringing place into the classroom is through picture books. I’ve heard my mom, another teacher, say “there’s a picture book for that” many times and in most cases she’s right, I’m still looking for picture books that teach me to code though. I have used picture books to teach hard topics and make difficult concepts more accessible to my students, I recently started exploring their role in place based activities. It started with a book about the boreal forest in northern Canada. The book is beautifully illustrated with water colour paintings and the text gives rich detail about the plants and animals that live there, crafting a story of how they are connected. Most importantly the book connects the reader to the place and gives the place a story and a meaning to the reader.


As I explore more ways to bring place based learning into my daily classroom activities I would love to hear how you do so with your classes. Weather your students are 4 years old or 34 years old, or somewhere in the middle I would love to know how you bring place into your classroom.


I can’t wait to hear how you bring place into your classroom.



This entry was posted in Geography, Language Arts, Outdoor Education, Place Based Learning, Reflections, Social Studies, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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