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Learning Your Own Place

Y4Y was excited to chat this month with Sarah Johnson, a landscape-based environmental educator. She shared some basics about environmental education and how out-of-school time is the perfect opportunity for discovering one’s own place. [Podcast]

Y4Y: Sarah, since our audience might have a wide range of thoughts on what “environmental education” means, can you please share what it means in your work?

SJ: Environmental education is the process of learning about the place where you are and your role within that community landscape. It’s investigating authentic concerns within the community and exploring how they are connected to the environment where you are and figuring out ways to engage with one’s community to participate and take action in making the world better for everything within it. Ultimately, it’s teaching people to know firsthand that they are not separate from their environment and rather are a valuable member of their community who has not only a responsibility but agency and skills to participate in civic life to create a future we all want to be part of.

I’ve been doing this work of environmental education for a long time, both as a student and as an educator simultaneously. I’m so interested in learning places, the places where I get to live and those I visit. I’m intrigued with learning how the ecology of the landscape works, as well as how the people interact with each other and with the landscape and all its complexity, from the rocks to the politics. As an interdisciplinary landscape educator, I have used many teaching strategies from the City as Text™ framework for learning about the culture and geography of a place. We can link to a good resource about that framework with this podcast. I love teaching people how to learn a place, how to “become a local in two weeks,” you might say. Seasonal environmental educators and heritage interpreters are often only afforded a couple of weeks to get trained up and learn a place before taking on the role of ranger, teacher, or guide. A number of years ago I created a conference presentation titled “Becoming a Local in Two Weeks” that was so well received we maxed out the conference room’s capacity, so I offered it again as a virtual presentation that continues to be relevant and utilized by colleagues. One colleague and mentor once suggested I write a book on this topic, and perhaps I will one of these days.

Y4Y: So environmental education doesn’t necessarily mean bussing students to the nearest nature center, which could be miles away?

SJ: Not at all! Teaching people to engage with their environment, the nature near them, does not mean needing to bus them off to someplace far from their neighborhood. Don’t get me wrong: There is tremendous value in expanding learners’ minds with new experiences, broadened perspectives, and learning about the bioregion where they live. And, it’s important to teach people how to recognize the natural world within reach of their homes. I believe this is not only important for children and youth, but for all people, because when they start to notice the nuances and details of the natural world where they live, they start to see beauty every day in their neighborhood, they become invested in their community, and they get stirred to want to learn how to address the public health and environmental injustices. Most of all, they begin to see themselves as part of something bigger than themselves. This is what I hope for, for all people of all ages.

Y4Y: Speaking of teachers, what are some simple practices you could share with our listeners for embracing environmental education in their out-of-school time programs?

SJ: Each and every one of us (educators included) needs to find ways to exercise our curiosity and wonder muscles every day. Encountering interesting things, people, and places creates an opportunity for us to listen closely, observe carefully, and formulate questions and wonderings that keep us exploring and expanding our understanding of how the world works. This creates a rich life. In my work at Wild Rose Education, I like to say that we teach people “how to see,” to become better observers, and how to take action in the world through participant-centered learning experiences. We go beyond what has been and we facilitate becoming what can be. This suggests an expansive, exciting experience of learning and connecting with the world.

Maybe it’s when someone genuinely takes time while outside to listen, watch, feel, taste, smell, and absorb a place into their physical being, that they then may be inspired to draw, paint, or write poetry to capture the moment. It’s during these times of deep observation that people begin to see themselves as a valuable part of the place where they are. They develop an intimacy with the natural world, sometimes at a zoomed-in micro scale. This dedicated “curiosity and wonder time” can happen frequently — maybe even daily — near your home in a city park, garden, flower box, schoolyard, cemetery grounds, or anywhere you encounter something that draws you in to observe it closer, to get to know it as you might a friend.

Because so many people have forgotten how to be curious and full of wonder, educators are charged with re-teaching this skill calling it inquiry. I wonder if it’s not by about 9 or 10 years old when one begins to lose their sense of curiosity because of how schools typically prioritize “right answers” instead of “good questions” and curious minds. My Curiosity and Wonder Project is an antidote for this, as it’s a professional development workshop series for all educators to learn how to teach people how to become better observers no matter where they are.

Y4Y: Your work heading up a professional affinity group with the North American Association for Environmental Education (or NAAEE) caught our attention. Tell us about the “Spirituality and Environmental Education eePro group,” and especially how that relates to equity.

SJ: Recently, I was offered the role of co-moderator for the Spirituality and Environmental Education eePro Group. This growing group is intended to become a space for environmental education professionals to explore how the field of environmental education can be positively changed through spirituality, and how all people can grow spiritually through environmental education. The “all people” piece of this is critical as we consider our commitment to equity and justice. If we can have an expansive, broad understanding of spirituality defined as “an individual's search for ultimate or sacred meaning and purpose in life,” we can begin to see how environmental education experiences foster spiritual experiences both intentionally and sometimes more subtly.

I also believe that when people have strong spiritual grounding and genuine connection, they are then more capable of participating in their community and being advocates of change for their environment. And this is the goal of environmental education: to create skilled, thoughtful community members who are committed to the health and well-being of the environment. Engaging one’s spiritual self can be a vehicle for recognizing one’s unique personal connection to place, community, and self.

Y4Y: That’s a fascinating idea: viewing environmental education as developing a relationship with “one’s place.” Do you believe our very recent fast-tracked use of technology and globalization has driven some of the need or, perhaps, opportunity to seek out that relationship with one’s place?

SJ: People are so hungry for genuine relationships, friendships, and connections. We always have been; it’s in the fabric of our DNA. In recent years, our means of fostering these relationships has been disrupted by both a global pandemic as well as our growing addiction to virtual connections through screens. Yet, there are so many great opportunities that have come from being able to connect with each other virtually and using smartphones as powerful mini-computers to collect scientific data in the field and share it widely very quickly.

In a recent project I was engaged in, I designed a project to have undergraduate students explore, observe, and investigate evidence of climate resiliency within communities in our Rocky Mountain bioregion. They were going to collect citizen science data using the NASA GLOBE Observer Land Cover and ArcGIS Survey123 smartphone apps that would generate geographic visualizations of their data. Simultaneously, students in a similar bioregion in the Himalayas of India were going to use the same protocols to collect data from their communities. Then through small-group sharing in Zoom meetings, the students would share their findings, noticing similarities and differences from two sides of the planet. Most important, they would build relationships with each other through the process. The students were going to begin to notice and see the place where they were with new eyes or a new lens, foster a closer understanding and relationship with the place, and finally share their observations and stories of resiliency and hope both within their place and with others from a very different culture.

Although circumstances demanded that we hold off on the project, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to revisit it. If well facilitated, that’s a powerful experience for not only students, but all people. And it would not be possible if not for the incredible technology we have such easy access to. Instead of fighting technology, I believe we need to utilize it to help us learn places, connect authentically with others, and contribute to the greater understanding of how the world works through citizen science observations.

Y4Y: There is such beauty and simplicity in this view of environmental education. I hope this conversation helps our listeners think about ways to include environmental education activities in their programs. Can you offer any last thoughts on making that a reality?

SJ: I believe environmental education is all about relationships. Relationships with our world, each other, and ourselves as integral members of our communities. It’s this relationship with the landscape as well as an awareness of the spiritual knowing each of us holds within ourselves that’s essential. Much of our commitment to climate resiliency is a commitment to minimizing our consumption — our individual and corporate consumption. Environmental education needs to address both of these critical foundational underpinnings: relationships and minimizing consumption. And to do that, it doesn’t require a lot of equipment or transportation to visit “nature.” Our responsibility as educators is to teach people to see right where they are, that their perspective matters within that place, and that they are enough and have the skills they need to participate in civic life to ensure a better world for all people, a place we all want to be part of.


You can download a free publication about the City as Place™ framework:

Braid, B., & Quay, S. E. (2021) Place, Self, Community: City as Text in the Twenty-First Century.


Sarah R. Johnson, environmental education specialist, is the founder of Wild Rose Education, based in Carbondale, Colorado. She designs and facilitates educator professional development workshops, teaches public lands courses, is a PolarTREC educator with the International Arctic Buoy Program, and facilitates a regional cohort of climate change educators.