Advancing Ecological Education with Place-Based Learning 

Published on August 30, 2022

Constructed wetland
A constructed wetland is an instrument for environmental education and a living laboratory for experiential learning.

Thanks to millions of years of the evolution of our species, humans are innately drawn to aquatic environments. Every major civilization this world has ever seen has relied on water for sustenance, agriculture, protection, transportation, economics and the survival of its people. Our pre-human australopithecine ancestors were aquaphiles, too — evolving from, living in, hunting and gathering near, drinking from and bathing in natural bodies of water.

Historian Erin Wayman’s research on the preserved dental fossils of two-million-year-old teeth from Australopithecus sediba, a possible ancestor of humans, revealed botanical food particles indicating that the species consumed water-loving grasses and sedges. Human civilization has always been and will forever be entwined and interwoven with water and natural environments.

Water features within our built environment (e.g., waterfalls, beaches, ponds, lakes, streams and fountains) inspire us to connect with the natural systems that exist in the landscape, revealing the complex relationships and interconnectedness that we share with all living things. This recreational and curiosity-driven engagement with water leads to a high level of experiential learning.

Need for the Natural

pond wild life
Countless educational opportunities are lying just below the surface. Spend a few minutes digging around the edge of a pond, and who knows what you might find!

The concept that interconnectedness exists between humans and nature was popularized by E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis in the 1980s. He proposed that humans inherently seek connections with nature. A fundamental problem, however, is that in the vast majority of traditional academic settings students are not being provided with practical opportunities to engage with and learn from natural systems.

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For the most part, we are responsible for having created an ecologically illiterate society — a self-inflicted disconnect that is deeply rooted in a lack of understanding of living systems and our place in the web of life. Living systems are, by definition, synergetic, and made whole by an amalgamation of parts. Scottish-American naturalist John Muir once wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Thinking systematically requires new ways of organizing our communities, problem-solving, teaching and learning. It also requires us to reimagine our definition of the classroom. As designers and builders of aquatic environments, it is not only our professional responsibility to create sanctuaries for relaxation, enjoyment, peace, and tranquility for our clients; it is also our responsibility to create living laboratories for place-based learning and spontaneous interaction with nature.

In 1984, Harvard University biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson originated the term biophilia to describe the instinctive bond shared between humans, nature and the other living organisms that inhabit this planet. He explains that humans are genetically imprinted with a bias toward natural settings because our species spent the majority of its evolutionary history completely immersed in and exposed to nature, and therefore humans inherently seek ecological relationships with the living and nonliving components of their local place, both as a means of survival and acquiring habitat-specific knowledge.

American-Chinese geographer Yi-Fu Tuan was among the first to adopt the concept of topophilia, which is defined as a strong sense of place — not necessarily a love or an affinity for a certain place, but a deeply rooted connection with the landscape and a genetic proclivity to form cognitive and emotionally sentimental connections with places, specifically with natural aquatic environments.

Woman in pond
Ponds can be sanctuaries for relaxation, enjoyment and spontaneous interaction with nature.

Just as mother-infant bonding might be considered a socially adaptive response to increase the likelihood of offspring survival (e.g., enhanced nutritional values, protection, behavioral development, cognition, etc.), place bonding with aquatic ecosystems may have instilled certain survival advantages by creating a better understanding of environmental resources, ecological relationships, and natural systems.

In her book “Harvesting One Hundredfold: Key Concepts and Case Studies in Environmental Education,” Donella Meadows teaches us that over the course of history, native civilizations have had a deeply refined perception of their environments and the natural systems within while holding profound respect and reverence for those systems. In native cultures, environmental education was intrinsically tied to carefully teaching the principles of survival from generation to generation.

Longstanding Bond

Humankind’s relationship with nature has changed dramatically over time. As western and developed civilizations evolved, so too did the perception of our natural environment.

During the Age of Enlightenment, René Descartes advanced the philosophy of dualism — that human minds and bodies are two distinct and separate entities capable of existing and functioning independently of one another. With this philosophy came the idea that humans were separate from nature rather than a part of a whole system. Environmental education was no longer a tradition for survival; instead, it was seen as a mechanism either for extracting consumable resources from the or for studying nature for the purpose of cataloguing natural wonders and to satisfy our curiosity of things we didn’t fully understand. In these early urbanized cultures, nature was thought of as being subservient to humans.

Frog in pond
What do humans and frogs have in common? They are both inherently drawn to water.

In Peter H. Kahn’s book “Developmental Psychology and the Biophilia Hypothesis: Children’s Affiliation with Nature,” he states that by most evolutionary accounts we are genetically predisposed to live and learn as humans did two million years ago in the savannas of East Africa, drawn to seasonally available water sources and surrounded by open grasslands. “Thus, attention and positive feelings are given to vegetation and natural features such as stones and water,” he writes. “Bodies of water also drew forth other animals and plant life on which humans depended.”

Evolutionary theorists Orians and Heerwagen suggest that present-day people are generally biased toward these savanna-like environments. This is reflected and can be observed in the elements that compose our urban centers and built environments — for example, parks, ponds, beaches and other publicly accessible green space. In order to secure a more sustainable future for our offspring we need to “recondition” ourselves to embrace a new way of thinking about education, place-based learning and developing biophilic relationships with living systems, much like our ancestors and their offspring did when place bonding with savanna-like aquatic environments.

Place-Based Education

Place-based education connects learning to communities and the world around us. According to the website Getting Smart, the term refers to anytime, anywhere learning that leverages the power of place — not just the power of technology — to personalize learning.

The tenets of topophilia suggest that, historically, metaphysical connections with place have been notably linked with culture-based learning. We can therefore conclude that humankind’s inherent attraction to natural environments necessitates access to non-human, natural settings.

So, what might this look like in practice? The delivery system for improving ecological literacy in students might include an aquatic-based environmental learning approach, marrying access to ponds, lakes, rain gardens or wetland areas, with activities and curricula that encourage spontaneous interaction with freshwater ecosystems, inspire curiosity, enhance our perception of humanity’s place within the web of life and instill participants with a better understanding of living systems.

In his influential work “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” Richard Louv explains that an environment-based education movement “at all levels of education will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world.”

Learning from nature — and particularly learning from aquatic ecosystems — is perhaps the best way for students to bond with their place of learning because, as we learned from Yi-Fu Tuan, the experience of being near a body of water echoes the cultural-based education acquired by our early hominid ancestors.

Re-imagining the Classroom

The traditional dictionary definition of a classroom is a room, as in a school or college, in which classes are held.” However, many dictionaries include a second definition of a classroom, describing it as “any place where one learns or gains experience.”

Lilly pad leaf
You don’t need a microscope to see the interrelationships in aquatic ecosystems.

By this definition, emotional and social intelligence can be cultivated in any learning environment, indoors or outdoors, conventional or contemporary, classical or peripheral; but based on what we’ve learned about topophilia and place-based experiential learning, the learning experience is potentially far more impactful when students are exposed to the outdoors and engaged by natural surroundings.

Extensive research shows that the influence of environment-based experiences leads to increased engagement, better attitudes toward leaning, improved retention of knowledge and a higher level of cognition and academic performance among students.

For example, Marc G. Berman and his colleagues at the University of Michigan evaluated the effect of a scenic walk on the cognitive performance and attention of participants in a controlled test group. In the first of two studies, the participants were asked to repeat random numbers given to them by the experimenter, but in reverse order. Each participant was then given the task of taking a 50-minute walk in either downtown Ann Arbor or the university’s arboretum. Attention and cognition was assessed again when they returned from their walks. The experiment was repeated the following week, except participants who originally walked downtown now walked in the arboretum and vice versa. After careful analysis, it was discovered that the participants who walked in the arboretum demonstrated a 20% increase in attention, but no significant gains were found in the participants who walked through the busy urban downtown area. “Taken together, these experiments demonstrate the restorative value of nature as a vehicle to improve cognitive functioning,” Berman wrote.

Ecological Literacy

A pond-based experiential learning process may assist in creating a new paradigm for ecological literacy by reinforcing the connectedness of humans and natural aquatic systems. By being a part of the experience, students can begin to understand that they are integral parts of the web of life, that they are participants and not simply outliers or observers and that the complex interrelationships of natural systems are both omnipresent and ubiquitous. In doing so they are also empowered to think systematically and to bring these concepts home to their families and communities. Observing frogs, catching tadpoles and crayfish, chasing dragonflies, watching raindrops bead and roll off lotus leaves and learning from the natural systems in and around a pond may be the key to ecological literacy and environmental stewardship within the home, neighborhoods and community. Simply put, ponds present opportunities for our clients to participate in place-based experiential learning in ways that traditional indoor classrooms cannot.

Landscapes that include ponds and water features transform the visual, auditory and spatial qualities of the surrounding space. They evoke feelings of peace, calm, relaxation, restoration and tranquility. For these reasons, the resulting attraction to the ponds and water features we create for our clients may do much more than simply satisfy their emotional, cognitive and physiological needs to gather, relax, and recharge; our aquatic creations may also be instruments for environmental education, delivering a multidisciplinary educational experience that creates lifelong biophilic and topophilic connections to the place where learning occurs.

Just imagine an interactive outdoor laboratory where children can learn the principles and disciplines of microbiology, hydrology, botany, plant physiology, chemistry, limnology, biomimicry, ecosystem services, regenerative design, art, language, ecology and physical education (to name a few), all driven and enabled by our inherent physiological disposition to be near a body of water.

Guess what? You just imagined a pond! We are more than just pond tradespeople; we are agents of ecological literacy, and the ponds we create are our champions.

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