Core Principles Series: Cultivate a Sense of Place

Guest Post Contributed by Nancy Lim, Board Member, School Garden Doctor

Playing tic-tac-toe in the garden

Many of us fondly recall places in our childhoods. We remember a favorite tree we climbed, the creek where we looked for frogs, the smells and sounds of playing on the streets after dark, or the backyard clubhouses where we imagined and pretended with friends. My special place was up in the cherry tree in our front yard. I’d climb up and sit in its branches to read, sketch, and play with my stuffies.

Undoubtedly, place is an important way in which we make meaning of the world. Jeanne Vergeront, a museum planner, emphasizes the people-place connection in her “Place Matters” Museum Notes (2013). She reminds us that we mark our lives according to place. We live at an address, navigate using GPS, and share information with friends on Facebook. Vergeront goes on to say that “place is where we come from, where we feel alive, and where we find the past in the present moment.  We share places with others, return to places that hold meaning, and remember and tell stories brimming with place.” For many, these relationships fostered a deep connection and sense of commitment to people and places.  

Unfortunately, many children today do not have the same experiences of playing and roaming freely through a neighborhood, as children did in generations past. In The Geography of Childhood, Paul Nabhan and Stephen Trimble express a sincere concern “about how few children grow up incorporating plants, animals and and places into the sense of home.” While some of us use “place” and “space” interchangeably, Vergeront points out that space is different than place. “Our address marks the location of our house, but place describes where we feel at home.” Ann Epstein, in Me, You, Us: Social-Emotional Learning in Preschool, underscores the significance of place. “A developing sense of place is linked to a sense of belonging. A sense of belonging contributes to children’s overall social and emotional development and is an essential aspect of school readiness.”

Now, more than ever, educators play an important role in helping children develop a sense of place, which leads to children discovering who they are, exploring their world, and finding their place in it.  Our thoughtfully designed indoor and outdoor environments can play a role in development and attachment. A garden is a natural environment where children can form strong emotional bonds with it.  In Teaching in Nature’s Classroom Nathan Larson sums up the emotional benefits of a garden:

“As empowered caretakers of the garden, children gain a sense of place as well as a sense of purpose as they grow food throughout the season.” – Nathan Larson

Teaching in Nature’s Classroom: Core Principles of Garden-Based Education

While a garden is a place to grow healthy fruits, veggies and herbs, it can be so much more for children of all ages.  It can be a place for lessons in different subject areas from math to science to reading. A garden can be a peaceful place for class meetings and discussions or joyous birthday and class celebrations. It’s a place for independent, unstructured play or a place for quiet, thoughtful activities like reading, journaling and drawing.  My students loved to do several types of weaving in the garden – finger weaving, cardboard loom weaving and even weaving pieces of ribbon, yarn and string through the lattice fence along our garden.  They developed a sense of ownership for the garden like they did for the indoor classroom.   

Yarn and ribbon woven through the garden fence
A natural small group meeting place

Besides growing fruits and vegetables, what are some garden activities to cultivate a sense of place?

  • Inspire a sense of wonder by observing with the children and asking lots of questions
  • Have fun with various arts or craft activities
  • Make and play a board game using natural items like pinecones and pebbles
  • Independently explore the garden and discover private special places
  • Start a nature journal
  • Make a map of the garden
  • Draw pictures of special places on the map
  • Write a poem about the garden
  • Act out dramas
  • Build forts and fairy houses 
A nature mandala

Providing ongoing opportunities for these types of activities can strengthen the essential relationship of children to the garden itself. Larson reminds us that “students can benefit from these types of connections in their lives, and from these special outdoor places in their neighborhoods and communities.”


Garden peace flags

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