George Lucas Educational Foundation
Interest-Based Learning

‘But What About the Polar Bears?’ Centering Student Interests in Place-Based Learning

Teachers can boost elementary students’ engagement by exploring their interests and connecting them to units of study.

June 26, 2023
outdoorsman / Shutterstock

Many first-grade students learn about animal habitats—a popular area of study. With research demonstrating that children’s identities can be strengthened through place-based learning, exploring and learning about local habitats is a perfect way to introduce students to this unit topic and, I’ve found, simultaneously support language learning and a sense of belonging.

Throughout my work, I’ve noticed that children’s imaginations are captured by polar regions. As an educator of young children, I feel a tension arise between wanting to give children the agency to explore their interests and the need to introduce them to new areas of learning. 

Having read The Power of Place, by Tom Vander Ark, Emily Liebtag, and Nate McClennen, my grade one teaching team and I decided to reimagine our Animal Habitats unit to focus on the various habitats around our campus and in Singapore (where I teach), while also including the captivating polar regions to satisfy students’ interests. Below, I share how we leveraged these pedagogies—place-based learning, multilingualism, identity, and belonging—in practice.

Getting Students Outdoors to Provoke Inquiry and Learning

Children learn best when they feel a sense of belonging, and one aspect of belonging is feeling connected to your local environments. In order to support this type of connection, my colleagues and I incorporated into our unit regular student visits to gardens on campus. 

As children immersed themselves in the gardens, they were encouraged to slow down, engage their senses, and look carefully at what was around them. While in the gardens, children discovered snails, butterflies, and dragonflies. Storytelling became a popular feature of these outdoor sessions, and children became natural storytellers based on their observations. 

The children’s agency began to develop as they were strongly motivated to research the habitats that were supporting these insects. Back in the classroom, they developed the skills needed for nonfiction writing and read storybooks written by Singaporean authors that connected to their observations.

Pandemic restrictions prevented us from going on field trips, so on weekends, children and their families visited wetlands, parks, and nature reserves, sending photos and videos back to the class. These experiences served as springboards into students’ learning about the habitats of monitor lizards, crocodiles, long-tailed macaques, and hornbill birds. 

Building a Sense of Belonging

Building a sense of belonging requires equitable access to education and literacy. Our habitat unit provided a rich opportunity for language development. For example, we developed engagements that deepened the understanding of key vocabulary and focused on the phonological awareness of words that children may use while writing. 

Inspired by the work of Ceci Gomez-Galvez, we created an interactive word wall by enlisting the support of our languages department and our grade one parent community. Using their home languages, parents, children, and teachers created videos translating and defining the key unit vocabulary and giving each word context. Children then accessed these videos using QR codes. 

Parents engaged brothers, sisters, grandparents, and neighbors in the creation of these videos, meaning that community voices were incorporated into this place-based unit, and students saw important people in their lives included in our instruction. Multilingual learners delighted in hearing their home languages spoken, and all children built on their learning from language specialist classes.  Students’ phonological awareness deepened, and we focused on words that they might use in their everyday writing.

Incorporating Topics of Student Interest

But what about the polar bears? Throughout the unit, children remained curious about polar regions, and during classroom discussions, misconceptions began to arise regarding the Arctic. This meant it was time to take our learning to a global level.

To do so, we made a connection with the Nunavut Literacy Council—Ilitaqsiniq, which is located just south of the Arctic Circle. The children’s learning continued to deepen, and they are currently creating and sending videos about the habitats of Singapore to Ilitaqsiniq. In exchange, Ilitaqsiniq will send us videos about life in Rankin Inlet. They promised to talk about polar bears, too, which excited our students. Through this shared interest, students not only deepen but share their understandings of, and facility with, language, science, and social skills.

Outdoor spaces around our school have served as powerful places to support children developing a sense of belonging. When we create meaningful learning engagements inspired by our local environments, children naturally learn about the place where they are living, which informs their identity development. While immersed in nature, children become curious about the world around them and start asking questions about the wildlife they observe. This opens a perfect opportunity to guide learning—segueing easily into investigations of local  habitats. 

With my students, this local learning transferred to a global context through our connecting to polar regions. Children were introduced to key vocabulary through careful scaffolding that considered our multilingual community. Storytelling became a thread to all learning; by engaging with the outdoors, children started telling their own stories, and together we explored folktales and narratives specific to our region, authored by local writers whose words extended and expanded students’ understanding. 

Ultimately, looking to the place in which we live inspires deep and motivated learning and offers children the opportunity to engage with the world around them while meeting learning goals. Perhaps more important, children develop connections to their local community that they can carry beyond the classroom during and, we hope, long after grade one.

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  • Interest-Based Learning
  • Place-Based Learning
  • K-2 Primary

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