George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

Crellin Elementary School

Grades PK-5 | Oakland, MD

Place-Based Learning: Using Your Location as a Classroom

By taking down the walls of their school and bringing learning into the community around them, Crellin makes education meaningful and magical for their students.
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Place-Based Learning: Using Your Location as a Classroom (Transcript)

Dana McCauley: They’re connecting, they’re learning with what’s happening here in their own backyard. They’re constantly engaged in it. They’re thinking about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and how it impacts a bigger picture.

For us, place-based learning is using the environment as the tool, using our place as our tool for learning.

Susan Friend: Here we go. Everybody’s ready.

Dana McCauley: When you use your place everything that the kids are doing becomes relevant and real. They see it, they can put their hands on it. It doesn’t matter if you have stream or woods. It can be in the middle of the city. Just ask the kids, ask the parents, they’ll tell you where all the cool little nooks and crannies are in the neighborhood that you could be utilizing.

Susan Friend: Wetland.

Students: Wetland.

Susan Friend: Hemlock forest.

Students: Hemlock forest.

Susan Friend: What’s in your backyard? What’s in the environmental laboratory that’s out there? Let’s talk about habitat, let’s talk about animals, let’s talk about what your backyard looks like through the seasons, or how’s the meadow different from a forest? How’s that different from a stream?

We need to think about all the places in our backyard that we could set up some scent stations. Get your best sniffer on, line up in front of Mrs. McCauley.

Dana McCauley: So the first one you’re gonna smell is fox urine.

Students: Ew!

Dana McCauley: Are you ready?

Susan Friend: Our scent stations were designed to attract animals and they have molasses, skunk, fox, and beaver, and they all have had lots of sniffs and they decide what scent would be best where.

A trail camera captures images each time it senses motion at the scent station.

Dana McCauley: So if we put the camera here where would we put the scent?

Student: Oo! Right here.

Susan Friend: We get a popsicle stick and a cotton ball and we put the scent on it.

Student: Ew, it looks like pee.

Dana McCauley: Okay, now you need to stick it down in there. Open it up.

Susan Friend: We hang up the camera--

Dana McCauley: Now turn it all the way up.

Susan Friend: And then wait.

Dana McCauley: All right.

Susan Friend: What do you think? Is everybody happy with it?

Students: Yeah.

Susan Friend: And usually in a couple days to a week we come back and we look at the pictures that we got.

Dana McCauley: What do you think we’re gonna see?

Student: Cute!

Another deer!


Dana McCauley: Let’s see what else we find.

Student: It looks like a raccoon.

Dana McCauley: Maybe a raccoon.

Susan Friend: Now we’re going into winter, what are some animals that we saw in the fall that we’re not gonna see and where are they? Did they hibernate or migrate?

Student: I think it’s, like, eating something.

Susan Friend: That’s the magic of learning when they don’t even realize all that they’re learning and all that they’re experiencing because they’re just having fun.

Jayden: So if we’re doing something science or social studies we won’t only get out a book and read about it, but we’ll try doing experiments and going down to the stream and we do a lot of taking care of things, especially our trout.

Let’s see how the fish are doing.

Hannah: Well, we are studying how they grow up and what they eat.

Dana McCauley: Doing trout in the classroom fit in perfectly with our place. We have the stream, our kids love to fish, there’s curriculum free on the “Trout in the Classroom” website. We talked to Trout Unlimited and they said, “Absolutely, we’ll help you out any way we can,” and so we said, “Okay, we need a lot of help because we’ve never done this before. Where do we get these eggs?” you know.

Emillie: They came here as eggs, but some of them were already hatched. We put them in the fish tank and then three days later after that we started feeding them fish food.

Hannah: We make sure that their water temperature is right and their water’s healthy enough for them to live in.

Jayden: Looks like it’s 7.4.

Hannah: Yeah, that’s good.

Dana McCauley: Every day they’re collecting the data.

Dana McCauley: So you’ve done the chemical study, now you can do the biological study.

There are parts of the stream ecosystem that make that a good habitat for the fish. What are some of the things that we’re gonna find down there, hopefully, that we’ve had to mimic up here?

Hannah: They eat micro-invertebrates when they’re in the stream and get oxygen from the rocks. It’s kinda like the bubbler in the classroom tank.

Jayden: I love it because we get to release them afterwards.

We make sure that the stream is definitely healthy so that when we release our trout that we know they’re in a healthy place.

Students: Whoa!

Dana McCauley: That stream runs through their backyards. Every day when they’re down there at the stream and they see one they’re gonna wonder, “Is that the one I released?”

Teacher: Nice job.

Susan Friend: That makes learning real. It validates it, it helps them make those connections.

Student: I think it’s a deer.

Dana McCauley: Because I think when you can help kids see the impact they can have in their own little corner of the world then they can make changes in a much more global arena later on.

Jayden: What I want to grow up to do is clean up pollution or anything that’s damaged the world.

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Turning Your Local Community Into Your Classroom

Crellin views the students' local community as one of the primary resources for learning. They take any opportunity they can to use what’s around them as the catalyst for a lesson or project. Crellin promotes learning that is rooted in what is local -- the unique history, environment, culture, economy, literature, and art of their community. This is valuable because it makes learning relevant to students, resulting in higher engagement and igniting students' passion for enacting change within the world around them.

How It's Done

Start Place-Based Learning in Your Classroom

Crellin educators share these suggestions for others who are interested in trying place-based learning in their schools or classrooms.

1. Keep an Eye Open for Opportunities

Crellin finds opportunities for place-based learning lessons or projects by simply stepping outside of the classroom and keeping an eye open for ideas. Some lessons come from things literally in the school’s backyard, such as the stream that runs behind the building. Others can start with a community need, such as planting a community garden because some low-income families in the area might not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. And others may be one-time opportunities in the area, such as a hydraulic fracturing operation in nearby West Virginia. Students learned about what fracking was and how the process works. They also looked at what effect the process might have on the surrounding landscape.

"When you use your place, everything that the kids are doing becomes relevant," describes Dana McCauley, Crellin's principal. "It becomes real to them. They see it. They can put their hands on it. They're living it."

2. Make the Community Your Classroom

In addition to always being on the lookout for ways to use the local environment, Crellin teachers and staff ask for input from community members, parents, and even the students. "The kids already know what's happening in the community," explains McCauley. "Sometimes you just need to be very quiet and listen, and they'll lead you."

3. Stay on Target

Once teachers start looking for ideas, the possibilities for place-based learning can quickly become overwhelming. When it comes to making choices, Crellin teachers try to keep it relevant and make the best use of their time by tying in as many learning objectives as they can.

4. Use the Resources You Have

Because Crellin is a small, rural school, many of their place-based projects feature the local stream or the Environmental Learning Lab on the land behind the schoolyard. But using a school's location doesn’t require streams or rural land. Urban schools can make just as much use of their surroundings as rural schools, providing unique learning opportunities that make lessons real and crystalize connections for students.

For instance, urban place-based lessons could include oral history projects where students collect the stories of community members, or historical parks or buildings, or learning about urban agriculture and community gardening in large cities with food deserts.

"It doesn't matter if you have a stream or woods," shares McCauley. "It can be in the middle of the city. You go out, and there are things to learn and do."

5. Look for Help From Outside

Once teachers start going outside of their classrooms for lessons and projects, they may run into uncomfortable questions or come upon technical or resource issues. At times like these, Crellin teachers seek help from the community and their learning partners to make the most of the lesson.

For instance, kindergarten teacher Susan Friend had no idea where to get skunk scat and fox urine to attract the animals that her class hoped to study for their scent stations project (see below). She turned to the local Department of Natural Resources, who were able to help her locate these unusual resources. She also needed help finding and setting up a game camera.

"Dana [McCauley] and I had never set up a trail camera -- we're not avid hunters," says Friend. "We've learned at Crellin School that there are some amazing learning partners out there, people that know so much more than we know, and you tap into those people." She notes that she’s always open and honest with the kids about how teaching is a learning experience for her, too.

6. Be Flexible

Crellin teachers are often able to utilize place-based learning opportunities by remaining flexible to outside forces. Sometimes projects like the study of local fracking may be happening one year but not the next. Sometimes one class of students is more interested in biology than another. These teachers keep the lessons fun, relevant, and engaging by allowing time and space to discover new possibilities, to change plans, and to adapt opportunities to students' interests.

McCauley supports this open approach, as do the students. "You don't know what opportunity will come up, and that makes it exciting for the kids," she observes. "They've said, 'You don’t want to miss school because you might miss something.'"

An Example Lesson: Scent Stations

In Susan Friend's kindergarten class, students use motion cameras to capture animal reactions to scents like fox urine or skunk scat, which they set in different locations behind the school to see what types of animals visit that scent in that ecosystem. This project is called Scent Stations.

Project Inspiration and Pre-Teaching

The idea for the stations came from adapting a project that originally focused on the changes in seasons. But Friend felt that kids growing up in western Maryland are already familiar with the seasonal changes, so to broaden their understanding of the environment, she decided to approach seasons through the lens of habitat and animals. The unit started with a discussion of what students' backyards looked like through the seasons, moving on to how the environment changes with the seasons.

"It ties it all in and broadens the world around them so that they begin to understand," says Friend. "It's not all about 'me and my mittens or my shorts and my flip-flops and my raincoat.' It's more about how do the animals adapt, and what do the habitats look like in the wintertime."

In the fall, before setting up the scent stations, Friend taught her students about migration, seasons, and all the necessary pre-teaching that would set them up for success with the stations.

"[We talked about] how is a meadow different from a forest, how is that different from a stream," says Friend, "talking about the animals that the scents come from, talking about urine as opposed to castor and what the difference is."

Setting Up the Scent Stations

Once she felt that the students were ready, Friend took a class vote on where in the area surrounding the school to place the cameras. Then they set out the cameras and scents for attracting the animals. They discussed what the habitat looked like, what animals were getting ready to do, and why fall is such a busy time. Then they drew or wrote in their journals with exercises such as "I think" or "I predict." Whatever the project, Friend always pushes the students to support their thoughts or predictions, sharing this example:

Student: I think I will see a fox in the meadow.
Teacher: What makes you think that?
Student: Because foxes like the meadow.
Teacher: No, that’s not true. You’re a scientist -- you need to think like a scientist. A fox might be in a meadow because it might be chasing a rabbit. And are you going to see a fox during the day or at night?

In this way, she helps the students practice critical thinking.

Learning Perseverance

After the cameras had been in place for a few days or weeks, the students retrieved them and looked at the photos. Friend talked about what animals they saw in what ecosystem and why those animals might be there, tying that discussion to learning objectives about ecology, migration patterns, and so on. If the students didn't capture many photos, it's not a failure, but rather an opportunity to talk about why that might be, and what they could do differently the next time to be sure that their scent stations attract more animals.

"When they don’t see things, they are disappointed for a second," says Friend, "but then they start to problem solve. 'Well, maybe we shouldn't have put the skunk scent there, maybe we should have tried the beaver. Or maybe it wasn't a good corridor, or maybe the camera was down too low because we're seeing just bits and pieces of animals . . . so let's try it again.' . . . It really teaches them to persevere and not give up."

Year-Round Learning

As the seasons change, Friend and her students put the camera out several times during each season and talk about how the change in season will impact the animals visible in the environments, how the habitats will be different, and which animals hibernate. Throughout the year, students also collect data on which animals they see and how many times they see them, so that Friend can also tie in math and graphs into the project.

"They graph the amount of times they see the animal or how much snowfall was out there or what the temperature was like," she says. "There's so much graphing that can go on."

At the end of the year, the project concludes with the students creating a book filled with their photos, findings, and information about the environment and wildlife around the school. Students can take home a copy of the book to show their family the tangible outcome of their learning.

"That’s the magic of learning," says Friend, "when they don't even realize all that they're learning and all that they're experiencing, because they’re just having fun."


Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Wow! When David Sobel, my colleague at AUNE, started sharing the idea of Place Based Education back in the 1990's, I think this was *exactly* what he was hoping for. I'll be sure to pass this along to our PBE class and my colleagues in the Center for Place Based Education! ( There are more great resources over at The Promise of Place (, in case anyone is interested!

Dana McCauley's picture
Dana McCauley
Principal, Crellin Elementary School

David Sobel has been such an inspiration to us! He visited Crellin a few years ago.

Lee Carlton's picture

Great post. To the author, I have a question regarding your definition of place-based learning: do you feel place-based learning lessons should always revolve around the community or environment, or do you feel that any lesson that incorporates the culture and surroundings constitutes PBL? I'm learning more about this style of teaching at the moment and the examples I've read typically revolved around aiding the community or environment. Love to know if you feel the definition can also be applied to such simple things as a visit to a cheesemaking factory or a conversation with war survivors in a region, where the students are the prime beneficiaries, making it a bit of a one-sided educational affair.


Lee Carlton's picture

Thanks Emelina! I'll check it out now. I work for THINK Global School and place-based learning is at the heart of our curriculum, so it's interesting to see how other schools approach it. Thanks for the great articles.

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