Into the woods: Whole Terrain interviews David Sobel

Originally posted November 5, 2010

by Hanna Wheeler

David Sobel keeps a thick folder of inspirational projects in place in schools around the country. As an educational writer, Senior faculty in the Antioch University New England Education Department and director for the Center for Place-based Eduction, Sobel is regularly asked to describe the state of place-based education. The folder is a recurrent prop.

“There are a lot of examples,” he said, thumbing through the newspaper clippings, brochures and booklets he has collected. “There’s an increasing interest in schools that want to cultivate a deep relationship between children and nature.”

Sobel has been central to the national place-based education movement since he published his book, Beyond Ecophobia, in 1996. Educational researchers and conservationists, children’s literacy advocates and zoo reformers have all referenced the book. Sobel is also the author of Children’s Special Places (1993), Mapmaking with Children (1998), Place-Based Education (2004) and Childhood and Nature (2008).

With their messages about developmentally-appropriate nature education and the positive impact of eco-literacy and community involvement, these books have helped schools and teachers change the way they teach.

Take the Denver Green School, for example. A “performance school” in the Denver Public School system, DGS distributes copies of Sobel’s books to teachers. “It helps the school to articulate what they believe in,” said Sobel. “It provides a philosophy for what they want to do.”

Sobel also works directly with schools as a consultant. “I work with schools that are trying to evolve, that want to articulate their identity and values and that want to recognize sustainability and become more attuned to the local landscape and community,” he said. “I think of place-based education as a high order change.”

Sobel’s work addresses parents as well as educators. “There’s a growing concern for children in nature,” he said. In the 2000/2001 Serious Play volume of Whole Terrain journal, he discussed the importance of play and dreamtime during childhood. Sobel continues to reach out to parents through speaking engagements around the country and through his upcoming book, Wild Play: Parenting Adventures in the Great Outdoors (April 2011).

Sobel started his career in education at an Antioch-affiliated teacher-training program in North Bennington, Vermont. In 1972, he co- founded the Harrisville Children’s Center— an innovative pre-school and kindergarten— as a lab school of Antioch. “The idea was to create an integrated learning facility with a head,heart, and hands balance and a home-like setting,” said Sobel. “There was nothing else like it at the time.”

Writers Paul Shepard and Joseph Chilton Pearce are two of Sobel’s influences. Shepard studies the intersections between human development, human history and modern culture. “He says that our genomic structure is not fitted with modern cultural mores,” said Sobel. “We’re genetically hunters and gatherers. That helps us understand kids’ behavior.”

And Pearce literally helped the college-aged Sobel along his way when Pearce picked him up hitchhiking along the road. “It was one of these incredibly dense twenty minute conversations. It opened up a new perspective,” said Sobel.

Sobel wrote about Pearce’s influence in Children’s Special Places, saying, “Pearce’s views are controversial, but his appeal to me is that he has created a model of development that I have found useful. By ‘useful’ I mean that the framework has helped me to make senses of my observations of children.”

Many of those observations come from studying maps made by children. Children’s sketched maps and drawings of their special places or their neighborhood tend to follow certain age-related stages. “Up to age seven, the family house is drawn quite large and usually in the center of the map. After this age, the size of the house decreases rapidly, the family home moves to the periphery of the map, and the landscape of the neighborhood takes center stage,” Sobel wrote in Children’s Special Places.

To this day, Sobel remembers his own special place as a child: a nook between a big maple tree and a high brick garden wall. When asked about it, he draws a map.

There is a growing environmental consciousness in schools, and educators often ask Sobel how to teach big issues such as climate change and food security. “Place-based education is the foundation,” he said.

“Children need a sense of belonging and sense of place,” he continued. “They need a microcosm of understanding, such as how streams work. Without this rootedness, the larger stuff is abstract and not grounded. Place-based education is tilling the soil for those issues”

And then he opens his folder for examples.

Bio: David Sobel is co-founder of the Harrisville Children’s Center in Harrisville, New Hampshire. He has served as a staff development and science curriculum consultant to a variety of schools as well as a guest speaker and workshop leader. He is Senior Faculty in the AUNE Education Department and director of The Center for Place-based Eduction.

Some examples of place-based education projects….

  • When the Greening Greenfield campaign wanted to know what Greenfield residents felt was important in terms of energy conservation, they turned to Center School students to help devise the survey instrument and carry out the research.  Read more


  • In the spring of 2005, Jen Kramer’s 6th grade class at Guilford Central School made a slideshow presentation for the Friends of Algiers Village, Inc. This slideshow showed the highlights of Algiers Village in Guilford, Vermont in its present and past days. The students collected old photos of Algiers, interviewed community members, and wrote short essays on specific historic buildings in Algiers.
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