What is Place-Based Education?

Learning Through Fieldwork and Service

The overarching philosophy of The Cottonwood School of Civics and Science is to create a community of learners that are deeply involved in developing a sense of place.

Place-based education helps students learn a broad range of concepts by connecting them, whenever possible, with the natural and social community in which students live and learn. When students are youngest and most concrete in their thinking, Place-based education strives to delve them deeply into the community allowing them to connect their learning to tangible experiences around them. So, the youngest students community, including their home, classroom and immediate neighborhood, is the focus of their work. As they grow and become more capable of abstract thought, learning moves out in concentric geographic rings. As students grow, their community expands to include Portland, Oregon, the United States and the world beyond.

Lisa Class“Place-based education is the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects across the curriculum. Emphasizing hands-on, real-world learning experiences, this approach to education increases academic achievement, helps students develop stronger ties to their community, enhances students’ appreciation for the natural world, and creates a heightened commitment to serving as active, contributing citizens. Community vitality and environmental quality are improved through the active engagement of local citizens, community organizations, and environmental resources in the life of the school.” (Sobel, 2004)

How Do We Define Place-Based Education at Cottonwood School?

A holistic view of environment: Place-based education immerses students in their local environment by looking through cultural, social, natural lenses.

Community-building: One of the primary goals of place-based education is building healthy, sustainable communities both in and beyond school walls. Curricular goals merge with community goals. Students and educators collaborate with local partners to create meaningful projects.

Student and Civic Engagement: Students and educators apply skills and content from multiple disciplinary areas when working of projects. Integrated studies have proven to be one of the most successful strategies for increasing student engagement. Young people gain hands-on experience with leadership skills and the democratic process through civic engagement.

Diverse Perspectives: We seek and honor multiple, diverse perspectives to build a more complete and inclusive understanding of the places we live. We apply the lenses of eco- and social- justice when developing partnerships and projects.

See Place-Based Education in action in our Stories From the Field


Oregon trailPlace-based projects at the Cottonwood School are grounded in the history, environment, and people of Portland and the Pacific Northwest. Each trimester concentrates on key social studies or science concepts. Reading, writing, public speaking, and geography skills are heavily embedded into the project work. Through an integrated approach, students go deep into a topic over an extended period of time. This allows them to learn the complexities of an issue while discovering how components naturally connect with other concepts. We apply the lenses of social justice and eco-justice to all units of study.


Children learning outsideAs students grow, so do to places they study. In kindergarten through second grade, students focus on family, home, school, and neighborhood. This also includes looking at local rivers, forests, and mountains. In third grade student reach further back in time to learn about the ancient history of Oregon, and in fourth and fifth grades, students learn about United States history as well as the biomes of the Pacific Northwest. Sixth through eighth grades introduce students to national and global topics while also striking a balance with local connections. For example, as student learn about globalization in the seventh and eighth grades, they visit local businesses who sell products internationally to see how global trade impacts Portland. Coordinating scope inline with a child’s evolving understanding of the world allows us to create a developmentally appropriate approach to learning about place.


Our literacy and math programs support our overall place-based curriculum by giving students the skills they need to complete high-quality, authentic project work. All of our curriculum correlates with state and national standards and student learning is assessed in multiple ways in addition to standardized testing.


Learn More About Our Curriculum

For more information about Place-based education, here are a few links to good resources:


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