In Place(s): Dwelling on Culture, Materiality, and Affect

  • Sue WaiteEmail author
  • John Quay
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


(How) do places affect us? This chapter will explore how place is experienced by children, referencing empirical studies that reflect several forms of outdoor learning, both curricular and outside the classroom. Outdoor learning is undergoing a renaissance of interest and is widely seen as an effective means of connecting children to the natural world (Louv. Last child in the woods. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, New York, 2010). This common conceptualization will be challenged by recognizing the child within nature. In examining the question of the effect of places on young people (and vice versa), the paper will employ theories of cultural density (Waite. Cam J Edu 43(4):413–433, 2013; Waite. Culture clash and concord: supporting early learning outdoors in the UK. In: Prince H, Henderson K, Humberstone B (eds) International handbook of outdoor studies. Routledge, London, 2015) and cultureplace (Quay. Stud Philos Edu 36:463–476, 2017) in relation to how culture informs place and pedagogies within them. It will argue that the more-than-human world shapes possibilities for interaction but that these are mediated by individual, structural, and cultural influences, both acknowledged and tacit, in the enactment of outdoor learning within and across countries (Malone, Waite. Student outcomes and natural schooling: pathways from evidence to impact report. Plymouth University, Plymouth, 2016).

Interweaving multidisciplinary perspectives, the chapter considers implications for practice and suggests that feelings and affect may act as intrapersonal organizers of this complex interplay of cultural and material influences. It will argue that in rejecting human dominion over nature, place as “personal” is nonetheless a key contributor to the power of outdoor learning to transform lives.


Culture Place Affect Materiality Cultureplace Cultural density Outdoor learning 


We suggest that all our experiences occur in place as emplaced and in culture as enculturated. To construct this argument, we will consider the concept of place and illustrate ways in which place is experienced by children and young people using examples from empirical studies that reflect several forms of outdoor learning , both curricular and informal. Drawing upon diverse theoretical frames as well as examples of children in particular places, we will discuss whether theories of cultural density (Waite, 2013) and cultureplace (Quay, 2017) may help to improve understanding of the affect of places. In conclusion, we will suggest some ways that careful thinking about cultureplaces and cultural density might help to shape responsive and responsible pedagogies which fully embrace the fact that living and learning is always in place.

In Place: Self and Social Space

A rich seam of thinking can be found which troubles the idea of place as defined by physical boundaries; clearly this chapter cannot cover it all. Tuan’s thesis of place (see e.g., Tuan, 1977, 2001) stems from an understanding of ourselves as “being-in-the-world” and includes personal and social striving toward “a good life.” His relational view of geography sees humanity as inside the world, both physically and emotionally, famously defining place as space with meaning that is both affective and moral. Thus, place is constructed. Places become known through reflection and the attention paid to the way we live our lives (Tuan, 2001).

However, some commentators have argued that place significance is increasingly attenuated by globalization and technology, obscuring geographical and material differences. For example, in response to neoliberal threats to the environment, Escobar (1998:61) suggests that:

Unlike modern constructions, with their strict separation between biophysical, human, and supernatural worlds, local models in many non-Western contexts are often predicated on links of continuity between the three spheres and embedded in social relations that cannot be reduced to modern, capitalist terms.

The suggestion is that critical and local social movements offer opportunities to resist homogenization of “nature” and cultures . Neoliberal redefinitions of space are also the target of Lefebvre’s (2003) argument that geographical space is at heart social and therefore has several potential cultural meanings: perceived space as unremarked everyday surroundings, conceived space as intended and managed by those in positions of power, and lived space as transformed through personal and social meaning. This third space, he suggests, allows new ways of being through imagined alternatives. In a sense, self and space become merged in place through dwelling, and this meaningful grounding of space can offer resistance to the habitual or managed.

Moving beyond social construction, Thrift (1997) highlights the intended and unintended in places and emphasizes embodied knowledge, where feeling, being, and doing offer insight into place significance. Critical to how action unfolds, attention to place and its affordances are deemed essential to its understanding. Thrift (2004) draws attention to “a microbiopolitics of the subliminal, much of which operates in the half-second delay between action and cognition, a microbiopolitics which understands the kind of biological-cum-cultural gymnastics that takes place in this realm” (p. 71).

This view gives place a partnership role and material importance in shaping action. Nevertheless, Lewicka’s (2011) review of place attachment literature over the last 40 years concludes that, of the three elements in Scannell and Gifford’s (2010) model of place attachment, “person” has attracted disproportionately more attention than “place” and “process.” In a similar vein, McKenzie (2008) considers places of pedagogy in intersubjective experience but emphasizes that the source of affect can often be mistakenly attributed. She writes:

Williams (1977) suggests that a structure of feeling is “a social experience which is still in process, often indeed not yet recognised as social but taken to be private, idiosyncratic, and even isolating” (p. 132). Symptomatic of westernised cultural norms of individualisation and isolation, this also suggests the ways in which much grappling with cultural formation is experienced and attempted at the level of the “who of the subject.” (Biesta 1999)

However, if place itself was conceived as a melding of person and world, then the dominance of discourses of individual difference and anthropocentrism might be disrupted. What if place is conceived as partner and agentic? In the following vignette from case study research reported in more detail by Goodenough, Waite, and Wright (submitted), we glimpse how affect and materiality together create attachment to a specific place.

Amy had been visiting Fort Apache for about a year. She visited the wooded adventure playground on the site of an old municipal tip primarily to “escape from being near my sisters” who woke her up at night. Amy enjoyed being with her friends, making dens, and getting warm by the fire. She made dens, “places you won’t see or think of,” in locations along boundaries that are heavily walked and played in by young people. Fort Apache’s long woodland edge at the top of its slopes ends abruptly against a wire fence separating it from a grassed playing field. The fence supports bramble and ivy to spill over some shrubby hawthorn, field maple, and elder, forming natural cubby holes that were frequently occupied as ready-made dens; the ground underneath worn and plant-free through constant occupation. Amy, though acknowledging that she shared such spaces with others, was clear that she used them to remove herself and “privately” experience her emotional mood.

That tree was there and you could sit down on it. And then you sit like if you were a bit upset and you went to Fort Apache you could just go sit in there quietly.... there’s like loads of little trails that go along there, along the top…you know where that big bush is there?...There’s like this little hole in there…You can fit in there and if you actually get across you can see right over…there’s a little cubby hole and you can see the tree house…Up there, that little bush is part of my den as well; so that I can sit in there and have more quietness and if it rains it won’t get me wet that much.

(Extract from Goodenough et al., submitted)

This extract may be interpreted to illustrate how the personal meanings for Amy are stimulated in place, are inseparable from place, and are emplaced. She is in discourse with place such that place seems to reach out to her while being simultaneously shaped by the uses and passage of many young bodies in and through its material presence. This physicality of sensations in place incorporates affective aspects that may be understood to transcend the sociocultural, highlighting the need for further theories which can accommodate this understanding.

In Place: Place-Based Education

Place is more commonly regarded as a partner when considered in the context of play (Fjørtoft, 2001; Gandini 2012; Maxwell, Mitchell and Evans, 2008). Yet play is but one way in which we learn, albeit the predominant mode in the early years. What then is the role of place in later forms of education? There is considerable debate about the extent to which contemporary schooling offers suitable preparation for the wider world. Much current Western formal education happens within institutions between the four walls of the classroom (Malone and Waite, 2016; Quay, 2015), thereby discounting place as a significant contributor to the content of learning and presenting the classroom as the privileged physical locus for schooling. In a similar vein, there is also commentary about how much outdoor education is individualist, universal, and generalist, in effect place-blind (Brookes, 2004). As both Park (2006) and Stewart (2004) illustrate, a focus on a specific place may help to break down artificial boundaries between nature and culture in place-based education. They advocate active engagement with the landscape to support this focus.

For Tuan, the material world appears to be a necessary but subordinate part of experience in which the human is at the center. Tuan’s experiential perspective on place sees place sensitivity as one route to self-knowledge, positioning “every person … at the center of his world” (1977:41). Kolb (1984: 31) similarly understood experiential learning as “describing the central process of human adaptation to the social and physical environment.”

The term “experience” perhaps helps us to incorporate active relationship between human and nonhuman and materialize the idea of culture to help appreciate ways that place may suffuse learning. Elkjaer (2009: 80) argues that far from experience being something of the past, it is also continuously in the present and for the future, “Subjects are not passive spectators who look at the world from the outside but powerful and future-oriented participants in natural and social worlds.” She also suggests that experience happens when “habitual action and thinking are disturbed and call for inquiry” (ibid.:86). This disturbance of the status quo foreshadows some creative possibilities of place.

Smith and Sobel (2010: viii) contend that place- and community-based education offers an antidote for children “caught in an interior and electronically mediated world, [who are] losing touch with both the society of flesh and blood humans and the delicate natural world that supports our species.” The idea that the natural world supports our species, however, suggests an instrumental view of place as existing for human benefit (Davis, Rea and Waite, 2006), putting humankind in a position of dominance and privilege. This person-centered focus is particularly evident in literature associated with place attachment (Lewicka, 2011) such that place is often understood as “my place.” Such centering around the individual may tend to privilege the human and personal over the nonhuman and social.

On the other hand, a sense of belonging and ownership can foster community and support social justice (Gruenewald, 2008), but “if place-based educators seek to connect place with self and community, they must identify and confront the ways that power works through places to limit the possibilities for human and non-human others” (ibid: 315, emphasis added). In order to develop pro-environmental attitudes, Kudryavtsev, Stedman, and Krasny (2012) suggest that a “sense of place – including place meaning and place attachment – is shaped mainly through direct experiences in places and indirect learning about places.” In the following case study excerpt, this combined approach is taken.

The “Exmoor Curriculum,” based in Dulverton Middle and Community School with support from the Exmoor National Park Authority and the Exmoor Society, builds upon the idea of situation-specific and place-sensitive pedagogy. Children from years 5 to 8 at Dulverton school engage in weekly 2-hour activities planned to offer progression in various educational themes connected to the local environment (Exmoor), including studies of habitats, map work, and water skills. The place-based program is deliberately set within the children’s local environment, and the design of the curriculum is intended to provide repeated experiences over 4 years, building on developing knowledge and skills.

One group of four boys, including one with autism, shows very good cooperation. The Learning Support Assistant is very hands off, facilitating and letting them work out a way of working together. She explains: “They know what to do because they are farmer’s sons.” They eschew using scissors and unpick the thickly bound and knotted twine with nimble fingers. They cooperate with different jobs, except for one in school uniform who isn’t allowed to the muddy area. There is always someone dismantling and others ferrying and sorting. Conversations are prompted by the task – different hay bales and the shapes and the function that these perform (the round ones in plastic are not watertight but can be unrolled like a toilet roll to get as much or as little as you need) (extract from field notes, shelter dismantling, DMS Y5).

Binder twine is both a real and symbolic tie to some students’ home lives as children of farmers. Their knowledge about this was respected and valued by the adults supporting the observed activity of shelter dismantling. While carrying out the task, the students talked knowledgeably about aspects of their surroundings, prompted by the materials they were handling and at times the teacher/learner power relationship was more mutual.

(From Waite (2010))

In this vignette, we see how the current learning environment is connected to other significant places for the children and that this is expressed materially as well as through accumulated cultural practices. The study showed affective aspects such as enjoyment of physically active learning and pride in having a unique curriculum, as well as cognitive and emotionally enhanced awareness of their locality and its particular biotic and abiotic features. However, the study also showed that this sort of activity did not awaken sustainability attitudes to other places, which were deemed “exotic” by the children nor did it provide a strong base for their subsequent schooling in a larger community, where they were perceived by some as misfits and “inbreds” (Waite, 2010: 30 and 37). The dominant culture there differed.

In Place: Situated Learning

Communities of practice are evidently highly situated. Elkjaer (2009), in her review of Dewey’s contribution to theory of learning and the role of space and place, draws attention to how practice is a key element and how this resonates in the work of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger on situated learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991). Here learning is seen as induction into a community of practice. Learning is thus socially constructed in the spaces between those experienced participants occupying the center of the community and those with less experience at the periphery. This is a very different positioning to that discussed by Tuan where the person was at the center of their world, with attendant risks of individualist and anthropocentric thinking. However, as Elkjaer (2009) points out, this process of movement toward the expert seems reproductive of the norm and may not sit so easily with creativity and innovation. Nor, perhaps, does it adequately account for and interweave the material within places for learning; indeed, situated learning theory is widely used to describe online communities (Waite and Pratt, 2015).

Although Lave (1988:1) points out that “cognition observed in everyday practice is distributed – stretched over, not divided among – mind, body, activity and culturally organized settings (which include other actors),” materiality of body and place is often ignored. In contrast to this emphasis on the social situatedness of learning, Hinds and Sparks (2008, 2011) find distinct patterns of affective response concomitant with the kind of places encountered: woodland or park, mountain, or garden. These patterns indicate that place matters, supporting the idea that biophilic tendencies are reinforced by childhood experiences. Waite and Pratt (2017) discuss the usefulness of different lenses to think about learning, considering how the concept of “situated learning” describes learning that happens across a community of practice, a social perspective in which it is the nature of relationships between actors that matter and not where this activity occurs, and an emphasis on the social critiqued by Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989) among others. But the roots of situated learning theory within particular communities have also spawned other theorizations such as activity theory or CHAT (cultural-historical activity theory) (Engeström, 1987; Seaman, 2007), as well as thinking that privileges place such as the notion of learning in situ or place-based education. The latter enable accounts for nonhuman participation and things as agentic but do not necessarily shift the focus from the individual in the way that “alternative” theoretical frameworks such as CHAT can help to illustrate how learning occurs as an indivisible part of continually changing physical and social conditions rather than as a phenomenon located “in the privacy of one’s own head” (Horwood, 1989: 6). Such an individualist view of learning still predominates in mainstream schooling and is reflected in the assessment and performance measures that structure and regulate many educational systems worldwide (Waite, Rutter, Fowle and Edwards-Jones, 2017).

This focus on attainment was taken into account in the design of some recent research in the UK. The Natural Connections Demonstration Project worked with 125 schools to embed outdoor learning across the curriculum between 2012 and 2016 and was structured recognizing that most schools’ top priority is to support children’s nationally assessed educational achievement, meaning that teachers were supported in their work to address curriculum subjects but in local natural environments (Gilchrist, Passy, Waite and Cook, 2016). Ninety percent of responding schools found outdoor learning useful for curriculum delivery, and the opportunities they developed for learning in natural environments were particularly prevalent in science, math, and English teaching, so-called high-stakes subjects measured for school standards (Waite, Passy, Gilchrist, Hunt and Blackwell, 2016). According to participating school teachers, subjects were supported through enhanced experience and wonder, “I think it is hard to bring in the wonderment of science stuck in a science lab for the whole year, whereas if you get outside you can give some people a real ‘Oh my gosh!’”; creativity, “I will do a lot of stories based in the woodland, using artefacts and natural objects…I’ve seen a real improvement in children’s writing”; embodied learning of conceptual knowledge, “I know a lot of children would have really struggled with grasping the concept of perimeters, but being able to walk it out… made a lot more sense to them”; and making subjects authentic through place-based enactments, “There is no way you could get the same sense of belonging to the past doing it in the classroom or the hall… it’s just been amazing.” This evidence clearly indicates the influence of affect and materiality of place on learning, even when the focus and content of that learning is concentrated predominately on attainment of curriculum objectives.

However, place does not necessarily map well to curriculum objectives or pedagogies of the classroom. In the following case study, taken from an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) study of the role of outdoor learning in the transition between early years and primary education, cultural belonging and material features of place appear to complicate pedagogical understanding of place. The study was funded by the ESRC over a period of 29 months. Its aim was to consider the opportunities afforded by outdoor spaces to smoothing the transition to the national curriculum.

Laura feels some trepidation in taking this Year 1 class outside. As a supply (i.e., substitute/cover) teacher, she does not know the children very well although certain characters have already been pointed out to her. The children gather around her on the carpet as she sets out the plans for the lesson on Forces, looking for examples of pulls and pushes in the play park. Nearly all the talking is done by the teacher. In fact, there are over 18 behavioral injunctions, principally about how they should not behave, and several of these remarks are targeted at the characters directly; seven teacher comments are about practical arrangements such as who will hold the clipboard and pencil; a mere six relate to the substantive topic of the activity, why they are going out to the play park and that they will need to put on their “science hats.” The children are very excited about their trip.

In the play park, the children are in their assigned groups with a leader (chosen by the teacher and indicated by possession of a clipboard), but they are pulled by the attractions of play in this context that they associate so much with freedom. They debate if play is allowed. One child says “we must be doing work, because I have a pencil.” Others are not so sure and lark about, making the most of their surroundings. The leader adopts the teacher role while trying to get them to cooperate in compiling a group list of pushes and pulls in the environment. She herself has to be pushy to try to achieve this, but the interaction is very unidirectional, as it was in the classroom beforehand. “If I see any silly behavior!” she admonishes the boys throwing grass. Eventually, she calls on the teacher to reinforce behavioral control in this ambiguous area. “Right,” says the teacher, “we’re coming away from this play area because you’re all playing .” The child replies, “I’m not playing . I’m just looking.” But the leader of the group rejoins, “You was playing .”

(Extract from Waite and Pratt (2017:14))

The question arises about whose place this is? What was intended for this conceived space, and how do the place and people within it reconstitute its potential and meanings as lived space (Lefebvre, 2003)? The cultural import of the local play park for the teacher was very different to that for the children, and its features had affordances that were not shared; therefore intended learning was obstructed (Waite, 2015). Place exists not just as special landscapes like national parks but also in the scrubby Fort Apache woodland and a play park commandeered for schooling; children and place comingle in less romantic settings too (Wattchow and Brown, 2011).

In Place: Childhood

In the light of widespread current concerns about children’s disconnection from nature (Louv, 2010) and the growing popularity of ways to bring children back into nature, it almost seems that babies are believed to be born outside of the wider ecological system (although clearly population growth is a significant factor in the balance of nature). Kellert’s (2002) suggested nine values toward nature, which he argues emerge during children’s development, attest to this belief that the beginning of a life is characterized by a separation from nature.
  1. 1.
    Between age 3 and 6 years:
    1. (a)

      Dominionistic – related to mastery of nature and physical control of it

    2. (b)

      Negativistic – experienced as fear and alienation from nature

    3. (c)

      Utilitarian – involving practical and material exploitation of nature

  2. 2.
    Between 7 and 12 years:
    1. (a)

      Humanistic – exhibiting a strong emotional attachment to nature

    2. (b)

      Aesthetic – appreciating the beauty of nature

    3. (c)

      Symbolic – using nature for language development

    4. (d)

      Scientific – systematic study of structure and functions of nature

  3. 3.
    Between 13 and 17 years:
    1. (a)

      Moralistic – inspiring spiritual reverence and ethical concern for nature

    2. (b)

      Naturalistic – direct experience and exploration of nature


Nevertheless, Davis et al. (2006) take issue with this framework, questioning the notion that children’s engagement with nature only begins after the age of 3 and problematizing the kinds and sequence of values identified. Mouthing of objects in the material world is one of infants’ very first actions in their sensory approach to make sense of the world. For example, eating soil is a very common pastime until repeated “Yuck! Dirty!” adult exclamations train children away from this form of “taking in” their world. Responses between 3 and 6 years are typified by a sense of wonder and the young child’s attachment to familiar places and people. The values claimed by Kellert (2002) as framing children’s initial engagement with nature rather than being an original response to the nonhuman world seem influenced by significant adults modelling attitudes toward nature as they grow (Taylor and Blaise, 2014). Contemporary Western society continues to exploit natural resources, and this attitude is more likely enculturated in children by our own example, rather than being an early response to the nonhuman world.

The developmental frame may tend to set humankind outside of the ecological world and deny our part in Earth’s wider ecosystems. Studies of very young children point to an original sense of unity with the nonhuman world where boundaries of self and other are initially absent (Rochat, 2003). A similar experience is recaptured in moments of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) and the lived simple unity that Quay (2017) draws upon in his concept of cultureplace ; but perhaps some aspects of this first simple unity are lost through subsequent learnt behaviors (Phenice and Griffore, 2003). Nonetheless, Rochat (2003) also argues that context causes us to oscillate between different overall developmental stages of self/other awareness. In this way, particular place contexts are again influential in mediating our relationship with human and nonhuman other.

In Place: The Anthropocene

In the previous sections, we have looked at some of the ways in which place and learning in situ have been conceptualized. We have tried to draw attention to and critique some taken-for-granted assumptions that appear to underpin the theories discussed, including the continuing dominance of individualist, person-centered, and anthropocentric attitudes toward how human and nonhuman relate within the common world. From both psychological and sociological perspectives, the personal and social are dominant discourses, but Prout (2011), MacNaghton and Urry (1998), and Taylor and Giugni (2012), among others, have made considerable contributions to disrupting these hegemonies.

Prout (2011) calls for more interdisciplinary work to avoid oversimplification and bifurcation in thinking about what childhood is; for example, anthropology, philosophy, and accounts of children’s geographies have all helped broaden psychological developmental understandings. As Prout argues, “different combinations of human and nonhuman elements can be treated as different partial, more or less stable, orderings of childhood that can both overlap with and sustain each other – or, indeed, that can come into conflict” (ibid.:10).

We mentioned earlier some disquiet about the idea of “my place”; this “my” has become a common marketing tool for the environment as well as retail sector in the UK in recognition of pervasive self-reference in contemporary society. Plumwood (2008:147) expresses a similar concern that personalization encourages privileging certain places at the potential expense of others, commenting “In the same way, in the place case, I think we may have to start the process of recognising denied places by owning multiplicity, envisioning a less monogamous ideal and more multiple relationship to place.” This resonates with findings from the Exmoor Curriculum and ESRC studies in this chapter.

Mutual construction by human and nonhuman is part of the process of engagement with place, but Massey (2006: 46) notes that shifting the emphasis to the landscape or place and reflecting that elements that we see as constant are also in flux can help to redress uneven people-centered readings: “The reorientation stimulated by the conceptualization of the rocks as on the move leads even more clearly to an understanding of both place and landscape as events, as happenings, as moments that will be again dispersed.” For Massey, the diminution of the human through temporal stretching to geological time helps to put humans in place as a small part of the whole.

However, despite our being only a small part of the whole, human impact on the world has been and continues to be disproportionate, and Earth is now considered to have entered a new geological epoch, referred to as the Anthropocene (Crutzen, 2002) to acknowledge humankind’s effects on the planet, enacted over a much shorter time than previous geological periods. Not only is twenty-first century society more rapidly changing and unpredictable, “nature” itself appears to have been accelerated by human action. Blundell (2017: 10), in discussing the effects of the Anthropocene on concepts of childhood, argues that:

Through this coming together of Earth or natural time and human time the Anthropocene proposes that rigid and dualistically separated notions of nature and human culture are increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to sustain. Instead it invites a re-imagination of the relationship between them as one of complex entanglement; so that, following Latour (2004), it now makes sense to speak of the Earth system as comprising a diversity of nature-culture hybrids rather than a non-negotiable ‘Nature’ with all its implied fixity.

Taylor and colleagues (Taylor and Giugni, 2012; Taylor and Blaise, 2014; Taylor, Blaise and Giugni, 2013) further argue that it should prompt us to rethink relationships between childhood and nature, pointing to a diversity of childhoods globally combined with reified conceptualizations of nature. Homogenization of diversity is a risk that the concept of childhoodnature potentially runs. At the same time, this work has also highlighted intimate personal lived connections of children with the nonhuman world, other than through the romantic historical lenses widely promoted in popular Western literature. Their examples resonate with tacit and often visceral ways that people/nature/place merge as documented from other disciplinary vantage points, including notions of “being-in-place” (Tuan, 2001) and “becoming-speckled warbler” (Stewart, 2011). In this interpretation, the particularity of place(s) becomes more critical and entangled.

In Place: Cultureplace and Cultureplaces

It is clear that there have been many attempts to theorize how the more-than-human world shapes possibilities for interaction in places and that these possibilities are mediated by structural and cultural influences, whether recognized or hidden. Across these attempts there seems to be a move toward what Macnaghten and Urry (1998:167) describe as efforts to overcome “conventional distinctions between humans and nature and between mind and matter.” Following Ingold (1993), they refer to such tacit embodiment as “dwelling.” Dwelling also suggests a slowing of pace, giving pause to think about how these are entangled and mutually influencing. Dwelling, as Ingold (1993) acknowledges, is a phenomenological concept developed by Heidegger, whose philosophy is central to Quay’s (2013, 2015) ontological perspective on education. In further work emanating from these phenomenological roots, Quay (2017) argues that it is the various ways in which the notion of relation is understood that confuses and therefore impedes the many attempts to theorize relations between humans and nature adequately and thus between culture and place.

Quay draws on Peirce’s (1902) three forms of unity – synthetical, individual, and simple – to highlight three forms of relation. These need to be described and thought through carefully. Synthetical unity brings a myriad of things together as one in the form of a totality or a universe, characterized relationally by interaction/transaction between these things. An individual unity is different to a synthesis in that it suggests a unity which is perceived as indivisible (the etymology of the word individual); hence there are no parts constituting this individual which may be considered as one individual among other individuals. A simple unity goes a step further in its sense of oneness and is phenomenological in character. Here there is no sense of synthesis or individuality, as there are no parts perceived at all, and thus relation is not relevant as it is assumed. A simple unity is a sense of wholeness that moves beyond the notion of one as there are no divisions: all is “one” without any awareness that there is any whole beyond this whole.

These three forms of unity and their corresponding forms of relation help with understanding human-nature relationships, which are a focus of theorizing in outdoor education (Martin, 2004; Martin and Thomas, 2000). Human-nature relationships embrace a synthetical unity: a totality of things held together in interaction/transaction, like an ecosystem. However, this formulation of the issue – as human in relation with nature and vice versa – is a specific type of synthesis as it approaches the issue from a high vantage point, a bird’s eye view, in the sense that human and nature are very general concepts, in which are understood differently by scientific disciplines such as ecology and biology. Martin and Thomas attempt to overcome this distance by referring to human-nature relationships as a form of interpersonal relation. However, perhaps a better way to situate these relations – to socialize them and materialize them locally – is to refer to them as cultureplace relations. Cultureplace is also a synthetical unity but of a different type than human-nature because it is more situated.

But what of the other two understandings of unity: individual unity and simple unity? This requires taking a leap beyond a synthetical unity of things classified as human and/or nature. To express this, Quay (2017) uses the term “cultureplace” with no hyphen. We live, here and now, in cultureplace, as simple unity. In this simple unity, everything already makes sense: it is everydayness, ordinariness, and mundaneness – of the flavor, of the aesthetic, and of the particular cultureplace. However, we can also be aware, thinking reflectively about it, that this simple unity is an individual unity: it is one simple unity among others; it is one indivisible cultureplace among other indivisible cultureplaces. We can name such cultureplaces as places: classroom, train station, and park, but when we do so, we must also acknowledge that they are also cultures – student or teacher (classroom), commuter or conductor (train station), player or ranger (park), and swimmer or sunbaker (beach) – as examples. These cultures and places are together as cultureplaces. Student culture in a classroom place = studentclassroom = cultureplace. Thus, the truth of a cultureplace is experiential as lived simple unity. This is the phenomenological concept of dwelling.

Continuing with this example, these three forms of unity are accessible in thought: as synthetical unity (human-nature) from a high vantage point using reflective/abstract thinking and general concepts – such as classroom, student, and teacher – all meant in a general sense; as synthetical unity (cultureplace) at a more situated level using reflective/concrete thinking and more particular concepts, such as classroom, student, and teacher, all meant in a specific sense as this school or that school, etc.; as an individual unity (cultureplace) such as the cultureplace of studentclassroom or teacherclassroom, such that we are aware studentclassroom is one among other versions of cultureplace and different to teacherclassroom; and also as a simple unity (cultureplace), in a phenomenological or affective way of thinking, which is the everydayness of the ongoing, present, but unnamed, living moment. This last form of unity is perhaps the most important to be aware of, as all the other forms depend on it. This is the living experience which we call on to experientially understand the other concepts. It is very difficult to fully capture in language, highlighting how terms such as studentclassroom are very much approximations as labels when applied to an individual indivisible cultureplace – while pointing to something much richer that requires more poetic language to convey.

It is the subtle distinction between cultureplace as an individual unity and cultureplace as a simple unity which contributes the most to understanding and analysis here. As an individual unity, different cultureplaces may be seen to inhabit the one space, coming into contact in various ways – such as conflicts between different users of a park. As we saw in the ESRC example, the park is a place, but the notion of cultureplace highlights how this place holds diverse possibilities for action amidst multiple, sometimes conflicting, meanings. It is actually a collection of different cultureplaces such as playerpark or teacherpark or birdwatcherpark or footballerpark. Alternatively, cultureplaces may be transportable from one particular spatial location to another. Playerpark might occur as an experience in a range of locations, which we would generally describe in place terms as parks.

In Place: Cultural Density

Waite (2013) accounts for this complexity of different cultureplaces and the power struggles that may occur between them in her theory of cultural density, based on Bourdieu’s ideas about habitus (Bourdieu, 2002). Casey (2001:686) observes that a “given habitus is always enacted in a particular place and incorporates the features inherent in previous such places, all of which are linked by a habitudinal bond”; this is akin to Quay’s simple unity. For Waite, “cultural density refers to the strength and composition of dispositions to practice and norms of behaviour embedded within places that mediate the possibilities for action of individuals within them” (Waite, 2013:414). Quay’s multiple cultureplaces may coexist, but structural forces such as power, politics, and society constrain some and privilege others through cultural density restricting some participants’ room for agency and the ways that cultureplace is lived. For this reason, awareness and examination through different vantage points of individual cultureplaces may be necessary to deconstruct the lived experience and critically examine how power works within these.

Cultural practices and concomitant place meanings lie at the heart of this concept, but these are seen as thick and structurally determining within some cultureplaces or unrecognized and light within others, although this lightness may well also be differentially perceived by individuals. The concept of differing “densities” – thicker or lighter – provides a metaphorical correspondence that helps to convey this type of difference between cultureplaces. In this way when many cultureplaces coincide, denser cultureplaces push lighter cultureplaces to the margins to the extent that they may not be able to coexist. An example is the (broadly labelled) studentclassroom cultureplace of some children who do not connect with a mainstream vision of schooling and for whom school life presents a struggle as they navigate conflicts with a more mainstream and much denser studentclassroom cultureplace that is co-constructed and congruent with teacherclassroom. In another extension of this metaphor, the relational bonds that tie alternative cultureplaces to “schooling” can be described as weak. New contexts for learning outside the classroom may enable the development of new cultureplaces that do not rely on established relations. Density also alludes to the process of sedimentation, whereby practices in places are reproduced and cemented over time, as the pressure of “we have always done it/been this way” bears down. Bourdieu’s concept of cultural reproduction of social inequalities underpins this sense of density. Furthermore, it signals a level of structural rigidity in effecting transformation of cultureplaces because there is little or no room for agency through new thinking or actions within such a dominant and dense cultureplace. Thus, cultural density in some cases might unhelpfully be equated with a sense of “destiny” or inevitability.

In linking cultureplace(s) and cultural density, emplaced habitus and normative practices become more open to attention. As place (as timespace) and its cultural density are moved toward the center, multiple cultureplaces can be considered in the light of how densely they occupy and shape possibilities for action and the power relations that determine the “given habitus … enacted in a particular place.” Physical and material signifiers inform how places are interpreted as more or less dense by people within them. For example, the whiteboard at the front and chairs more or less oriented toward the teacher’s usual seat reinforce the cultural density and power relationships of the classroom. More open-ended learning resources in woodland, in contrast, may facilitate greater diversity in childforest encounters.

If we think back to the play park vignette, that place was redolent with experiences of playing on the swings and seesaw for the local children; it was a culturally dense cultureplace in terms of their playful engagement with the material affordances of that environment. Conversely, the supply teacher was from outside the neighborhood, and for her, this particular play park held few previous connotations. Indeed, as a teacher she viewed the play park as not much more than a blank slate: it was culturally light, apparently available to be colonized. She brought the culturally dense cultureplace of teacherclassroom to bear on what for the children was a play park cultureplace. In her attempt to bend the place to the purposes of schooling in a lesson on forces with clipboards, we witnessed how the enmeshed child/culture /place resisted practice that contravened the cultural density of that cultureplace for them.

By shifting to consciousness of individual cultureplace unities and considering multiple cultureplaces and cultural density, the tensions between them can be recognized, and the potential to disrupt previously held values and beliefs or hegemonic practices may be enhanced. In this way, consideration of multiple cultural densities associated with cultureplaces will enable their meanings and consequences to be made more visible and inform action. Cultural blindness leading to social injustices represents a clear danger if cultural densities and lived cultureplaces remain unexamined. Regarding conceptualization of childhoodnature, these theoretical approaches may help acknowledge and shift attention to children’s particular affective, social, and material meanings in place(s).

In Cultureplaces with Cultural Densities: Implications for the Enactment of Outdoor Learning

The foregoing discussions combine to show that being “in place(s)” is a concept which has a long but rather complicated history. It seems a widespread, stubborn, and enduring foible that we privilege human-centric perspectives and pervasively cling to individualist (as an individual person) and developmental views in Western conceptualization and structures of childhood and schooling. In concluding this chapter, we consider some possible reasons and implications for this but also venture that feelings and affect , which appear to underpin a sense of flow and being in simple unity within cultureplace, may indeed act as useful intrapersonal organizers of this complex interplay of cultural and material influences.

Patently, people do transfer experiences of places and use these as ways to evaluate other places. Sue recalls on a road trip in New Zealand rounding a tight corner where a couple were taking a picture of a stunning landscape with a safety barrier in the foreground and commenting that their chosen view was “a bit rubbish,” instantaneously comparing that view to the many extraordinarily beautiful views encountered while travelling through the country. Where did this dismissive comment come from? A lack of cultural density in the cultureplace in which these tourists dwelt at the time – a cultureplace that could be described as touristscenery – positioned the meaning of this particular landscape as not scenic. Yet for the couple taking the shot, it might have more meaning and affect. This illustrates how reflexes and feelings are important non-cognitive mediators even in culturally light encounters and how easily, without consideration of alternative cultureplaces and cultural densities, we may be dismissive and partial.

Affect also framed the way in which the 3-year Exmoor Curriculum was valued, making the children feel proud to have that unique opportunity, although positive feelings about it were not universally shared. Cultural density linked to that particular cultureplace clashed with needs in later stages of their lives. In another context, the emplaced joy and wonder noted by the children and teachers in the Natural Connections Demonstration Project were considered instrumental in making an impact on their attitudes toward learning. Creating new outdoor cultureplaces for learning had extended the possibilities for learning to a wider group of students that the cultural density of schooling had sometimes failed.

The reason that recognizing contingent affect and feelings is so important is partly because this underpins care for places though positive individual and communal experiences while enabling a more responsive alignment of place with educational purposes and pedagogies. Taking into account what a space means to different parties as a place – lived as cultureplaces – helps to build upon previous experiences and funds of knowledge in a fruitful way, but it also provides a lens with which to consider afresh the needs and affordances of the place itself. What multiple cultureplaces occupy this physical space? Which create the greatest cultural density? How does their materiality shape this? How does power flow within and between cultureplaces within this place? This sort of multifaceted analysis requires that we put ourselves in other positions to better understand complex elements within the whole, thus “becoming cultureplace” by dwelling in other cultureplaces: in place. Furthermore, it is precisely this empathic ability that offers some hope for rejecting human dominion over nature (Davis et al., 2006; Taylor and Giugni, 2012; Goodenough et al., submitted), if we can recognize that materiality is implicit within cultural density and transformational “becoming cultureplace” must include the more-than-human.

Malone and Waite’s (2016: 22) framework for desirable twenty-first century outcomes from outdoor learning includes empathy and care for the human world among five key themes. However, in recognition that educational policy still focuses on the child as the principal unit of analysis for success, this framework seeks to outline student outcomes that will address contemporary concerns. Although this breakdown delineating policy, research, and practice contexts represents a refinement of targeting and alignment in comparison to many previous outdoor learning and education models, further nuance about the detail of local cultureplaces is necessary to translate these themes into effective place-sensitive practices underpinned by appropriate theories of change. What practice contexts will look like and what places will offer appropriate cultural density or lightness to support educational aims will depend on sociocultural and material contingencies (Table 1).
Table 1

A framework for student outcomes and natural schooling

The policy context


(themes /desired student outcomes)

The research context


(evidence/research/ literature/theory)

The practice context


(outdoor learning form/place/ pedagogies/people)

Theme 1: Encouraging healthy bodies and positive lifestyles desired student outcome:

a healthy and happy body and mind

Role of green restorative theory/ADHD/anxiety/depression

Active bodies/motor skills/physical fitness/skills development

Healthy foods/gardening

Outdoor living skills

Experiential learning in natural settings

Outdoor education/learning


Vegetable gardens

Theme 2: Developing social, confident, and connected people

Desired student outcome:

a sociable confident person

Human social relations

Independent and critical thinking skills


Social development


Problem-based learning

Project-based pedagogies

Social learning

Residential programs

Theme 3: Stimulating self-regulated and creative learning

Desired student outcome:

a self-directed creative learner

Taking responsibility for own learning


Self-management, self-efficacy



Inquiry learning

Self-directed learning

“Adventurous” education

Play pedagogies

Wild free – Nature play

Cross-curricular and interdisciplinary learning

STEAM outside

Theme 4: Supporting effective contributions and collaboration

Desired student outcome:

An effective contributor

Team building

Leadership skills, development

Risk assessment/taking calculated risks


Responsible decision-making, social resilience, collaboration skills

Adventure education

Residential programs

Problem-based learning

Team building

Field trips

Service learning

Theme 5: Underpinning care and action for others and the environment

Desired student outcome:

An active global citizen

Appreciation of national and natural heritage

Understanding issues of globalization, cultural diversity, and sustainable futures

Environmental stewardships


Empathy/care for more-than-human world

Active environmental citizenry

Contributing to planetary issues


Geography and science field trips

Global education

Indigenous studies

International studies

Animal husbandry

Place-based learning


In this chapter we have drawn together complex theorizations of place and childhood to reveal how two particular and complementary theories might be used to help us understand how children and nature are in relationship, with a particular focus on the implications for educational practice. The hope is that these theories may support a deeper engagement with the strategic questions that support planning outdoor learning through acknowledgment of these enmeshed influences – strategic questions that focus on purpose (what? why?), place (where?), pedagogy (how?), and people (who?), as set out in a recent chapter with O’Brien, Ambrose-Oji, Waite, Aronsson and Tighe-Clarke (2016: 54–55).

These strategic questions help to structure our thinking to include the personal, the process, and the place (Scannell and Gifford, 2010), holding them in unity as synthetic, individual, or simple whole (Quay, 2017) and coupling them with clarity about specific aims for taking learning outside the classroom. Concentration of attention on differing cultural densities (Waite, 2013) and the intrapersonal meanings of places for partners (Prout, 2011) within the whole opens up the creative possibilities of cultureplace(s). In this way affective, precognitive, emplaced, and material feelings can make a key contribution to the power of outdoor learning to transform lives.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Plymouth Institute of Education, Plymouth UniversityDevonUK
  2. 2.Melbourne Graduate School of EducationUniversity of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Karen Malone
    • 1
  • Iris Duhn
    • 2
  • Marek Tesar
    • 3
  1. 1.Centre for Educational ResearchWestern Sydney UniversitySydneyAustralia
  2. 2.Faculty of Education, Peninsula CampusMonash UniversityMelbourneAustralia
  3. 3.University of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand

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