Antioch professor David T. Sobel cultivates a sense of place
By Anika Clark, Keene Sentinel
From backyard clubhouses to top-secret hiding places in the attic, forts are an integral part of childhood. David T. Sobel has also made them an integral part of his career.
Sobel, 57, who is director of both Antioch University New England’s teacher certification programs and its Center for Place-based Education, has written several books on what fascinates children – from the maps they sketch to better understand their world to the cherished spots they create in nooks and crannies.
“There are all these recurrent themes,” he said of the topic of his research for the past few decades. “The special place phenomenon is really widespread.”
And if themes such as forts and mapmaking can capture children’s imaginations, Sobel said, they can also be used to kindle their interest in the classroom.
Giving kids a sense of place; finding a niche
Sobel, a father of two, has had plenty of opportunities to observe early childhood behavior.
Sobel co-founded The Harrisville School in 1972, and worked as a director and teacher for the preschool and kindergarten until 1975. The school began as a lab school of Antioch, he said, which led him to co-teach a course there.
After joining Antioch’s faculty – initially part-time – in 1977, Sobel served as chairman of the education department from 1983 to 1997. Somewhere along the line, he said, he realized he found teaching higher education more intellectually stimulating.
But that doesn’t mean children’s handprints aren’t stamped all over his professional career.
Titles of some of the lectures he’s given include “The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood” and “Children and Nature Design Principles.”
At the core of his work is a deep respect for the importance of place. This is one of many reasons, he said, he’s stayed in the Monadnock Region for more than 30 years.
“I’m interested in being invested in a place,” he said, and wanted to give his son and daughter a home where they’d spend their whole childhood.
Sobel also serves as director for Antioch’s Center for Place-based Education, which helps local educators tie their curriculum to area places and resources, he said.
As an example of place-based education, Sobel cited a recent project by Nancy A. Ancharski, the librarian at Franklin School in Keene, in which students researched the history of the Colony family’s homes. Their work is now on display at Keene’s Horatio Colony House Museum.
In addition to making students and teachers more engaged in learning, Sobel said, place-based education creates kids who care about the natural and cultural resources of their communities – and are invested in helping shape them.
Sobel’s work in place-based education recently landed him in the pages of Edutopia, a magazine of The George Lucas Educational Foundation, as a member of 2007’s “Daring Dozen.” The list honors 12 people for “making a powerful difference in the world of education.”
But accolades aside, Sobel is clear about why he does his work. “What I’m interested in is trying to preserve the qualities of engagement that children have with the natural world, so that it enriches their adult lives,” Sobel said. “It’s trying to keep hope alive so kids have that sense of wonder.”
Making learning local; a home away from home
Place also comes into play in children’s interests in mapmaking, said Sobel, who wrote a book about the topic in 1998. Following how a child’s mapmaking skills and preferences grow over time, Sobel said, provides a glimpse into their changing world views.
Five-year-olds draw maps of their own homes, he said, but by about the time they reach 11, their maps are aerial.
Social studies and geography curricula, he said, should follow this evolving perspective. “What happens instead is that in 1st-grade … kids are studying Egypt or the solar system, or far-away places,” he said, when their perspectives are much more local.
Mapmaking can also be used as an educational hook, as can forts, Sobel said, by integrating them into academic lessons.
Like maps, fort-making evolves among children, who move from draping sheets and piling pillows between the ages of 4 and 6 to making or finding special places outside their backyards by the time they’re 9, Sobel said.
These special places continue to evolve into early adolescence, he said, when 12- to 13-year-olds either create highly sophisticated forts or, more commonly, replace them with coffee shops, the mall or their bedrooms.
“The special place is like your self or your ego being born,” Sobel said. “You’re creating a home away from home. … It’s kind of like the turtle’s shell.”
A love of exploring; an adventurous nature
Meanwhile, in his memory, Sobel holds a special place of his own.
Much of his interest in children’s interactions with the natural world, Sobel said, stems from his own love of exploring, which he nourished as a boy in Connecticut.
Growing up on the banks of Long Island Sound, Sobel spent hours with his friends and four half-siblings, on adventures that lent his childhood Tom Sawyer flair.
“We were pretty free,” said Sobel, who spent weekends with his father, a New York City travel agent, and primarily stayed with a working mother and a stepfather who was often away.
There were salt marshes, a phragmites “jungle,” crabs to be caught and a rickety-laddered water tower where, Sobel said, “we had all kinds of adventures.” And, of course, there was a haunted house.
The New Haven Railroad also ran near his home, which provided a setting for what Sobel called “dangerous stuff.” One activity, he recalled, involved putting glass bottles on the tracks, to meet their doom under the wheels of oncoming trains. “It would create this wave of shattering – of broken glass,” Sobel said, but as he and his friends watched from a nearby telephone booth, they were safe.
Decades later, the shards may be gone, but it’s clear that for Sobel, adventurous habits die hard. “He definitely likes to explore,” said his Antioch colleague and former student Tom M. Julius. “I think he knows every swimming hole in the Monadnock Region.”
One hobby of Sobel’s, Julius said, is long-distance ice skating through semi-remote waterways, marshes and bogs. “He’ll take something simple like ice skating and then he’ll use that to explore kind of backwoods areas that other people wouldn’t naturally get to in the wintertime,” Julius said.
But Sobel said he does this because the ice lets him explore places he can’t easily get to in the summer. His daughter, Tara C. Elliott, recalled a childhood of beach explorations and hikes with her father, with whom she’d also climb trees.
She also remembers the elaborate birthday parties her parents threw for her to which, she said, Sobel added his personal touch. “He did the treasure hunts,” she said. “That was his specialty.” Every year the hunts got more complicated, she said, one year requiring a compass. During another hunt, she found the treasure – her birthday cake – hidden behind a waterfall a mile from their house.
Now attending Bennington (Vt.) College, Elliott credits her father with imparting to her his sense of place, and said she appreciates returning to a home where she knows the woods like the back of her hand.
Her father is miles and years away from his own hometown of Greens Farm, Conn., but through his description of one of his childhood special places, it’s clear he vividly remembers where he grew up.
“There was a garden,” Sobel said, describing a special spot between a maple tree and a nearby brick wall.
And to help illustrate it, Sobel drew a map.
Anika Clark can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1432, or [email protected]
Reproduced with permission of the Keene Sentinel.