The built environment provides the spatial context for our everyday lives. We live, work, study, and socialize in cities, buildings, and public spaces. The spaces we use have a significant influence on our quality of life, our behavior, identity, and relationships; at the same time, we are also actively shaping these spaces in the course of our everyday activities. Nevertheless, we pay little attention to the environment that surrounds us. We consider it a permanent given that is only there to provide a framework for our everyday lives. This way, however, we may miss the opportunity to use and shape the built environment in a mindful and responsible manner; in other words, we may fail to consciously influence how we feel, what kinds of spaces surround us, and what sort of cultural imprint we leave behind for the future generations. The purpose of the built environment is to forge a stronger connection between people and their living spaces; it serves to help people navigate their environment, be aware of its features, identify with it, and consciously and actively participate in shaping it.
Built environment education is a relatively new trend in pedagogy, dating back to the 1960s. It has gained a wider following over recent decades, primarily as a result of the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, global processes of urbanization, and progressive pedagogical trends. It is based on Dewey’s pragmatic theory of education, which emphasizes the importance of values such as the study of the environment, the development of socially useful skills and abilities, and democracy. The goal of Dewey’s educational theory is to transform children into active participants based on their direct experience, as well as independent problem solvers who can handle the issues that arise and shape their own lives. Likewise, the practice of built environment education sensitizes children by building on the experiences they gain in their immediate environment; promotes learning through concrete examples and problems; and encourages an active participation in shaping their environment.
A significant part of our basic knowledge about the built environment is acquired in our immediate environment, through informal learning. Therefore, the pedagogical practice is based on processing the experiences children obtain in their living and learning environment and other urban spaces. Activities such as playful observations, tours of buildings, walks, and visits to different institutions may all help children learn about the features and qualities of built spaces, and improve their spatial perception and navigation skills. The experiences acquired in concrete physical spaces are complemented by activities that help develop visuospatial and constructional skills.
Understanding the complex processes and systems that influence and shape the environment is based on the physical experiences we obtain about the built environment. The analytical, cause and effect, and problem solving activities reveal that the built environment is not a given; it changes continuously with the needs of society. The exercises regarding private and community space needs encourage the children to shape their environment in ways that benefit them and their community.
The aim of built environment education is to enable children to form well-founded opinions and make decisions about the built environment that surrounds them. From a very young age, children should experience that they can contribute to shaping their immediate environment, and learn about actions to improve private and community spaces. Some examples for experiencing active participation may be reorganizing the classroom, building a fort, starting a garden, or participating in actual city development processes.
Other goals of built environment education include transmitting knowledge about the physical environment; drawing attention to the cultural and social values manifest in built spaces; and promoting community participation in shaping the environment. Since this particular area of pedagogy aims to sensitize and to foster critical skills and opinion-making, it is typically based on exercises that involve questions, proposals, experiences, and creative problem solving rather than ready-made answers. The practice of built environment education needs to draw attention to personal needs, space-use habits, factors of architectural quality, and the complicated connections and systems of relationships that shape the built environment. Urban spaces change and evolve continuously, and the way to improve them involves getting to know and understanding them first.