Kids interacting in outdoor education to learn about nature

Kids interacting in outdoor education to learn about nature

How do we Encourage Society as a Whole to Feel Connected to Nature?



How do we recognize a person who feels nature connection? Perhaps we must start with this most essential question, how do we recognize nature connection? What are its attributes? How does it feel inside of us?

This idea may churn up the archetypal idea of some brute trudging through the middle of the
most pristine woods imaginable feeling at one with the trees, but notice that in this image he might be alone. At one with the elements but nobody to share it with; no connection to tribe, community, or family, no elders guiding him. And therefore, it is highly unlikely that he will actually be happy.

Within this commonly portrayed archetype I am reminded of the great lesson that Chris McCandless, from the book and movie “Into the Wild” discovered before dying from starvation. As he explored a similar romantic archetype to this in the wilds of Alaska, he ultimately concluded in his journals that “happiness is only real when shared”. This is a profound message that sheds light on the possibility that perhaps nature connection in connection also with a sense of tribe and community is something more essential to our daily well being than we have known in our modern society. Modern life has brought us physically closer, but emotionally more distant. Perhaps we don’t have to drop off of the world to feel more connected, and if we do entertain that idea we will probably suffer as a result.

When we look to indigenous examples, we can observe certain skill-sets and traditions that are passed by way of age old connective practices such as story-telling and rites of passage. The skill-sets carried by elders which are essential for their cultures’ survival are a taught and mentored skill, and there are commonalities when we look to tribes from the San Bushmen in Africa, to the Adivasi in India, to the aboriginals in Australia. This skill-set is like a nutrient to the human spirit and perhaps we can call it vitamin N (nature), to borrow a concept from naturalist Jon Young (1). And it is essential for our survival as a species.

So how do we recognize a person who feels this connection? In our modern cultural paradigm there is a large duality about what nature looks like, what nature is or is not, or what is seen as “natural” or “unnatural”. It appears that as a species we are very confused about that boundary or if it even exists, and are fueling those debates with our actions. We often hear a lot of argument that “everything is nature”. This is sometimes nothing more than an easy statement to cop out on and continue “business as usual” towards the devastation of the ecosystem for monetary gains. On the other side, when we take this conundrum into a duality where “man is separate from nature” then it can also easily amount to the idea that connecting with nature means going away “to nature”. When we do this, we run the risk of potentially ignoring the very wildness that is so close to home. Even the housecat, or the backyard birds, the weeds growing out of the cracks of the streets in our everyday lives have the potential to be profound and important teachers. And here is where the richness is getting missed. In this we can even study and learn human behavior and particularly our shortcomings in how we view ourselves in relation to nature. In fact these are all chances to observe nature at its most raw, but we may have forgotten some of the tools to see it.

Wild harvested salad

Wild harvested salad

Ideally we want to practice finding the eyes to see nature as broadly as possible, not just in Yosemite or on vacation, but as something ubiquitous and fundamental to our human existence. If we can start here, then we have many more tools in our box to work with and therefore nature ends up being much closer than we initially expect. In fact, in time nature becomes so close that it is ultimately within and surrounding our sense of self. This awakens the awareness and perception seen in all indigenous cultures. Consequently this body and mind are expressions of nature and when trained can become of great service of the ecosystem. We see this in examples of nature mystics such as Goethe, Einstein, George Washington carver, and so many more who deeply intuited the mysteries of nature. George Washington Carver is famous for saying, when asked about how he altered the behavioral growth patterns of peanuts, “anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough”. With that statement you know that he had a deep “felt sense” that goes beyond intellectual understanding, something of that “vitamin N” that filled him so deeply that his inner eyes opened to a more holistic perception of what nature is.

It is important for all of us as a species to see that nature connection is about an internal feeling, a sense of oneness with nature, a sense of rightful place, care, and stewardship as much as it is about something external. And this feeling internally guides our compass, always leads us and helps to prod us towards greater and greater levels of exploration.

When we can train our perceptive faculties to observe that nature is teaching and unfolding lessons always no matter where we are, from there we have the raw material for the practice of deepening awareness. When we work with these deepening practices in the form of tracking, foraging, mushroom hunting, bird identification, geology, reptile identification or any other naturalist pursuit, then we have a way to stimulate and facilitate deepening awareness. The senses become dusted off and our more full potentials as humans are realized. Through opening our sensory gating channels our instinct and intuition begin to shine fourth, and we can come to know certain things without knowing how we know them. These practices can actually be systematically stimulated and prodded out with technique, and in fact can be greatly heightened when consciously taught through a mentoring process. In essence, what we need is a system to train the next generations in these feeling capacities, and luckily nature has all the raw material.

Dan teach participants to appreciate the outdoors

Dan teach participants to appreciate the outdoors

As most of us grew up we had no Internet, no iPhone and like most people before these recent inventions we all played outside. Just about every day after school most people in the past had a whole universe to explore in their own back yard. Through this simple act of enjoying one’s own inquisitive nature we were being mentored, and the depth of our education process and brain patterns were being developed. Through a child’s naturally unfolding curiosity, which is inherent in all beings, it was easy to get lost in the woods and sometimes that happened quite literally, at least my parents thought so. Something invisible, yet tangible to every child guided the exploratory processes as we tracked and looked for “cool things”, which really just means something that shined with a guiding force. In these generations what went unspoken was that our mother and father provided some of the right tools in our upbringing, which came in many forms, perhaps a garden, a sandbox, a tree house. There was no sterilized lawn in a plastic fence, many just so happened to have ample woods around their house to explore and it wasn’t such a big deal if we wandered over to the neighbors lawn. In these previous generations our parents were willing (sometimes reluctantly) to support our desire for muddy knees and frogs in our pockets without advising that it was wrong or dirty. Through this exposure and nothing more calculated, a concern for the earth with priority and attention and care for natural resources can blossom. When you know one piece of the woods and how it is treated, you can know it all. These are factors that can become the bedrock of one’s life, a guiding connection that for me has become my career and joy. How much more so if this was a conscious effort? This doesn’t just happen because some are destined to care; it is literally pulled out of us systematically, it’s a matter of education. And with conscious awareness from the parents, or mentors, we can help craft a much more “Nature-connected” human.

Now with the advent of synthetic lawns and landscapes, over-zealous teachers, and a great amount of parental fear and neuroticism, it becomes much harder to spark youths’ interest in learning about nature; many children would feel lost even though they could see the opening of the forest or hear cars driving by. Let us explore the current paradigm that goes something like “Oh, well you like nature, and I like baseball, she likes dolls, etc.”. Unfortunately the big flaw in this thinking is that it supposes that nature (however defined) is somehow an option, a hobby or “thing” that you can either do with or without depending on taste. Some kind of a thing you can do on the weekends but then go back to what? As you may know Nature can’t just be seen as a hobby considering that nature is the substratum of our survival as a species, even to play baseball or drink water you need the Earth and its resources to be intact and healthy. The question then becomes how can we raise generations of people who understand the connection of every human activity back to the earth and who can see the whole cycle intuitively, instinctively, and rationally?

Little girl admiring flowers during outdoor activities

Little girl admiring flowers during outdoor activities

In this day and age, perhaps in the last 30 years, teaching nature connecting practices appears to be a much harder and daunting task because of the disconnect that we, as a species, are allowing ourselves to experience. You may think, and even genuinely state that “I’ve tried to get my kids to go camping”, or “I signed them up for this or that activity, and it was a horrible struggle and now they are more resistant”. Perhaps we can develop a more subtle approach, one that starts from the very ground of our daily experience, rising out of the seemingly mundane. We can’t control our children, but we can always ask the right question to spur this instinctive growth of awareness towards the natural world. All of the subtle questions asked can seem ineffective at first, but with practice and patience this can and does deepen a person’s awareness towards the natural world, and in turn themselves. Curiosity can literally be stimulated, sometimes outright tricked into existence, by the right questions, the right attention. So how do we as parents or teachers carefully and creatively instill the right questioning process?

Some people become very good at one-liners or memorizing quotes. What if we could become proficient in dropping the right question at the right time to open up doorways of awareness, which in turn will gently and carefully expose an edge, without being patronizing? We all have edges or gaps of awareness in our life, this is natural. It is very important when teaching and mentoring to listen closely and identify these edges as they become exposed, and rather than reacting with facts, to find a systematic series of questions to help gently nudge people to go beyond their edges. This art and practice of guiding someone towards their own realizations can be much more effective than telling them facts, as has become the mainstream teaching practice in our society. This is because guiding is an empowering methodology that stirs up one’s intuitive knowing. Don’t we all recall what it feels like to be lectured to, day in and day out? Told we are supposed to like something, or be interested in it just because we should? This way is ineffective for many, and we tend to rebel against it.

So let’s imagine if you could play a role as teacher of the ever-curious student, the one who doesn’t get it, and give away the opportunity to the student to clue you in on what they know, even though you already know the answer? Listening for those gaps and then dropping a map of questions down. Let’s take a small journey to see what this may look like…

Imagine that you see a bird outside and your child is sitting watching television, a little lulled after so many hours of the flat screen buzzing away. It’s a typical scenario and usually stirs up no conversation or connection. Now imagine for a moment that you acted like it was something significant to see. That old robin or sparrow that perhaps you even would have otherwise ignored. What if you suddenly exclaim, “OH WOW!” to create curiosity? Perhaps the child’s head perks up, or their ears at least. Then you ask, “what is that?” even though you know darn well what kind of bird it is.

Oh, that’s just some bird.

Really? Do you know what kind of bird?


Dan teaching kids during outdoor activities

Dan teaching kids during outdoor activities

Now you have hit their edge, they don’t know, and they accept they don’t know. And here’s where the right question determines everything. Half the job is already done. They have actually looked deeper at this bird than they previously have, and next time they encounter it the depth of that imprint will remain. They will see it deeper whether they are conscious of it or not.

However, let’s go further. Perhaps something like, “hmm is it a crow? Is it an eagle?” turning it into a game. Stimulating a process of elimination, helping them to know all of the things that it is not. If they are really not interested perhaps asking them something funny to catch them off guard, “is it is an elephant? A cow? A giraffe?” Laughter goes a long way. Following this process might eventually trigger their memory, or get them to admit that they knew all along.

Often once a particular species is identified we tend to ignore it, so we must continue to stretch our depth with these questions. If we apply each species as a medium for stretching awareness the list of questions can go on infinitely. So if it’s a robin, what color is the beak? What color are the legs, how many toes? What is it eating there? Where do you think it lives? Is this the same one we saw yesterday? What are its songs, its alarms? Once the process unfolds naturally there are so many levels of deepening the possibilities to break life out of a museum context and to expand the senses deeper and deeper into seeing an ever widening teaching and learning platform.

Questioning is such a fun art and with practice it starts to become very natural, as if a latent power within us. When we can remain in beginner mind we empower the child or student to come to their own realizations the same way we did, then a great confidence will develop in those we are mentoring. In the modern academic world of facts there is often very little room for curiosity in the classroom; learning botany for example may seem more like a class in Latin and can be incredibly taxing. Sometimes this means of educating is extremely necessary, and working with the ability to ask questions as a supplementary practice can be a much needed break. Asking questions stimulates our innate and natural human curiosity, while exposing us to our own edges. If we don’t know how to find our edges, and ask the next relevant questions then we become like the horse with blinders forced to race towards an imaginary finish line. Asking questions stimulates our neurons to pattern greater awareness and attention, and results in wide-open eyes and sensory engagement. Incredibly, this practice correlates with our brain state; we all know how we feel when we stare at a computer screen for too long, and we all know what it feels like to stare out at an open vista on a fall day, soaking in those deep colors, the richness, and feeling the unseen majesty and power of the natural world.

A very helpful way to solidify this questioning process is by journaling, both for the teacher and for the student. In time we find that by journaling we start to see deeper connections that we were previously unaware of. How by walking in the woods and breaking a stick, the sound will trigger a blue jay to alarm, which causes the groundhog to run and hide. Tom Brown Jr. (2) calls this “concentric rings”. The birds are broadcasting it all in the form of alarms. This world is occurring, unbeknownst to most humans who choose to keep their blinders on. Another way is to set children to become aware of the significance of their own experience and also gives them the freedom and ability to learn to articulate and express themselves. Asking children what they experienced and acting enthusiastic really spurs a second memory of the experience, “not only did I have the experience but I now recognize after thinking back to it how significant it was”. This all creates new pathways in the brain.

Young boy learning to explore nature

Young boy learning to explore nature

Many people who have significant nature experiences grow up thinking they happen to everyone, but after paying deeper attention you will realize that it is actually not true. In fact, nature speaks to each one of us in a unique way, with unique animals and experiences and also a unique focus. We each develop a specialty, a skill-set, and let’s remember this is how all human trades began. Some people loved to work with plants and became proficient with them, others mushrooms, others rocks, others woods, animals, etc.

Getting ourselves and our children out in the natural world means more than just a walk through the already trodden trail of monotony. We can explore with our eyes wide open and allow the techniques of the naturalist to guide us, from learning to track animals or people, foraging for wild plants, trees, or mushroom hunting. A routine such as developing a sit spot and journaling about it, or performing meditation and breathing exercises can help to awaken our senses. Even hide-and-seek is a great way to invoke the primal self in children, which leads them to develop the awareness of greater subtleties, problem-solving skills, and to get wonderful amounts of exercise while feeling connected to something greater than themselves. Perhaps most importantly they will grow up excited by the natural mysteries unfolding around them, and create a memory bank of all of the experiences they had while growing up.

Developing tracking abilities can be rewarded by seeing a greater number of animals, some which are rare and which most people won’t see in their lifetime. When a child forages for dandelions and has a hand in picking, preparing and cooking them, they will suddenly want to eat more dandelions and other wild greens. Identifying trees and knowing their cycles intimately provides a sense of understanding and place, and helps one to discern different eco-regions. Mushroom hunting helps to build an intimate understanding of the symbiotic relationship between mushrooms and trees. Sit spots enable us to repeatedly frequent one place and learn over time how the holistic progression of one aspect of the ecosystem evolves and changes in time. Meditation helps us to lift all of the burdens from our shoulders and allows us to find our center once again, continually making time to remember and re-instill that I-AM-NATURE!