Humans are highly intelligent animals that evolved from nature…
So it’s not surprising that nature based learning is one of the best ways to promote the complete development of human intelligence.
Modern educators are now proving what your grandparents and great grandparents intuitively knew… that a little bit of wilderness and freedom in the woods is good for you!
This is why so many early childhood schools are now popping up with names like forest school, nature preschool & nature kindergarten.
The benefits of nature based learning include improved sensory awareness, observation skills, critical thinking, stress management, risk assessment, empathy & emotional intelligence, and many other valuable life success skills.
But it’s important to realize this outdoor style of education is a very different approach from how most modern people were raised.
So today, if you really want to experience the full benefits as a parent, teacher or student of nature based learning, I’ve created this guide to share some essential principles, tips & mindsets to bring the best possible results.
- If you’re a teacher, this guide will help you deliver more effective nature based learning curriculum.
- If you’re a parent, this guide will help you understand what teachers are doing with your children in the woods all day, and how you can support their growth at home.
- And if you’re a student of nature, you can use these guidelines to speed up your own nature discovery journey.
These are 8 key learning components you should always think about and focus on to ensure the best possible outdoor experiences…
1. Just Get Outside! (Nature Is The Teacher)
One of the biggest mindset shifts in nature based learning is simply taking that first step to move your “classroom” setting outside.
If you can simply move your classes beyond the concrete walls of an indoor environment, suddenly there’s a whole world of sights and sounds and natural things just waiting to be discovered.
This might seem like an incredibly simple step to take, but it’s actually one of the most essential prerequisites for everything else we do in nature based learning.
Rather than trying to learn about nature through books and documentaries, it’s so much more effective to provide direct learning experiences.
And the really great thing about this starting point is that it’s so easy.
Even if you have absolutely no experience sharing nature based learning experiences with others, simply moving the class to an outdoor setting will instantly begin the process of providing new opportunities to explore.
This doesn’t mean you need access to amazing pristine wilderness with big full grown trees and waterfalls.
Just think about the place where you learn, and ask yourself: What are some easy opportunities we might have to get outside?
Ecological diversity and beauty certainly helps, but even a simple grassy school yard has way more opportunities to engage the naturalist intelligence than being cooped up behind concrete walls.
In this case, nature itself becomes the teacher, which is a significant shift for many educators.
For nature based learning to really work, you need to shift the focus of learning from “I’m the teacher and I’m the one teaching” to “I’m the facilitator and nature is teaching”
This instantly changes the learning dynamic from being “Teacher” centric to being “Nature” centric.
Now rather than having any specific curriculum that you work from, instead nature provides the learning opportunities.
All you have to do is harness those learning opportunities and help your students tune in rather than tune out.
So how exactly do you do that? That’s exactly what we’ll discuss in the upcoming sections…
2. Focus On Your Own Inner Naturalist FIRST
Sometimes the best thing you can do to help your students connect more deeply with nature, is for YOU to connect more deeply first.
This is often a very counter-intuitive thing to realize, but it really makes a huge difference.
Many teachers are so focused on helping their students explore nature that they forget to develop their own naturalist skills.
But here’s the thing…
When it comes to nature based learning, it’s really the awareness & experience level of the facilitator that determines how quickly your students will connect.
If you yourself are a beginner in observing how nature works as an interconnected ecosystem of plants, birds, trees & animals… then you simply won’t have the necessary awareness and observation skills to guide anyone else.
This doesn’t mean you need to be a seasoned expert with 20 years of naturalist experience in order to help others connect with nature, but you should definitely have a solid grounding in the basics.
If you ever find yourself repeatedly stumbling and unsuccessful at implementing nature based learning curriculum, despite following “all the right steps”… take a look at your own skills and ask yourself honestly – How deep have I personally gone with what I’m seeking to share?
Another good clue is to look at how you personally FEEL when you step into nature:
- Do you feel genuinely inspired and curious about all the happenings of plants & birds and bumblebees?
- Can you wander a forest for hours and feel totally captivated by all the exciting avenues for exploration?
- Or do you find yourself feeling bored, stressed, worried about bugs, or distracted with thoughts of other things?
The way you personally feel while you spend time exploring nature is actually contagious to anyone who joins you in that moment.
So the deeper you go into your own personal connection with nature, the faster and more effortless it will be to transfer that love and passion to your students.
This means getting outside to put in some dirt time for yourself!
Observe what’s happening with your eyes & ears. Read some nature books, join bird watching groups, find a sit spot and get connected for yourself first.
If you just do this one thing, then you could stop reading now and still get massively improved results with your students.
3. Start With Feelings Rather Than Information
Learning is a state dependant experience…
This means human beings learn best when they operate from heightened emotional & mental states.
To put this another way, if your lessons are boring… it won’t matter what you do, your students just won’t learn very well.
So here are some common feelings and emotions that are associated with accelerated learning in nature:
- Awe & Wonder
- Focused attention
- Intrigue & mystery
Luckily, one of the advantages of nature based learning is that nature itself has a tendency to evoke these exact emotional states as long as you don’t interfere with the natural process.
If you try to start cramming knowledge down the pipe before the inspiration is there, it probably won’t stick.
It’s much better to tease and hint at the possibilities, rather than to give away all the answers and how-to’s in a quick-fire linear fashion.
Nature will provide you with an endless supply of teachable moments that you can harness by directing the focus of your students towards a good feeling, and then associating that feeling with birds, plants, trees, and nature in general.
Here’s a simple facilitation sequence to keep in the back of your mind:
- Take them outside
- Evoke feelings of joy, inspiration & curiosity
- Direct those feelings towards plants, birds, trees, other natural things
To do this successfully – you need to really observe your students closely and become skilled at interpreting the body language and energy level associated with interest & learning states.
- What are they feeling right now?
- Are they interested in what’s happening here?
- What’s catching their attention?
- How can I nurture their curiosity & fascination?
- How can I challenge them at a level appropriate for their skill?
- How can I share my own passions and interests with them?
This is a very different approach from the typical memorization of facts & knowledge that most education systems use.
To do this, you can tell stories, play games, assign missions & challenges, ask questions, tease & joke around (playfully)… anything at all that gets the juices pumping and the ears listening.
Feel free to get creative and find unique ways to help kids feel free to explore and interact.
The main thing to remember is that you need to engage the emotions before you can harness any formal “teaching” moments.
Start with feelings first, and then your students will be ready to follow and absorb when you reach the next step.
4. Focus On Sensory Experiences
One of the reasons nature based learning works so well is because it directly engages sensory awareness.
Humans are sensory creatures. Our eyes and ears are the primary way that we learn about the world and assess our surroundings.
Yet most people only ever develop a very small degree of their true capacity for sensory awareness & observation.
In fact, there’s a lot of research showing that lack of sensory stimulation & training is one of the reasons why so many people are stressed out and depressed in modern times.
Mindfulness is essentially a sensory skill, and we all know humans function better when their brain is in a meditative state, right?
Simply getting your students outside into the fresh air and bird song will work wonders and start the process of opening their brain to new experiences.
It’s a much more subtle and less quantifiable form of learning, but the results will be easily observed as overall higher functioning in all areas of life.
As a facilitator of nature based learning, your job is to enhance this whole process by helping your students to intentionally engage their eyes, ears, nose and other senses.
You can prompt yourself and your students to tune in more closely.
Simply go outside and look around… what opportunities is nature giving you right now?
- What can you see?
- What can you hear?
- What can you observe?
- What can you notice?
- What’s happening with the plants, birds, trees, animals, weather, seasons & local ecology?
These sensory observations are the raw material for endless learning and discovery.
What starts as simple as watching a bird on the lawn, turns into a complete discovery of that animal’s life cycle.
This is an incredible way to harness peak emotional states, while developing skills to acquire knowledge and information directly from nature itself.
The ability to observe and distill knowledge from direct sensory experience is an important life skill that applies just as readily to offices and personal relationships.
Focus on sensory experiences through nature and you really can’t go wrong.
5. Give Permission To Play
Sometimes the best way to engage the emotions and senses together is through free play in nature.
This can sometimes be a tricky balance because to the unknowing bystander, nature play doesn’t always look like learning.
It might just look like building forts and pretending to be ninjas sneaking around in the bushes.
But beyond the surface layer of banter and fantasy roleplaying, there are endless opportunities to facilitate observation and direct discovery of nature.
With a bit of creativity, you can setup complex learning scenarios that very intentionally and systematically guide students to be more mindful and learn about their surroundings.
Do you want to know a secret about ninjas that almost nobody knows?
Ninjas were masters of survival. They knew all the plants and trees. They knew how to move quietly and leave no trace in the forest. They knew all the bird calls and they could tell where there were animals or other humans by the alarm calls of birds.”
Of course… play time, wandering, exploring, building forts, adventuring & hearing stories around the fire at night are not just about play. This is nature based learning in full action.
The forest itself is a massive classroom that simply requires a bit of awareness and creativity to unlock.
So give permission to play, and craft ways of facilitating play that enlists more and more sensory investment on the part of your students.
6. Ask Questions To Invite Focus
Another one of the best ways to invite deeper engagement and observation of nature is to ask lots of good questions.
Questions are a very organic way to re-direct attention while giving students the opportunity to find answers for themselves.
Every time you ask a question, it causes the listener to think and ponder more deeply on something.
The tough thing for many people to get through their head is that it really doesn’t matter whether you get the answer or not.
This goes completely against the traditional educational attitude towards questions (that we only ask questions to get answers).
It’s essential to realize that good questions have tremendous usefulness in and of themselves because of how they engage focus and attention.
The trick to using questions effectively for nature based learning is to ask 3 different types of questions.
- Questions that are easy to answer, and build confidence in the student.
- Questions that require some investigation, but are still within reach. (These stretch the observation skills and build competence in the student)
- Impossible questions that break the mould of what a student believes is possible. (To demonstrate eye-opening possibilities and keep the student humble)
Level 1 questions are obvious like – Hey do you see that bird over there?
Level 2 questions require some more developed observation skills, but are simple enough that the student probably won’t get stuck – How many leaves can we find with parallel veins?
Level 3 questions are intentionally beyond the skill level of the student in order to expand their perception of what’s possible – What is that bird looking at from the top of that tree?
It’s also important to mention these 3 levels of questioning are relative to the student. A level 1 question for one student, might be a level 3 question for another.
You’ll get the best results when most of your questions are level 1 and 2, with the occasional level 3 questions thrown in to blow their mind a bit.
Always make sure you provide more questions than answers, to invite expanded focus and natural discovery.
7. Harness Natural Curiosity
One of the best emotions to generate in nature based learning is curiosity.
As a facilitator of nature experiences, the better you become at recognizing the signs that your students are feeling curious about something, the more effective you will be as an instructor.
The emotion of curiosity is like a combination of excitement, inspiration, razor sharp focus and active sensory awareness.
It’s similar to the state of mind animals experience in the wild when they first begin to investigate the natural world.
Imagine a fox perking up it’s ears, become still and quiet, yet profoundly open and alive as she sneaks towards a vole making little noises under the leaf litter.
This is the optimal state of learning for human beings and animals alike.
It’s a state where there’s enough excitement and aliveness to get the juices pumping, balanced with enough focus and awareness to direct the senses consciously.
This is what we might call a peak state of learning.
The key thing here is to realize that whenever you facilitate nature based curriculum, your students will be repeatedly cycling into and out of this curious state of mind.
There’s no way to know exactly what will trigger curiosity for each individual student.
You will notice trends with exciting natural elements like wildlife encounters, or even small things like insects or worms…
You want to get really good at recognizing the signs of curiosity in your students, and feed that emotion with good questions followed by more similar experiences.
Don’t worry about cramming their brain full of facts about worms.
Just focus on keeping that curiosity going for as long as possible, and everything else will happen naturally.
8. Let Go Of Expectations
Whenever you go into nature, you never quite know what you’re going to find.
So in order to have the best possible experience, it’s important that you let go of any expectations about what you want to learn or share with your students
The constant unpredictability of nature is actually a big part of why nature based learning works so darn well.
Nature is a continual source of unexpected discoveries that first provides you with an abundance of new experiences, and then shows you there’s always more to see.
The people who do best with nature based learning are those who are most willing to go with the flow and let nature to reveal whatever lessons are most ripe from day to day.
For children, this is really the most natural way of learning anyways.
For educators & adult students who were raised in a more traditional didactic learning environment, it can sometimes be a bit tricky to let go and work on nature’s time schedule.
Here are some simple ways to let go of expectations when learning about nature:
- Spend lots of time sitting quietly and observing nature.
- Go wandering and let yourself lose track of time.
- Pay attention to your feelings. Where do you feel pulled to go? What are you most curious about in this moment?
- Be completely in your senses.
- Let go of your critical self talk and just have fun with nature.
- Ask tons of questions. Investigate carefully, then let go of wanting the answer.
9. Harvest The Lessons Afterwards
When your day in the forest is finally done, one of the best ways to really maximize the learning you and your students get from nature is to include plenty of time for reflection & sharing.
You can think of the complete nature based learning cycle as requiring two simple steps to be most effective:
- You go outside and have cool, sensory experiences in nature. This is everything we’ve been talking about so far in this article. Getting outside. Engaging the emotions. Being in your senses. Focusing on observation. Having fun. Asking good critical questions and being curious.
- After you’ve generated some cool nature experiences, you can maximize the learning by having your students verbalize and re-tell their favorite moments & discoveries.
There’s something really important that happens in the psychology of human beings when they get to share their personal experiences with others.
Storytelling is a very ancient and instinctual part of human culture, and it’s really the original way that humans have passed down knowledge through time.
Simply ask your students – What was your favorite part of the day? What did you learn?
If you’re a teacher – This is your opportunity to use their own experiences as fuel for whatever curriculum outcomes you need to generate.
You can have students document their learning experiences by creating nature journals, plays, crafts, music, art or anything else creative.
You can use these documented stories and experiences to show parents and school boards the children are learning observation skills, critical thinking, writing skills, emotional intelligence, biology or whatever else is in your curriculum requirements.
Even if you don’t need to create learning portfolios to prove the results of your time in the woods – harvesting stories at the end of a day is still one of the best ways to lock in the lessons and ensure that students are learning at a very deep level.
There’s so much more we could talk about when it comes to nature based learning, but hopefully these simple mindsets & attitudes will help you make great progress along your journey with nature based learning.
- What questions do you have now about studying nature or sharing with students?
- What’s working well for you? And what do you struggle with?
- What is one easy takeaway from this article you plan to focus on next time you visit nature?