Naturalist Teaching & Learning Research Paper Starter

Naturalist Teaching & Learning

The idea of naturalist teaching is an alternative approach to teaching many subjects, especially biology, ecology and environmental science. This article draws from many traditions and ideas and presents some of the differences from traditional pedagogy. The Applications section presents some of the current practices that share naturalist ideas. The Viewpoints section reviews research on the benefits of spending time in nature, and the Issues section deals with problems that confront most teachers wanting to begin naturalist teaching.

Keywords American Association for the Child's Right to Play; Biology; Ecology; Ecophobia; Environmental Education; Kamana Naturalist Training Program; Minimal Impact; Natural Learning Initiative; Naturalist Intelligence; Nature Deficit Disorder; Outdoor Education


Naturalist teaching describes an approach to education that incorporates many features and spans many areas. However, there are certain guiding principles that help to define naturalist teaching. For starters, naturalist teaching focuses on using nature as a classroom. With students spending more and more time indoors, and shrinking time for recess in many schools, just spending time outside in nature can be valuable.

Naturalist teaching begins with slowing down to the speed of nature. For many students life is fast and full: racing to class, speed walking through the mall or cruising on the highway. Their minds are filled with music, video games, and television. In addition, many children lead overscheduled lives and move from one activity to another without sufficient unstructured down time. It is important for naturalist teachers to first get students into a state of calm and quiet, where they can actually build on developing their senses and powers of observation.

With enhanced awareness, students can interact with nature on deeper and more profound levels, but awareness is just a beginning. Brown (1999), for example, wrote "Awareness without tracking became a shallow experience, where no understanding of the psyche of animals could be achieved nor, for that matter, could the entire fabric of nature be comprehended" (p. 7). Naturalist teachers, then, use awareness as a starting place to open other paths of investigation.

Characteristics of Naturalist Teaching

Heightened awareness and greater powers of observation are perhaps what separates naturalists from casual scientists or observers. Howard Gardner recognized that naturalist skills and interests could not be comfortably fit into his previous seven intelligences, especially in consideration of naturalists like Rachel Carson and E.O. Wilson. Gardner (1999) stated, "A naturalist demonstrates expertise in the recognition and classification of the numerous species-the flora and fauna-of his or her environment" (p. 48). Often the differences in classification are subtle, and require powers of observation and habits of mind that are specific to the naturalist intelligence. Gardner (1999) wrote, for example, "Thus, it is possible that the pattern-recognizing talents of artists, poets, social scientists, and natural scientists are all built on the fundamental perceptual skills of natural intelligence" (p. 50).

Naturalist teaching and learning values experiences over books, depth over breadth, wisdom over intelligence. In short, naturalist teaching is about doing. It is one thing to read about making fire by friction, but it's completely different to actually carve a kit and make fire. Books are useful, of course, especially field guides, but without accompanying experiences, the knowledge can be virtually lifeless. For example, the simple identification of animals without understanding their habitats, growth cycles, behaviors and more. Because naturalists often seek deep knowledge, they can happily sit in the same spot every day, noting and valuing even minute changes.

In a school setting, naturalist teaching can differ greatly from the approaches of biology, ecology and environmental education. Although biologists, for example, can be naturalists, and naturalists can be biologists, differences emerge when the approach of the learning is considered. Many schools lack what most people consider "natural" spaces in which to learn, so the sciences often study about nature, rather than in nature. Whereas science classes are often about abstract processes like global warming, photosynthesis, and mitosis, naturalist classes are about tangible experiences such as identifying a tree by the texture of its bark, or tracking an animal across various surfaces, or exploring what edible plants grow in the neighborhood. These differences are bigger than they first appear to be. Young (1996), for example, found that even in classes full of science teachers, many could not pass a basic test about their local environment.

Finally, naturalist teaching often incorporates many other components drawn from indigenous cultures, including storytelling, hunting, cooking, ceremony, mentoring, philosophy and many more. Those interested in other areas typically outside the scope of the traditional classroom can get more ideas for teaching from Hall (2007), Brown (1983), Brown (1994), Bruchac and Fadden (1991), Garrett and Garrett (2002) and Young (1996).


Naturalist Teaching Activities

There are many applications that may be considered part of naturalist teaching, including casual hiking expeditions, bird watching, outdoor activities and serious wilderness survival. As mentioned above, however, the approach to any of these is extremely important. Some of these may not be naturalist in the strictest sense, but for many teachers, they offer different places to start. Naturalist teaching can happen anywhere.

An example that can help illustrate this is "people watching." Many people enjoy watching others pass by in the mall, at the park or in other pedestrian areas. They may note interesting hairstyles, unusual clothes, fascinating walks, or other features that draw attention. Rarely, though, do people watchers actually learn from the experience because it is perhaps far too passive. A more naturalist approach would try to draw out more by active observation and generating questions, noting more and attempting to recognize patterns. At a mall, for example, a naturalist might note that most people turn right at a certain kiosk, but periodically, some people turn left. This would then start an entire track of questions to discover what those who turned left had in common.

Outdoor Education / Experiential Education

Although these applications are often much more kinesthetic than they are naturalist, they can be good starting places for teachers. Programs like Outward Bound use nature as a way to further challenge students. Many of these programs use various stations or elements and team exercises to promote risk-taking and to build leadership. The Association for Experiential Education or the Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education, as well as Rohnke (1984) explain some of these activities.

Bird Watching

There are many organizations that promote activities such as bird watching. These can be wonderful introductions to the natural world since they encourage people to actively engage with the environment and to use their powers of observation. However, such activities, which often involve checklists, can lead some people into treating nature as a hobby, much like collecting baseball cards. In addition, there is also the issue of naming and identification.


There are numerous organizations, such as the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), that promote and encourage hiking, biking or other activities. Often these organizations have fairly strict rules or expectations about how to interact with nature. However, if they do not address issues of ecophobia in people, then they may only be minimally useful in true naturalist teaching.


Tracking groups are springing up around the country and serious naturalists start many of them. These programs are probably the most naturalist in terms of how they are organized and how the classes are taught. Many of these programs are excellent introductions to naturalist teaching, especially because they focus on skills and experiences.

Any of these can be brought to the classroom to create rich naturalist experiences. Many of the experiential education activities can be done in a classroom, although a gym would offer more possibilities. The idea of bird watching can be modified to suit many classroom settings. Students can observe any number of insects, birds, or even cars on the street. Teachers without access to open space can still go on interesting expeditions to the playground or parking lot. For example, using magnifying glasses, students can go on very short "hikes" to observe the micro world of ants. Teachers interested in hands-on projects can have students carve soapstone or soap, which are both soft enough to not require serious tools. Teachers with access to a sandbox have an excellent opportunity to teach tracking. The list goes on and there are plenty of books about outdoor activities with children. With the right spirit, any of these activities can be used for naturalist teaching.

Benefits of Naturalist Teaching

Naturalist teaching offers many benefits as described above, but more and more research is showing that simply being in nature can be beneficial as well. With increasing numbers of students spending significant amounts of time watching television, playing video games and surfing the web, there is a huge gap emerging between the students of today and those of even twenty years ago. Researching the implications of today's students spending so many hours indoors compared to generations of the past, led Richard Louv (2005) to coin the phrase "nature-deficit disorder." Some of the many benefits that...

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