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Creating a Naturalist-Friendly Environment in School

Soapbox is an occasional Education World feature that gives educators a chance to express their views.

Students with naturalist intelligence can feel constrained by traditional classrooms and by spending so much time indoors. Teacher Gwen Lanning discusses ways to make school more naturalist-friendly.

By Gwen Lanning
Have you noticed me? You're aware that I'm in your class, but I'm quiet, no trouble really, and you have other things on your mind. You keep up with as much research as you can, and in 1985, when Howard Gardner published a revolutionary view of students in his book, Frames of Mind, you read it. His theory about Multiple Intelligences in your students made sense. You mentally matched your students to their areas of strongest intelligence, but I didn't really fit a category. But then, Gardner himself didn't write about me until 1997.

That year, Gardner gave an interview to Educational Leadership magazine, and discussed a new category, a "naturalist intelligence." He said, "Naturalist intelligence designates the human ability to discriminate among living things (plants, animals) as well as sensitivity to other features of the natural world (clouds, rock configurations). This ability was clearly of value in our evolutionary past as hunters, gatherers, and farmers; it continues to be central in such roles as botanist or chef. I also speculate that much of our consumer society exploits the naturalist intelligences, which can be mobilized in the discrimination among cars, sneakers, kinds of makeup, and the like. The kind of pattern recognition valued in certain of the sciences may also draw upon naturalist intelligence (Checkley 8)."

Once you read about me, you did have a flash of recognition. You thought about me for a moment, the kid who's not afraid to catch spiders for you and take them outside, who carries a stone or a feather around. You took only a moment to think of me, because you have so many issues to think about, and overall, I seem to be doing just fine.


But I thought, just this once, I'd tell you what it's like to be a naturalist in today's school world. To help me explain more clearly, I will use the words of some artists and authors who are revered for their deep regard of nature.

Let's start with the physical environment at school. Chances are, there are no windows, and if there are, you have them covered. I can't see out. Everything inside the room is uniform, and it's all ugly. Manmade acoustical tile, fluorescent lights, plastic desks.

The artist Hundertwasser said that ruler-drawn straight lines make people sick because they don't occur in nature, and so subject people to an irritation for which the organism is unprepared.

You may think that's ridiculous, but it's true for me. I go through the entire day with nothing natural to look at. Think about the sounds I hear all day -- also man-made. Timing bells, alarms, and of course, endless talking. You may play soft music in the classroom, but I am longing for the sound of the breeze and the birds.

Let's go on to reading. You tell me that every story is about a conflict. I have favorite books: Julie of the Wolves, My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet. You tell me to say they're about the conflict between man and nature -- I know they're about the connection between man and nature, about competence.You can see it in terms of a conflict if you want to, but I don't.

Let's look at social studies. You want me to watch the news, keep up with current events. Author Barbara Kingsolver said, "The world, a much wider place than 17 inches, includes songbird migration, emphysema, pollinating insects, the Krebs cycle, my neighbor who recycles knitting-factory scraps to make quilts, natural selection, the Loess Hill of Iowa, and trillion other things outside the notice of CNNIt's just a nasty, tiny subset of reality they're subsisting on there in TV land -- the subset invested with some visual component likely to cause an adrenal reaction, ideally horror (Kingsolver 138 - 139)." I don't want to spend my time studying that tiny subset of reality. I want to study the clouds and the waves.

How about recess? You want me to play with the other kids, stop digging in the dirt with a stick. You tell my mother you're a little worried about my social skills. Author Annie Dillard asks, did you know that "There are 228 separate and distinct muscles in the head of a common caterpillar" (Dillard 132)? How can I make any better choice with the way I spend my time than to look at the wonders of this world?


I could go on, but you get the idea. Maybe you're thinking that I have to be pushed beyond this passive observation of the world. [But now], technological innovations need to be drawn from nature. Who better than we naturalists to find the ideas necessary for a positive future?

A few schools are making a naturalist's wildest dreams come true. Edutopia, the magazine of the George Lucas Education Foundation, reports on elementary schools in the Las Vegas area that house a 3,200-square-foot rainforest, a marine lab with coral and eels, and a replica of a working gold mine. Students in these schools not only experiment in these environs, they also maintain them and give tours of them.

I hope I've opened your eyes to the other naturalists in your class, to their thought process, to their usefulness to the future, to the wonderful learning environments that are possible. But even if you can't get funding for a rain forest, there are a few simple things you can do to help me feel at home in any ordinary learning environment.

You can give me a couple of natural things to look at, a place to rest my eyes. Just a few posters of mountains or waterfalls, a fish tank screen-saver, a piece of driftwood on a shelf, a shell. It doesn't have to be much. The short breather will help me work harder. I would like to hear some natural sounds. Once in a while, could you play a recording of whale song or a thunderstorm, instead of background music? Or at least, let me be quiet. Don't make me talk and interact all the time. It will help the quality of my relations with others.

Give me some freedom to choose my topics in reading, writing, science, and social studies reporting. To paraphrase Annie Dillard, in the time I am writing this, the galaxy is careening, hundreds of solar systems are being born, the sun's surface is exploding, winds are blowing, caribou are moving across the tundra, sharks are moving up and down the coast, a moth is crawling, a snake is stirring (Dillard 97 -99). These are the things that fascinate me -- the sum total of all different cycles of nature. I will not run out of topics.

These simple steps will help me persevere and succeed. Since all students have a combination of intelligences, I believe many of them will enjoy these changes as well. Strengthening our naturalist skills may enable us to help society one day.

Gwen Lanning is a fifth grade teacher of reading, English/language arts, and social studies at a school in the Fort Bend Independent School District near Houston, Texas. Her children displayed naturalist intelligence, and wishes their schools had done more to encourage their interests.



  • Benyus, Janine M. Biomimicry. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1997.
  • The First Sevenand the Eighth: A Conversation with Howard Gardner.Educational Leadership 55(1):8-13. 1997.
  • Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek New York: Harper's Magazine Press, 1974.
  • Edutopia Furger, Roberta, spring 2004.
  • Kingsolver, Barbara. Small Wonder New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002.
  • Rand, Harry. Hundertwasser Kln: Benedikt Taschen, 1991.

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