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Nature is a Classroom

Nature is a Classroom

The Important Education Children Can Only Learn from Being Outside 

By Christina Miller 

As Earth Day approaches on April 22nd, it brings into focus our relationship with the natural environment.  With so many of us leading busy lives, making room for nature requires a concerted effort. However, for young learners, the connection to the environment can benefit them with more than just fresh air. It can provide them with one of the crucial intelligences. 

An appreciation of how natural experiences impact children and align with their intelligence can help parents understand why this is so important and deserves to be a priority.  

Harvard Professor and childhood development expert, Howard Gardner identified seven intelligences in children. Aside from what we have long understood about the seven intelligences (logical-mathematical, linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal), Gardner and others have since identified an eighth intelligence—the naturalist intelligence. 

University of Wisconsin’s Leslie Wilson’s theories of learning describe these observable naturalistic traits in children as  

  • an ability to notice things that others do not  
  • a high interest caring for plants and animals  
  • the preference to be outside observing natural things  
  • a tendency to analyzing how things are different or similar at a young age  
  • an ability to easily classify things in the natural world by characteristics 
  • the showing of a greater than normal concern for the environment 

Personally, I recall a five-year-old student, named Kato, who attended my school in 1977. Her home’s windowsills were filled with small natural ecosystems and creatures she liked to tend and observe. Fortunately, her parents were very supportive of her collections and nurtured her naturalist intelligence. 

One day, she brought her aquarium, containing her treasured garter snakes, to school. Over time, she was distraught when they would not eat in the habitat she had prepared. She tried worms, and then offered her “pet” crickets (which she knew was a yummy treat for the snakes). After the snakes spurned the crickets and stressfully knotted themselves together, she assessed that they were “in distress” and needed to be released.  

With the somber silence and serious ceremony of a five-year-old, she carried the snakes into the woods behind the school. Tenderly, she pulled the snakes apart from their entanglement, and we released them. A tear rolled down her cheek. I was expecting that she would say how much she was going to miss her “pets.” Instead, she said, “I just love nature’s animals.” 

We know now that children have a capacity for Gardner’s intelligences in differing degrees. In Kato’s case, she clearly exhibited a strong naturalistic intelligence. So that all young students can discover their gifts and leanings, it is important for us as educators and parents to provide them with opportunities and experiences in the natural environment. We must also appreciate the importance of each of the unique intelligences and understand how they might impact a child’s development. 

It is the job of the adults in children’s lives to provide as many opportunities for sensorial experiences (through the five senses) as possible, especially outdoors. Children need to analyze, collect, observe, handle and not be afraid of the natural world. This is foremost in developing skills in natural science.  

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 The opportunity for a child to learn does not have to always be in the middle of the woods. It can take place in a yard or a park or walking barefoot on spongy grass. 

The author of “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv, said, “Perhaps the eighth intelligence is the intelligence within nature, the lessons waiting to be delivered if anyone shows up.” 

Let this Earth Day motivate you and your children to be more connected to the natural world. With the abundant variety of ecosystems in Greater Gainesville, there are many opportunities to do so. Visit the springs or the wetlands near Cedar Key. We are fortunate to have a prairie and many hiking trails to explore available nearby. When all else fails, a backyard is always a good place to start. 

Happy Earth Day 

 – Christina Miller. Owner/Head of School at the Millhopper Montessori School, LLC. MMS is an independent, for-profit Montessori school, founded by Miller in 1977. MMS serves children from age two through middle school, is accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools and is affiliated with the American Montessori Society. MMS is proud to have second-generation families and employed alumni, as well as a strong collaboration of past and present families. 

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