Learn how Sharing Nature activities enhance learning, its wellness benefits, how it promotes human qualities, environmental stewardship, and finally how it enhances the spirit.
“Actually experience what it is like to be part of the natural world.”
– National Audubon Society, Manhattan, New York, on Sharing Nature training
Sharing Nature & The Shift
‘The Shift’ is the name we have given to a mega trend in society and economy in the western world towards greater acceptance of, and demand for, a set of skills commonly called right brain thinking. A shift away from left-brain dominance on which industrial and information ages were built. These new skills are creativity, meaning making, pattern recognition, big picture thinking, empathy and so on. The shift is described in greater detail here.
Sharing Nature workshops involve hands-on activities that lead to engaging emotional experiences in Nature. Since there is no “study” of nature involved nor is there any emphasis on learning facts, both of which would require a participant to use left brain to process these inputs. What is emphasized is one’s direct and uplifted experience. Sharing Nature is almost entirely focused on right brain learning as it enhances imagination, collaboration, a deep connection with Nature and promotes a care of all that is living.
In his 2018 book “Deep Nature Play: A Guide to Wholeness, Aliveness, Creativity, and Inspired Learning” Joseph Cornell describes scientific evidence for multi-dimensional benefits of deep play in Nature and recounts personal experiences from over four decades of facilitating Sharing Nature games and activities in U.S and across the world. In the following passages we quote extensively from the book.
© Joseph Bharat Cornell. 2016.
Sharing Nature Enhances Learning
Young children are like sponges: they absorb the world around them. Their innocence and their heightened attentiveness and awareness enable them to soak up experiences and information effortlessly.
In her book Original Mind, neuroscience pioneer Dee Joy Coulter, drawing on contemporary brain research, reports that “[m]ost children under the age of six live in a realm of direct experiencing, engaging the senses, and becoming absorbed in events as they occur without activating the constant mental chatter of the adult mind.”
Maria Montessori said that if you compare the learning ability of an adult with that of a child, you will find that an adult requires sixty years of hard work to match what a young child can learn in three. As people age the natural openness, confidence, and adaptability of their early childhood years generally subside, to be replaced by such inhibitors as self-criticism and fear, inhibitors that often stifle an adult s ability to learn. Two of the benefits of deep play—self-forgetfulness and living in the present—effectively quiet critical self-talk and other habits harmful to one’s capacity to learn.
Imagination and Creativity
Albert Einstein could visualize a concept and see the unseen. It was by this means that he discovered the theory of general relativity, which has been called the most influential theory in the history of modern science. “Imagination,” Einstein once said, “is more important than knowledge,” because knowledge tells us only what is known already whereas imagination tells us what can be. Play is imaginative; and play’s openness, aliveness, and newness are essential to creativity.
Play is also immersive; it absorbs us in the object of our play. In the movie Billy Elliot, a poor Irish boy learns how to dance. When Billy is asked why he likes to dance, he replies, “I forget myself completely. I’m just there. Flying like a bird.” Young children, Maria Montessori said, have an “absorbent mind,” and they become immersed in their universe. Adults and adolescents can also, through deep play activity, re-experience a child’s profound connection with the world.
when certain neural pathways in the human brain are never connected, or die off from disuse, one’s ability to function in ways associated with those brain pathways is diminished. The Swedish Pediatrics Institute found, for example, that children with little imagination, when confronted with an unpleasant, demeaning, or threatening situation, would lash out; they were simply unable to imagine an alternative response. Children with a strong sense of imagination, on the other hand, were far less prone to violence, because they could create an alternative inner scenario and thus respond harmoniously.
The qualities of deep play—self-forgetfulness, total immersion, timelessness, rapport and oneness with the focus of play—are also attributes of meditation. In deep stillness and expanded consciousness, the meditator can experience a flood of creative inspirations.
A child building a sandcastle; a scientist doing research in the laboratory; a painter experimenting with color—all use imagination to visualize a new creation. “Creativity,” it is said, “is intelligence having fun.”
It is also the innate human drive to improve upon life. A spirit of creativity provides the ability and self-confidence to navigate currents proactively. A creative person shapes—rather than being shaped by—outer circumstances. We each have head, heart, and two hands; how well we use them depends on our ability to transcend everyday thinking and its accompanying limitations—and to create new realities and possibilities.
Memory and Cognition
People used to believe that thinking and movement were completely separate activities. Carla Hannaford, author of Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head, saw a profound connection: “Learning, thought, creativity and intelligence are not processes of the brain alone, but of the whole body. . . . Memory is not stored [solely] in the brain [but in] neural pathways that fire together as patterns throughout the entire body.”
In the Meet a Tree game, a blindfolded player uses all his sensory faculties (except sight) to get to know a particular tree. Because the player experiences the tree through multiple faculties, it’s usually easy for him to find his tree again. I have seen how children can—months later—walk unerringly to their special tree.
Recent studies show that the physical senses are closely connected to memory and cognition. “As we grow older, we get more forgetful and distracted in large part because our brain does not process what we hear, see, and feel as well as it once did.” (Brain HQ) Because play requires focus and total involvement, and activates multiple centers of perception and cognition across the whole brain, it supercharges learning and memory.
The variety of learning modes enhanced [Sharing Nature training participant] Johann’s imagination, intuition, reason, empathy, and love, as well as his kinesthetic and sensory awareness, and thus enriched his appreciation and understanding of trees. Sharing Nature exercises activate multiple centers of perception and cognition; they stimulate different parts of the brain and strengthen the neural connections between brain regions, thereby enhancing understanding, long-term memory, and creativity.
In 2010 two Harvard researchers, Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, discovered that adults think about something other than what they’re doing 47 percent of the time. Games that heighten the physical senses can curtail the mind’s tendency to wander and thus bring us more fully into the present.
Play is a state of mind. Play’s openness, limitlessness, connectedness, positivity, and harmony express our highest human qualities. To receive the full benefit of play, focus your attention wholly on the play activity. Let nothing else exist. In the following passage, John Muir praises the experience of the total concentration of a mountain climber:
In climbing where the danger is great, all attention has to be given the ground step by step, leaving nothing for beauty by the way. But this care, so keenly and narrowly concentrated, is not without advantages. One is thoroughly aroused. Compared with the alertness of the senses [at such times], one may be said to sleep all the rest of the year.
“We need the tonic of wildness.”
— Henry David Thoreau
A child’s brain is designed to learn, an adult’s brain is designed to perform. A self-critical focus on performance can lead adults to self-censor themselves: “Is my performance good enough?” People spend much of their time conversing with themselves. We generally speak to ourselves ten to twenty times faster than we can speak out loud. Psychologists estimate that the average person entertains 1,300 self-talk thoughts a minute. Because the mind sees in pictures, it can grasp a thought in a nanosecond (one billionth of a second). For most people, the majority of self-talk thoughts (60 to 85 percent) are negative.
Self-consciousness is the greatest inhibitor to creativity. How can we discover anything new if we are recycling past thoughts—and perhaps insecurities—over and over in our minds? For creativity to flower, it must grow free of old patterns of thinking and being.
Children are uninhibited and naturally spontaneous; in their enthusiasm, they jump feet first into whatever they’re doing. Through creative play, adults and adolescents can reclaim their innate spontaneity. If self-preoccupation is the death knell of creativity, play’s accompanying self-forgetfulness is its rebirth.
The elements of deep play are essential to an engrossing experience of nature. The attributes of deep play are: being fully in the moment; experiencing a sense of timelessness; feeling deep rapport with the focus of play (e.g., elation at seeing geese emerge from the fog, gratitude for the woodlands exquisite beauty), and having a diminished consciousness of self. Learning requires keen attention. Self-forgetfulness and deep receptivity—hallmarks of deep play—enable us to apply our entire being to the task at hand.
The Flow Learning Process
Flow Learning is a teaching system that creates an accelerating flow of inspiration. During its four-step process, players and play become harmoniously united. (Continued here.)
Sharing Nature Enhances Wellness
Care for the Elderly
My friend Renata once played Sounds, a simple sensory awareness game, with her seventy-three-year-old Lithuanian grandmother, Mary, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Since the onset of Alzheimer’s, Mary has been always anxious and restless; it’s been difficult to find any activity—even walking in nature—that can calm her anxiety.
During one visit, Renata took Mary into the backyard garden. Renata asked Mary to close her eyes and listen to the sounds around her. “Grandma,” she asked, “can you raise a finger for each sound you hear?”
For eight minutes, Grandma listened attentively to the sounds around her, raising her fingers at each different sound. Then, opening her eyes, she began carefully listing each sound she’d heard: a bird, a car, people talking, the wind in the leaves, her granddaughter breathing, and an insect flying by.
After just a few minutes of playing the Sounds game, to Renata’s amazement, Mary was transformed. She had become calm and focused, and her face was shining with joy. For nearly an hour afterwards, Mary’s calmness remained.
“If nature contact were a medication, we would be prescribing it to everybody.”
— Howard Frumkin, Dean, School of Public Health, University of Washington
Overcoming Anxiety and Stress
Playfully swimming in the great ocean of life, swimmers feel their spirit soar—that all their actions are expressions of a joyful flow. Our friend “Parisa” described such an experience of exhilarating play and how it radically transformed her outlook, bringing her both outward success and inward fulfillment.
Growing up in Persia (now Iran), Parisa had a special love for her country’s beauty. She married and moved to Canada; some years later she began taking courses for an advanced degree in biochemistry. While preparing for her PhD oral exam, Parisa studied intensely, memorizing thousands of facts.
When her husband asked her to join him on a business trip to the Canadian Rockies, she at first resisted, not wanting to interrupt her study, but finally agreed to go. Her husband attended his meetings; Parisa, absorbed in her studies, never left the hotel room.
After the conference was over, Parisa’s husband convinced her to take a break from studying and spend some time walking in the mountains. As she reached a low-lying ridge, Parisa beheld the crest of the Canadian Rockies, a sight that reminded her of her childhood summers climbing joyfully in the mountains of Persia.
Running like a mountain goat, she scaled a nearby summit. She gazed at the vast range of peaks before her, and felt an overwhelming sense of stillness—a profound oneness with the towering mountains and blue sky. In that moment of exaltation Parisa realized that her exams meant nothing to her. Her joy in connectedness was all that mattered.
The experience of inner connection stayed with Parisa even after returning home. She felt relaxed and happy during her oral exams. Easily answering every question fired at her by the examining committee, Parisa successfully passed the exam and received her degree.
In her uplifted state, Parisa’s consciousness had shifted from the tense mental grind of a graduate student cramming for exams to the peacefully absorbed and joyful state of a child at play.”
Sharing Nature Enhances Human Qualities
We are physical, mental, feeling, and spiritual beings; our learning and life activities should address and nurture our whole nature. Because of its multifaceted character, play can enhance many valuable human qualities: openness, curiosity, wholeheartedness, self-confidence, attentiveness, self-control, calmness, imaginativeness, and optimism.
Vygotsky spoke of two sisters, ages seven and five, who—like most siblings—sometimes played together, sometimes ignored each other, and sometimes fought with each other. When the sisters decided to play at being sisters, however, they began to dress alike, talk alike, and walk with their arms around each other. Playing sisters caused the girls to reflect on what sisterhood meant to them, on how sisters would behave toward one another. By acting in accordance with their idealized image of sisterhood, their interactions with one another became more intentional. Playing sisters, rather than being sisters, transformed their relationship: Such is the power of play.
Play makes us feel intensely alive. We are at our best when we play, and the resulting joy we feel is highly contagious. As we relate with others on play’s loftier levels, shared elation strengthens group cohesion.
On the German-Polish border in the mid-1990s, I gave a three- hour workshop for a lively and diverse group: forty German teenagers, twenty-five German educators, and seventeen mentally challenged Scottish teenagers. Because the program was in the former East Germany, few of the Germans spoke English; none of the Scots spoke German.
I began the session with playful games to awaken everyone’s enthusiasm and to make learning joyful. It was heartwarming to observe small groups of Germans and Scots communicating with one another despite differences in language, age, and intellectual ability. I could see growing in the group a beautiful rapport and family feeling.
To increase the group’s receptivity, we played calming sensoryawareness activities; then, for a direct experience of nature, we played the Journey to the Heart of Nature exercise, in which each person discovers a special place in nature. The Germans and Scots were so focused on and absorbed in the natural setting, and in the experiential exercises, that it felt as if we were in a group meditation. It was moving to observe the group’s closeness with nature and with one another.”
Sharing Nature and Environmental Stewardship
Scientists know today that forests behave like cooperative communities: Individual trees share resources with one another and thus help the whole forest thrive. Even feeble trees—sustained by stronger trees—are essential to woodland vitality; they keep the canopy cover intact, thereby preventing hot sun and wind from heating the cool, moist air beneath the canopy.
Just as every woodland tree plays a crucial role in maintaining forest health, so each of us can play a beneficial role in life. Deep play, by uniting us with others and with nature, can prepare us to play our life roles with beauty and grace. Play can become a doorway to a new self, one much more in tune with the world.
As a participant in a Sharing Nature workshop, Johann interacted with trees in a variety of innovative ways. First, he and his co-participants, foresters from all over Germany, built a tree together. Several foresters acted out each tree part—tap root, lateral roots, sapwood, cambium, phloem, and bark—and in doing so experienced the nature and function of that tree part kinesthetically.
Johann was then guided through a visualization of himself as a deciduous tree, living through the seasons of the year. During the guided imagery, Johann planted himself firmly in the earth, spread his branches out, drew nourishment from the sun and sky, and turned air and light into life. With his sheltering branches, Johann cooled the summer air and warmed the winter air, thus making a more favorable environment for other life forms. Reenacting a tree’s life enabled him to experience personally the role trees play in the forest ecosystem and to feel in himself many of the noble qualities of trees. By imagining himself living as a tree and nurturing the nearby plants and animals, Johann strengthened his sense of stewardship and love for the earth.
Sharing Nature Enhances the Spirit
Studies have shown that those who have had a spiritual awakening outdoors have usually been alone, and in a state of heightened openness. Deep play is essentially a personal, internalized experience, even if one is with other people. Focus Attention games pave the way for uplifting experiences by increasing our receptivity.
True understanding, philosopher Henri Bergson said, comes by “transport [ing] oneself to the interior of an object” to discover its “ineffable quality.” Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock revolutionized the field of molecular biology by placing herself inside the corn genes and chromosomes she studied while viewing them under a microscope. She attributed her pioneering discoveries to “having a feeling for the organism”:
The more I worked with them the bigger and bigger [they] got, and when I was really working with them I wasn’t outside, .. I was part of the system. . . . and everything got big. I … was able to see the internal parts of the chromosomes. It surprised me because I actually felt as if I were right down there and these were my friends.
“Before painting a bamboo,” said Su Tung-P’o, “you must make it grow inside you.” In Sharing Nature’s I Am the Mountain exercise, the clouds, the hills, all nature become vividly alive. The player observes a beautiful part of nature, such as a stately oak, and then tries to feel the oak’s essence inwardly—its spreading canopy, its swaying branches. The goal is to feel a living communion with the tree.
Becoming one with something “other” is the secret of creativity. Profound moments of rapport—with a deer, a flower, or a flock of sandpipers—inspire us to discover, and explore, new and enthralling worlds.
The simple phrase “let’s pretend” opens new vistas of creative insight. These magical words give us permission and freedom to suspend rationality—to think outside the box. Players of Sharing Nature’s Interview with Nature pretend that everything in nature is alive and conscious; as they interview such natural elements as a tree, a bird, or a rock, they write down the responses they sense.
When I introduced Interview with Nature during a workshop in the New Forest in Southern England, I saw a warden with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds looking at me skeptically. Nonetheless he decided to give the activity a try (even if the idea of conversing with a tree seemed peculiar to him); upon his return, he announced enthusiastically, “I had the loveliest conversation with a warbler!”
The thought “I am alive, and everything else is too” radically changes our experience of life. When we recognize that we share a universal aliveness, we feel united with the rest of creation.
The essential quality of creativity is the human drive to improve upon life. In nature play we can experience the highest part of ourselves, and discover the life that is improved upon—even transformed—is our own.
For most adults, said Coulter, “a second glance at a flower registers automatically as the same flower.” Deep play can help us see the world with fresh eyes. Especially effective to this end is Camera, one of the most popular Sharing Nature games—and one which offers players powerful moments of pure awareness.
The game is played with two people: one person is the photographer and the other the camera. The photographer silently guides the camera, whose eyes are closed, on a search for captivating pictures. The photographer, seeing something appealing, points the camera to frame the object. The photographer then taps the shoulder of the camera as a signal for the cameras eyes to open. Three seconds later the shoulder is tapped again, and the cameras eyes close. This three-second “exposure” has the impact of surprise and intensity: many players remember their photographs for five or more years, a testament to the acute focus the “camera” brings to the photos.
The one-pointed focus of Camera quiets the mind, thereby allowing the mind to act as a mirror, like a calm mountain lake reflecting a blue sky. Players of Camera receive into their consciousness the world around them.
During deep play, as you realize you have, in a very real sense, become a tree or an animal, the distinction between you and that tree or animal can disappear altogether.