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Nature As Nurturer

As featured in Gainesville Today Magazine, February 2010 (Column:  Education Matters)
By Christina Miller

Harvard Professor and childhood development expert, Howard Gardner identified seven intelligences in children.

Aside from what we have long understood about the seven intelligences which are logical-mathematical, linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, musical and both 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, liking and preferring to be outside observing natural things, analyzing how things are different or similar at a young age, easily classifying things in the natural world by characteristics, and showing 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 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 wouldn’t eat in the environment she had prepared. She tried worms, and then offered her “pet” crickets (which she knew was a yummy treat through her creatively advanced five-year-old research.) After the snakes spurned the crickets and 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 or several in differing degrees. It is important for us as educators and parents to appreciate the importance of providing natural experiences for children as well as understanding how it impacts a child’s development.

It is the job of the adults in children’s lives to provide them 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.

The importance of a child’s opportunity to learn does not have to always be in the middle of the woods. It can take place in a yard or while observing cloud shapes, it can happen while listening to the sounds of birds or studying flower petals, or perhaps, listening to a train heading off in the distance.

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.”

This sounds like a good quote to pull out:

“A child’s learning can take place in a yard or while observing cloud shapes. It can happen while listening to bird sounds or studying flowers petals, or perhaps, listening to a train heading off in the distance”.

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