Sunday, July 28, 2013

NATURE TIP #4: You Don't Need to Be an Expert!

Many parents and teachers are intimidated to take children out into nature for fear that the kids will ask questions the adult can’t answer. The truth of the matter is that very few people are true nature experts, able to identify the bulk of plants and animals in a given region, or address queries about rocks, clouds, and waterways. And the great news is that you don’t need to be an expert! You simply need to take kids outside, show enthusiasm and respect for the outdoors, and let the child lead the way. If kids ask questions you can’t answer, work together to come up with some plausible explanations and perhaps continue the discovery on the computer when you get home, figuring out the answers together. While out in nature, take on the role of mentor rather than teacher. That means questions are typically far more powerful than answers.  Watch the child carefully, find out what they’re interested in—perhaps some insect, bird, or tree—and then ask them something about it. “Why do you think that squirrel spends so much time in trees?” “How big do you think that cloud really is?” The key is to power up imaginations and help to inspire wonder and awe. Oh yeah, and have fun! 

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Seeking Help on My Current Book

I believe that the disconnect between humans and nature ranks among the most pressing and overlooked crises of our time, threatening the healthy of children and adults, and the places they live.

Countless organizations--from natural history museums to zoos to botanic gardens to environmental educators--claim to be connecting people with nature. But when I went out searching for a single, encompassing how-to guide on nature connection, I couldn't find one. As a result, following several years of research, I'm now immersed in writing a general audience book (for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Press) on this subject, researching the art and science of connecting people (and especially kids) with nature.

I know that many of you have a love of nature, as well as experience connecting others to the natural world. So I'm seeking your assistance. If you know of any great ways to forge an emotional bond between children and nearby nature, please share them with me. Perhaps you know of some recent amazing study, or an organization out there worth profiling. If so, I would be most grateful if you'd share these insights with me. Who knows, maybe your example will end up in the book together with an acknowledgement to you for your contribution!

The 21st Century is the age of crowd-sourcing. Thanks very much in advance to all of you wise owls for sharing your collective knowledge!!

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Monday, July 8, 2013

NATURE TIP #3: Sit-Spot Practice

Find a place close to home that’s immersed in a natural (or semi-natural) setting. Ideally, this place will be in your backyard, so that it’s easy to get to. Visit this spot regularly—preferably daily or at least several times a week—and sit quietly there, observing with all your senses. Stay each time for 30-40 minutes, breaking visits into 10-minute intervals. Listen for birds and other animals, tracking your observations with notes and pictures in a nature journal. Encourage the kids in your life to do the same. In this way, with a little patience, anyone can learn the local “bird language,” the acquired skill of understanding the meaning of local animal calls and movements. Sit spot practice will get you in touch with all the wild nature events happening daily around your home. Pretty soon, those random birds will become characters with individual personalities that inform you about the current “mood” of the neighborhood. For more information, check out at a pair of books by Jon Young: “What the Robin Knows” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) and “Coyotes Guide to Connecting with Nature, Second Edition” (Owlink, 2010, with E. Haas and E. McGown). 

Monday, July 1, 2013

NATURE TIP #2: Venture into the Bubble

An essential ingredient of nature connection is learning to see animals, plants, and other life forms as subjects rather than objects. Young kids do this instinctively. Yet, unfortunately, most of us “grow out of it” during our middle childhood years. One of the best ways I know to maintain and foster this kind of attitude is the “soap bubble technique,” invented by German biologist Jakob von Uexküll. Head outside and picture every creature surrounded by a soap bubble that represents its own individual sensory world. Now imagine being able to step inside the bubble of your choice—say, of a robin, earthworm, or butterfly. No matter what your selection, your world becomes transformed. Because all creatures have highly specialized senses, the experience of colors, smells, tastes, and sounds is very different in your chosen bubble world, as are your motivations. Encourage kids to find their favorite animal, enter the imaginary bubble, and experience this alternate world. To spur thoughts in the right direction, you might ask, “Why do you think that creature is acting that way?” Of course, the soap bubble technique is aided by some knowledge of the sensory world of the creature in question, but such understanding isn’t necessary. It’s the imagination that counts most. Best of all, by adding on new layers of knowledge, this approach can be used effectively with preschoolers all the way up to “university graduate schoolers,” offering an amazing outdoor educational tool. 

Sunday, June 30, 2013

NATURE TIP #1: Engage the Senses

Whenever possible, head outside and explore the multisensory world of nature in all its glory. Too often these days, we are overly dependent on our eyes and, as a result, closed to luscious scents, birdsong, or the feeling of dirt between our toes. An emotional connection with nature is built on a foundation of firsthand experience that taps into the full sensory range. For kids, consider setting up a short outdoor rope course and invite them to navigate it barefoot and blindfolded, perhaps identifying landmarks along the way. Or ask them to close their eyes and name every sound they can hear at different points along a forest stroll. Nighttime walks, preferably in a natural place like a park, forest, or beach, are another magnificent way to engage neglected senses. For a bounty of other sensory-expanding ideas, check out books like Joseph Cornell’s “Sharing Nature With Children” (Dawn, 1998), or Jennifer Ward’s “I Love Dirt! (Trumpeter, 2008).

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


As a few of you have heard, next month I will be moving my life from the San Francisco Bay area to Denver, Colorado to take on the role of vice president of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. I am thrilled to be joining the DMNS, one of the top-ranked natural history museums in the country. At this pivotal moment in human history, museums of natural history have great potential to help heal the divide that separates humans from nature, and the DMNS is poised to take a leading role.

I have been serving on the DMNS board of trustees for a couple of years now, and thus have had a chance to get to know this remarkable institution and its leadership. The Museum has already committed itself to moving beyond the 19th Century “cabinets of curiosities” approach. Rather than being simply a destination where people go to see old stuff and absorb information, the revolutionary new way of thinking entails two-way interactions with the community, and a much higher degree of relevance.  

When my good friend Kirk Johnson departed the VP role at the DMNS to take on the directorship of the Smithonsian Natural History Museum, he suggested that a move to Denver might be just the ticket, allowing me to pursue my passion of connecting people with nature. I came to agree wholeheartedly, and am honored that the Museum has chosen to bring me into their fold. Fortunately, along with heading up the research division, joining a talented leadership team, and working with the local community, I’ll have the opportunity to keep doing some dinosaur research and media work like Dinosaur Train.

So all in all, it’s a dream job for a kid who never quite grew up!

I hope to see you all in Denver as the DMNS embraces novel, exciting, and revolutionary ways to explore and reconnect people with the natural world!

(Note that the DMNS logo is a whirlpool of sorts. Coincidence?)

Top image Credit: 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Human-Nature Divide

 Every year, NY literary agent John Brockman asks a group of folks to answer the "Edge Annual Question." This year's query is, "What should we be worried about." Below is my answer, a blend of some recent blog posts plus a new idea or two. Hope you enjoy. And feel free to check out this answer and the many other responses on Brockman's Edge website

We should all be worried about the gaping psychological chasm separating humanity from nature. Indeed a strong argument can be made that bridging this divide deserves to be ranked amongst the most urgent 21st Century priorities. Yet so far the human-nature divide hasn’t even made it to our cultural to-do list.

For the past several decades, numerous scientists and environmentalists have been telling us that we must change our ways and strike a balance with nature, or face catastrophic consequences. I myself have often participated in this echo chamber, doling out dire statistics in hopes of engaging people in action. The unspoken assumption has been that cold, hard facts are all that’s needed for people (including business people and elected officials) to “get it” and alter their unsustainable ways. To date, however, virtually all the key indicators—from greenhouse gas emissions to habitat and species losses—are still heading in the wrong direction. The blade of the “hockey stick” continues to lengthen.

The problem is, humans aren’t rational creatures. At least, not when it comes to shifting their behaviors. As marketing executives have long understood, humans are far more susceptible to emotional messages, especially when conveyed through imagery. Want to escalate sales of some new car model? Beautiful people driving through pristine natural settings are far more powerful motivators than statistics on horsepower and fuel efficiency.

But what emotion is needed to foster a sustainable shift in human behavior? In a word, love.

As the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould once claimed in an uncharacteristic moment of sentimentality, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature—for we will not fight to save what we do not love.” The good news is that, thanks to a lengthy evolutionary tenure living in intimate contact with the nonhuman world, the capacity to form an emotional attachment with nature probably lays dormant within all of us, waiting to be reawakened (think E. O. Wilson’s “biophilia”).

The bad news is that, as a species, we’ve never been more disconnected from the natural world. Thanks to a variety of factors—among them fear of strangers and an obsession with screens—children’s firsthand encounters with nature in the developed world have dropped precipitously to less than 10% of what they were just one generation ago. The average American youth now spends seven to ten hours per day staring at screens compared to a mere handful of minutes in any “natural” setting. The result of this indoor migration is a runaway health crisis, both for children (obesity, ADHD, stress, etc.) and the places they live.

Science has been one of the primary forces driving a wedge between humans and nature, prompting us to see nature as objects rather than subjects, resources to be exploited rather than relatives to be respected. Yet science, particularly over the past few decades, has also empirically demonstrated our complete embeddedness within nature, from the trillions of bacterial cells that far outnumber human cells in our bodies to our role as newbie actors in the 14 billion-year evolutionary epic.
Do we need more science? Of course, and the general public must learn the necessary facts, dire and difficult though they may be. We’re also going to need all the technological help we can get to help us navigate a sustainable path into the future. Yet knowledge and technology without emotional connection simply won’t cut it. The next generation of humans must learn to see their relationship with the natural world in ways that will seem alien to our current anthropocentric, reductionist, and materialistic perspective.