Thursday, June 23, 2011

Develop Your Child’s Naturalist Intelligence

When Howard Gardner first outlined his theory of Multiple Intelligences (Frames of Mind, 1983) – a model of thought that differentiates "intelligence" into various sensory modalities, rather than seeing it as a single general ability – it did not include the Naturalist Intelligence. It wasn’t introduced to his list of intelligences until the late 90s (Intelligence Reframed, 1999), after Gardner realized that the understanding of nature and living things was not sufficiently covered by the original seven intelligences (verbal/linguistic; mathematical/logical; spatial; kinesthetic; musical; interpersonal; and intrapersonal intelligence). He introduced and defined the Naturalist Intelligence with:

The very term naturalist combines a description of the core ability with a characterization of a role that many cultures value. A naturalist demonstrates expertise in the recognition and classification of the numerous species -- the flora and fauna -- of his or her environment (Gardner 1999: 48). (Read more here:

In this chapter, Gardner stated that “the naturalist’s intelligence proves as firmly entrenched as the other intelligences,” of no less importance than any of the others, and “every culture prizes people who not only can recognize members of a species that are especially valuable or notably dangerous but also can appropriately categorize new or unfamiliar organisms.” In addition, he recognized that “just as most ordinary children readily master language at an early age, so too are most children predisposed to explore the world of nature;” however, some individuals display more acute disposition these skills and traits than others. Some characteristics of a “naturally intelligent” person include:
  • Ability to make justifying distinctions, visually or non-visually, of both living and non-living items.
  • Comfort and interest in the world of organisms.
  • Talent in caring for or interacting with living species.
  • Detection of novel patterns or styles.
  • Drive to identify and classify natural and artificial objects.
  • Early fascination with plants, animals, natural phenomena and the surrounding environment.
  • Affinity for symbols (linguistic and taxonomic) – identifying, representing and recording features and phenomena.
Basically, someone with a keen Natural Intelligence can recognize and classify individuals, species and ecological relationships, relate information to one’s surroundings, interact effectively with living creatures, and discern patterns of life and natural forces. Careers well-suited for these “nature smart” people include farmers, park rangers, gardeners, florists, naturalists, biologists, environmentalists, taxonomists, fishermen/women, zookeepers and veterinarians.

An interesting point that Gardner mentions is that most children seem innately predisposed to these traits and have an inherent interest in exploring the natural world (read this NWF blogpost about “Why Kids Explore Nature Better Than We Do.”) Unfortunately, with today’s children and adults spending nearly 99% of their day indoors, separated from nature and the environment, many individuals with Natural Intelligence may never identify their skills and interests in this area, and this natural curiosity in so many children slowly fades away. According to Gardner, and many other educators and proponents of his theory, individuals demonstrating certain intelligences should be nurtured and encouraged to explore and utilize their talents, fully reaching their potential, and pursuing career and lifestyle choices that are fulfilling and do not stifle their creativity and intelligence. With today’s busy schedules and increasingly urban lifestyles, families’ outdoor recreation time is reduced and children’s Naturalist Intelligence may not be discovered or developed. However, it is quite simple to determine if your child displays a Naturalist Intelligence, and there are many ways you can encourage them to realize and nurture these traits.

Does your child:
  • Enjoy being outside or participating in activities such as camping, fishing or hiking?
  • Enjoy reading books or watching programs about nature or animals?
  • Notice patterns, interconnections or subtle differences easily?
  • Enjoy collecting and sorting objects?
  • Observe and remember events, phenomena and objects from his/her environment?
  • Have keen senses?
  • Keep written records, drawings, scrapbooks or photos?
  • Show awareness and concern for plants, animals or the environment?
  • Easily learn categorizations, characteristics, data and names for animate and inanimate objects?
You might have a budding naturalist on your hands! If so, there are plenty of ways you can facilitate activities and experiences that will nurture their Naturalist Intelligence. 

Here are some ideas:
  • Send your kids outside - with no agenda! Unstructured outdoor play is an increasing rarity in most kids’ lives, but this is when they are best able to explore, collect, observe, climb, dig, splash, imagine and fully interact with nature.
  • Go for a family hike or campout. Here are tips and info on how to be prepared and have fun when hiking and camping with kids. You can also canoe, climb, kayak, fish, bike, birdwatch… or try these fun activities with Nature Passport.
  • Garden together. From a community plot to a backyard garden-bed to an urban windowbox, planting seeds and watching them sprout and grow is a great way for kids to really connect with the lifecycles of nature. They will have fun selecting plants, watering and cultivating, and best of all, tasting and cooking – they might even eat their vegetables! Here are some tips and resources for gardening with kids.
  • Start nature journals. From a simple notebook or sketchbook to a fieldguide or a Nature Passport, you can help your kids observe and record the world around them in whatever fashion they prefer. You can also tap into other intelligences, encouraging them to write, draw, discuss, map, label, measure, or collect specimens.
  • Bring the nature indoors. While getting kids outside is always best, you can also infuse nature into rainy days, reading time and roadtrips. Set up nature story-time or check out nature-themed books from the library, watch nature shows and movies, play with nature-based technology, do nature-themed craft projects, cook meals with natural ingredients, do nature puzzles, play nature games, decorate bedrooms with nature art or posters, and play with plant and animal toys.
  • Start a family nature club! Meet others with similar ages, interests or geography, and find information and ideas for nature activities and outings. Combine resources to learn about events and programs, get motivated, make friends, carpool, meet up, and have fun.
  • Sign your family up for classes, programs and summer camps at nearby nature centers, parks, gardens or museums. (To learn about local opportunities, check out Nature Net’s Events Calendar, learn about Nature Net member sites, visit the Statewide Directory, or follow Nature Net on Facebook!)
  • Many other activity ideas herehere and here!
(PS – even if the Naturalist Intelligence isn’t prominent in your child, there are plenty of other reasons to get kids outside and interacting with nature, from physical and emotional health benefits, increased physical activity and decreased obesity, an improved sense of well-being, community benefits, improved behavior and learning, increased creativity and a sense of wonder. You can also find great connections between other intelligences and the natural world. Be creative!)

Most of all, have fun! Encourage curiosity and creativity, nurture inquiry, and don’t worry about a little mud here and there. Not only will your kids benefit from a cultivated Naturalist Intelligence, but they will have a deeper connection and empathy for the world around them – and lots of great memories too!