Sensory learning and our environment

"First, the education of the senses, then, the education of the intellect."
Maria Montessori

A young girl explores a bug up close in her hands A child's wellies splashing through muddy puddles

Many current initiatives to engage more people with the environment through outdoor leisure activities will not foster a sense of stewardship nor encourage people to take an active interest in the environment and in issues such as climate change and resource scarcity. In fact, reducing the natural environment to the status of a leisure facility on a par with a swimming pool or skate park rather than understanding it as something that supports us and requires our support in return may well increase the emotional gulf between western-urban people and the environment. To promote a sense of responsibility and stewardship, nature experiences should be more meaningful than mountain biking through a Sitka spruce plantation.

Despite the fact that we are born into and remain part of the global ecosystem throughout our lives, it is a widely held belief that human beings are somehow apart from the rest of nature. In fact, the single thing that separates us from nature is our use of language as our primary tool of communication. While we interact with each other through spoken and written language, the remainder of the ecosystem “achieves its beauty and perfection through non-language communication and relationships.” (Michael J Cohen in an interview with F Richard Schneider PhD)

Three elders sitting outside and each smelling a bouquet of flowersA close up of a hand holding a sweet scented flower

Cohen goes on to say that to be part of any system, we have to communicate with it. Because the rest of the ecosystem doesn’t speak our language, we have over 50 natural senses with which to communicate with it. For example, when in a natural place, our sensations of thirst, motion, trust, belonging, colour, place, taste, temperature, beauty and community are all natural system connections and non-language communications that we experience through our senses.

Therefore, in order to engage people more fully in the natural environment these sensory, non-language communications should be understood and employed in meaningful activities in creative and active involvement with the environment. In order to forge strong emotional ties between participants and the environment, these activities should understand and employ the rich sources of sensory stimulation that are abundant in nature. Be prepared to get your hands dirty.

A multisensory learning experience with combinations of visual, auditory and other sensory functions exploits the natural connectivity of the brain. As each sense holds a proprietary “memory location” within the brain, the effective orchestration of multiple sensory inputs ensures a wider degree of neural stimulation (Wolfe 2001). This creates stronger memories by virtue of its collaborative effect, thereby enhancing the learning experience.

Children engaging with multisensory nature experiences in the woods

The strength of these “experience memories” also depends in large part on their associated emotional attachment. Because sensory memories are stored in fragments across the cerebral cortex (the more senses are engaged, the more memory fragments), they must be retrieved and reassembled (Kotulak 1997). The hippocampus is responsible for both storage and retrieval of these loosely linked memories and is a key component of the limbic system. The limbic system itself contributes emotional meaning to these fragmented elements. Also controlled by the limbic system is motivation, and it is conjectured that these two aspects of our mental processes are closely related (Ortony et al 1994).

It is therefore likely that a multisensory experiential approach to learning about the natural world will succeed not only in transferring new skills and knowledge but will also create and strengthen emotional connections with the natural world which will in turn have a positive effect on motivation and the desire to maintain these connections. Only sensory learning can engage people emotionally and foster a sense of stewardship.

Responsible stewardship will happen only if people can be re-awakened to a childlike sense of wonder. Individuals must first develop an awareness and excitement about the natural environment. This must be followed by an understanding of the interaction of plants, animals and people in natural and man-made communities. With understanding comes a concern for the present state of the environment and an exploration of ways to reverse negative trends. Finally, activism can initiate positive changes. Unless people’s environmental growth is properly developed, activism will probably not be sustained over long periods”.
Hlubik, W.T. et al

See also:


SNAP (Sensory Nature, Adventure and Play) - bringing nature into the lives of children with disabilities and their families.

Benefits of contact with nature for everyone? - article outlining barriers that prevent some groups accessing the benefits

Go Outside and Play - article outlining the benefits of play and spending time outdoors