embodied learning

The importance of embodiment, arts expression and deep ecology in education

Towards Integral Education Part 1: Somatic, Ecological and Aesthetic Literacy

These pages are being constructed as a theoretical and practical resource for teachers who wish to incorporate more of the body,  deep ecology and the arts into their teaching work. They are based on my own training in these fields and productive discussions with:

Llewellyn Wishart, Lecturer in Early Childhood Education, Deakin UniversityCertified Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner,  


Alex Nicolson, my partner and master teacher of the Alexander Technique.


Three Neglected Ways of Knowing

The line of reasoning to be presented here, put simply, is that any attempts toward creating a more “integral education” system (Esbjorn-Harganes, Reams & Gunnlaugson, 2010) should  include the following alternative and somewhat marginalized ways of knowing:

–   Somatic learning: Knowing through embodiment

–   Ecological identity: Knowing through wider empathic connection

–   Aesthetic engagement (Poiesis): Knowing through art-making

These realms of early, largely non-verbal learning underpin and permeate our linguistic and logical ways of knowing, and rather than being considered optional “add-on” subjects they are best interwoven into the curriculum and daily classroom activities.

In order for this interweaving to be effective in the classroom, such ways of knowing need to be part of our own professional development as teachers in order to expand our capacity for wholeness, uncover our own hidden assumptions, and make more conscious what we exemplify: what we model by inclusion or omission, and what we transmit both verbally and non-verbally to our pupils.


Introducing the Fields

Somatic Education is an umbrella term to describe a group of movement re-educational methods which include the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method and Body-mind Centering.

Deep Ecology and Ecopsychology are fields which examine the ways in which our relationship with nature underpins our current misuse of the natural environment.

Arts Therapies include Music Therapy, Dance Therapy, Art Therapy, Poetry Therapy and intermodal Expressive Arts Therapy.

These fields are often only discovered “on the fringes” of mainstream education, psychology or medicine, once individuals (usually in adulthood) are struggling with chronic physical or emotional pain. All will be described in more depth in subsequent sections.


How many intelligences are there and how are they related?

The popular multiple intelligences approach, commonly pie-charting seven or eight intelligences, has made some inroads and “captured the contemporary educational imagination” (Davis, 2004, p.87).

Piechart Multiple Intelligences

Questions for reflection. Are there eight relatively self-contained domain specific intelligences? Are some intelligences more related than others? If you were to construct a genealogy or “tree” of intelligences, what would it look like?


Personal Story (RJF)

 I recently visited an innovative school that is boldly exploring open plan architecture to create spacious learning environments. I applaud the way this is tearing down the structures of the “small-classroom-with-desks-and-teacher-at-the-front” model of teaching that I grew up inside. I couldn’t help fantasizing that if I were to become a young student again in this new setting I might feel like a battery hen discovering an open range farm!

 On this tour I noticed a “learning matrix” on one of the noticeboards, which appeared to map current learning activities in columns based on a multiple intelligences model (modelled on Gardner’s work I presume). The following “smarts” were listed: nature smart, self smart, people smart, music smart, body smart, logic smart, picture smart and word smart. It brought to mind a pie-chart model of parallel, self-contained, domain-specific intelligences in which the “body” and “nature” as well as artistic and inter/intra-personal / “emotional” intelligences have been added alongside the more traditional mathematical and linguistic intelligences.

 But what if, I thought, our multiple intelligences are developmentally related, resembling a branching tree? What if our capacity for self-awareness and embodiment, empathy and ecological identity, and aesthetic sensitivity, are core-foundational elements which permeate and influence the operation of logical and verbal abilities? Shouldn’t these ways of knowing and learning underpin our education of the whole person?

 Returning to the idea of spacious learning, I reflect: Does the outer spaciousness of open plan architecture need to be complemented by the cultivation of an “interior, embodied spaciousness”?

A tree of intelligences?


The foundational nature of embodiment…aesthetics…ecological self…

“The foundations of knowledge are more visceral and aesthetic than generally recognized” (Rathunde, 2009, p.74).

All of us have “non-rational” experiences, such as “ah ha” moments when intuitions surface,  or when we feel “goose-bumps” or aesthetic rapture. . Cognitive labeling of such experiences, imbued with cultural stories and personal histories, can both filter our perceptions and shape our interpretations. They have been variously interpreted through human history as mystical epiphanies, religious revelations, and more recently, as our occasional access to unconscious brain and autonomic processes.

Although the “rational/empirical knowledge-is-superior” story still dominates many aspects of education, it no longer matches even what we know from sciences of the mind. It is becoming apparent that the “rational” beliefs and philosophies we hold dear are rarely the product of our rational deduction. Rather we gravitate to them because they confirm our somatic-emotional experiences of being-in-the-world, which begin even prior to birth.

The following sections will describe three “pre-rational” or foundational ways of knowing: bodily/somatic, ecological, and aesthetic, in more depth before discussing their implications for educational practice.


Next section: Page entitled “Towards Integral Education Part 2: The Body in Education”



Davis, B. (2004) Inventions of Teaching: A Genealogy, Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Esbjorn-Harganes, S, Reams, J & Gunnlaugson, O. (Eds) (2010) Integral Education: New Directions for Higher Learning, Albany, State University of Albany Press.

Rathunde, K. (2009) Nature and Embodied Education, The Journal of Developmental Processes, 4(1), 70-80.



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