embodied learning

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

Towards Integral Education Part 3: Nature in Education

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 University and Certified Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner,  


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


Continued from Part 2…


Nature in Education

Misconceiving “nature” as “out there”

There is a prevailing perspective of nature as “out there”, disconnecting us from our embeddedness in the ecosystem. This is exemplified by the use of the term ‘environmental’, which, according to Davis (2004, p.103) is “rooted in a sense of separation and enclosure”, and is not, as is commonly assumed, equivalent to ‘ecological’, which is about relationship and interconnections.

When western educators advocate bringing more “nature”-connecting experiences into education they are still apparently hamstrung by invisible philosophies and language: they refer to “taking children for a walk; tending a garden; care for animals; school field trips; integration of nature into school campuses (Rathunde, 2009a, p.202). This use of language still supports the assumption that human beings are separate from “nature” which is the wilderness/ garden/ plants/ animals. The “grandeur” and “awe” they want to foster in children is of a nature “outside” of us.

Rathunde (2009b), in an inspiring paper entitled “Nature and Embodied Education”, states on p.73: “humans have a special resonance with nature and students benefit from direct contact with it” and on p.74: “the direct experience of nature through school field trips, or a greater integration of nature to school campuses…” and “…benefits from exposure to nature” (p.75), “doses of nature”, “views of nature from windows” (p.76) – again, this languaging ironically implies a dichotomy between “humans” and “nature” which resembles other dualisms, such as the “false dichotomy between body and mind, feeling and thought, and perceiving and thinking” (p.76), that Rathunde rejects.

This demonstrates just how pervasive and invisible is the anthropocentric separation between ourselves and the rest of the ecosphere. In quoting Maslow’s idea that humans are “isomorphic with nature”, Rathunde says “…that what we perceive in nature is a part of ourselves” (p.74), an image which could perpetuate the delusion of ourselves at nature’s centre or pinnacle, rather than one branch of an intricate tree-web of life.

The writings of other pioneering advocates for ecopedagogy, such as Kellert (2012, 2013), also still show subtle evidence of this human/non-human environment split from “nature” in phrases such as: “…people possess an inherent need to affiliate with nature (something we have called, biophilia)…Humanity is the product of its evolved relationship to nature, countless yesterdays of ongoing interaction and experience of the nonhuman environment.” (Kellert, 2013).

Kellert creatively expands the meaning of “nature” in education beyond “nature outdoors” and “nature in organized school activities” to include arts-based experiences of nature:

Restoring children’s connection with nature is not just about enhanced intellectual understanding and outdoor exercise, but also about the experience of wonder, joy, exuberance, challenge, coping, awe, even dealing with fear and anxiety, all and more the basic stuff of normal development. Contact with nature is not just about direct physical contact with the outdoors, but also the representational experience of the natural world in pictures, stories, myth, legend, and design.” (Kellert, 2013)

What seems to be still missing from these and other inspiring calls for educational reform is the lived experience of BEING NATURE which somatic education can offer:

We suggest that human children who are educated to sense and observe their own embodied processes, movement patterns,and identity as part of the evolving ecosystem in which they are embedded, will perceive themselves AS NATURE. Elevating “nature out there”, with an implied absence or inferiority of “nature in here” simply inverts, but still perpetuates, the fantasy that we are somehow “different from” nature, albeit not the usual anthropocentric “better than” nature. The “nature deficit disorder” alluded to by Rathunde and Kellert in their citing of Louv (2005) is not only caused by taking children out of nature, but by taking nature out of children.


Pause for a moment…

consider your relationship with nature:

How did nature play a role in your schooling?

How do you currently feel about the natural environment?

How would you represent in pictorial/diagrammatic form your current relationship with nature? 


Deep Ecology Resources

According to Davis (2004), the separate status of humans from other living forms has been attributed to the possession of a soul (mystical and religious traditions), reason (rationalist and empiricist traditions), language (structuralists and post-structuralists), and highest order of complexity (complexivists). In ecological movements (such as ecosophy, deep ecology, ecopsychology, ecofeminism, and ecospirituality), human-created separateness is regarded as dysfunctional.

Bragg (1996) uses the term “ecological self” to describe the experiential widening of the circle of identity which moves us beyond this artificial Man/Nature divide, and Macy and Seed’s Council of All Beings (Seed et al, 1988) provides an experiential workshop framework which supports participants to recover their greater-than-human identity. This involves, for example: the use of guided imagery and movement (‘evolutionary remembering’) to render our bodies more transparent to their animal nature; art-making (masks of our nature-‘allies’) and relational (council of all beings) processes, which expand participants’ empathetic connections with non-human beings. Joanna Macy’s ‘work that reconnects’ (Macy, 1998) offers many such eco-connecting experiences, which can help restore both teachers and children when we feel overwhelmed by ‘bad news’ about environmental crises (Faire, 2005b).


Resources from Somatic Education: Cultivating Somatic Intelligence as the roots of ecosensibility

Paul Linden (1994) has included “environmental awareness” in his description of somatic literacy. He states: (p.18):

“People who are not even in touch with their own bodies will have so little empathy for other living creatures and the earth itself that they will unthinkingly and unfeelingly despoil the soil, water and air.”


We would suggest that somatic education contributes towards such a sense of empathy or “eco-connection” in several ways:

–   grounding (gravitational) eco-connection: we become more aware of our continual relationship with gravity, the Earth literally supports our body’s weight. Through bony realignment and postural reflexes we translate this Earth support into buoyant self support (Cohen, 1993);

–   systemic eco-connection: each of the body systems can be experienced (rather than just cognitively understood) as being part of the larger ecological systems or cycles (Suzuki & McConnell, 1997); we become more sensitive to the continual exchanges that interweave us with our living and non-living environment; the cycles of water (body fluids), of energy (through gut, blood, muscle contraction, cellular metabolism), of crystalline minerals (building our bones), of gases (through lungs, blood, all cells) (Cohen, 1993);

–   identity (kinespheric) eco-connection: the learned conceptual boundary between self and non-self is reinforced by patterns of bodily tension and habits of limiting/ narrowing attention. In the process of learning to release these tensions and develop open focus awareness, we experience the arbitrariness of this skin-encapsulated self-other boundary; our sphere of identification can expand to include the more-than-human biosphere (Mark Johnson (2007, p.281) uses the terms ‘embodied spirituality’ and ‘horizontal transcendence’);

–   evolutionary eco-connection: the process of evolution links us to all other life forms. Embedded in the reflexes and innate movement patterns of our nervous system are those we have in common with many of our vertebrate cousins and even more remote relatives (Cohen, 1993). Somatic methods revitalize these postural and co-ordination patterns, bringing about a heightened sense of the reflexes and vegetative functions which we share with other animals, and with this, an empathy based on kinesthetic resonance rather than mental concepts of relatedness.

For an experiential exploration of these concepts, see my blog entry on experiential ecosomatics: http://yesoreriaf.edublogs.org/category/ecosomatics/

“Invested in every human – woven through our biological beings – is a trace of our species’ history and its implicatedness in the planet.” (Davis, 2004, p.166).

(see my “somatic stories” page for my own Reflections: on becoming a primate)


An Ecological Pedagogy

Environmental/sustainability education enriched with both deep ecology and somatic education would thus broaden the experiential component of the field to include not only the outer wilderness (eg, time outdoors or in a garden) but the inner and relational dimensions of ourselves as embedded in ecological systems and arising from the evolutionary history of life on earth.


What might we still be doing that interferes with children’s ecological embeddedness?

–       Perpetuating the human/nature split in our metaphors and concepts?

–       Assuming that nature is “out there” in the “environment” (garden, park, wilderness)?

–       Perpetuating conceptions of living organisms as interacting objects rather than nested systems?

–       Teaching about current environmental issues from only a scientific perspective?

–       Devaluing emotional responses to ecological destruction as “irrational”?

–       Passing on anthropocentric (eg, domination, taming, controlling, stewardship, custodian, guardian) and androcentric (eg, Man, masculine vs Nature, feminine) metaphors/conceptions of our relationship with ecological systems?


What can we intend and enact more fully/differently in terms of ecological awareness?

–       using artistic expression to give voice to non-human (“more-than-human”) perspectives (Seed et al, 1988);

–       incorporating systems thinking into early stages of learning about ourselves as part of these ecological systems (cycles of water, energy, carbon, etc)(Suzuki & McConnell, 1997); nature not just “out there” but also “in here”: self-system as nested in larger ecosystems (ecological interobjectivity – Davis, 2004);

–       using evolutionary and developmental movement patterns as experiential bridges to our embodied nature (see Council of All Beings websites such as http://www.rainforestinfo.org.au/deep-eco/cabcont.htm; Cohen (1993);

–       cultivating interpersonal skills, peer support, ethics as an extension of embodied empathy (Varella, 1999).


Continued in Part 4: The Arts in Education…



Bragg, E.A.(1996)  Towards Ecological Self: Deep Ecology meets constructionist self-theory.  Journal of Environmental Psychology, 16(2),93-108

Cohen, B.B. (1993) Sensing, Feeling, and Action: the experiential anatomy of Body-Mind Centering, Northampton, MA: Contact Editions.

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

Faire, R.J. (2005b). Community Music Therapy for World-state Trauma and World-grief Expression, Poster, World Congress of Music Therapy, Brisbane 2005. http://www.zulenet.com/ecosomatics/community_music_therapy.html.

Johnson, M. (2007) The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Kellert, S.R. (2012) Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World, New Haven, Yale University Press.

Kellert, S.R. (2013) Children, Nature, and the Future of our Species April 8, 2013. http://learning21c.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/children-nature-and-the-future-of-our-species/

Linden, P. (1994) Somatic Literacy: Bringing somatic education into physical education. JOPHERD, September 1994: 15-21.

Louv, R. (2005) Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature deficit disorder, Chapel Hill, NC, Algonquin Books.

Macy, J. (1998) Coming Back To Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives,  Our World, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada, New Society Publishers.

Rathunde, K. (2009a) Montessori and Embodied Education, Chapter 10 in P.A.Woods & G.J.Woods (Eds), Alternative Education for the 21st Century, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

Seed, J., Macy, J., Fleming, P. & Naess, A. (1988). Thinking like a mountain: Toward a Council of All Beings.Philadelphia: New Society.

Suzuki, D. & McConnell, A. (1997) The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering our place in nature, St Leonards, Australia, Allen & Unwin.

Varela, F.J. (1999) Ethical know-how: action, wisdom, and cognition. Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press.



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