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The Role of Outdoor Learning in Nurturing Human Intelligence

Updated: Apr 23, 2023


The Theory of Multiple Intelligence

According to the Theory of Multiple Intelligence by Harvard psychologist, Howard Gardner, there are at least eight identifiable types of human intelligences. These include abilities like logical reasoning; speaking (or verbal) and even musical intelligence. Everyone of us possesses gifts or talents which fall within a wide spectrum of identifiable human 'smarts'. A soccer star is 'body smart' (demonstrating a high degree of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence) as she is able to move her body very effectively to score goals against her opponents. A talented mathematician is 'logic smart' as he is able to solve complex puzzles and mathematical problems. A person who works well with others is 'people smart' (possessing well-developed interpersonal intelligence), which helps her perform well in collaborative settings.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." - Albert Einstein

Each of us has a unique combination of strengths that allow us to excel at something (or more often than not, many things!). Gardner sustains that although we all possess these eight types of intelligence, they do not develop in the same way and at the same pace in every individual. Some may be naturally stronger and more dominant than others at any given time of our development, but all can be strengthened. I think most of us recognize this intuitively from personal and professional experience. However, while there is a growing appreciation of the need to develop the 'whole' child, I would argue that there are relatively few schools that adequately celebrate and nurture all eight types of human intelligence.

Unfortunately, our culture and many school systems tend to value linguistic and logical-mathematical abilities above all else. The tendency for schools to adequately cater for perhaps just two or three types of human intelligence results in lots of students leaving compulsory education feeling undervalued and inadequate. But the time has come to intentionally explore and celebrate the whole spectrum of human intelligence in education. Being able to read and write is just one vital piece of a much bigger puzzle. Human communities thrive when individuals can pursue their unique interests and develop their gifts in interesting and unexpected ways. As Albert Einstein once wrote, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."

Let's Get Children Outdoors!

After more than a decade of working with young people, I am yet to meet a child without identifiable 'smarts'. I believe it is our role as educators to mentor children to a) identify their unique gifts and talents; b) learn to value and appreciate them in whatever form they take; and c) encourage them to nurture their 'smarts' and live a meaningful and happy life. To achieve this, we need to go beyond the walls of the classroom or the lines of the basketball court. We also need to take children outside to experience authentic and meaningful learning in real world settings!

Take naturalistic intelligence (or 'nature smarts'), for example. Unfortunately, we often overlook nature smarts and fail to realize this as a distinct domain of intelligence. We build our nature smarts by learning how to identify plants and animals, and how to recognize patterns and changes in nature. Connecting children with nature boosts health and wellbeing, and also helps to cultivate lifelong environmental stewards. Many of the world's most renowned scientists had high naturalistic intelligence, which would have been essential in making their ground-breaking new discoveries. Think of Charles Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt and E.O. Wilson and you will soon get my point.

Similarly, kinesthetic intelligence (or 'movement smarts') is often overlooked or undervalued. Athletes and performing arts students spring to mind when talking about kinesthetic intelligence. It is equally important that these students have outlets to develop their talents, and again outdoor and experiential learning can play a tremendous role. Outdoor play, for example, supports the development of essential motor skills, such as balance, agility and coordination, while also nurturing creativity and problem-solving skills. Additionally, students who have ample opportunities to explore adventure sports (like kayaking, skiing or rock climbing) might find their calling, and something outside of traditional team sports, which they can excel at.

Celebrating Multiple Intelligences

Of course, it is important to acknowledge that many schools and communities have limited funding and resources, and not all parents and schools can afford to provide such a rich variety of learning and development opportunities. But one thing is certain: we desperately need a greater appreciation of the whole spectrum of human intelligence in our culture and school systems, and it is vital that we find ways to develop the 'whole' child rather than a narrow and outdated definition of what constitutes 'intelligence'. We can all grow and enhance our skills and abilities in a variety of ways during our lifetimes as we embark on our lifelong learning journeys. But we must learn to celebrate the full diversity of human intelligence and cultivate all eight types of 'smarts' in education as we support children to feel valued and reach their highest potential. In my view, one of the best ways to complete the missing pieces of the puzzle is through meaningful and authentic outdoor and experiential learning.


AUTHOR BIO: Alex Moxon

Alex Moxon is a Partnership Director at the JUMP! Foundation and the founder of Outdoortopia.

He is originally from the north of England, and he loves exploring the world through adventure and travel in remote regions. He is a qualified geography teacher, and he holds a Master of Research degree in Science of the Environment. Through the lenses of sustainable development and outdoor learning, he has a passion for cultivating the next generation of changemakers equipped with the knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes needed to solve complex problems and thrive in a rapidly changing 21st century world.

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1 Comment

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