What is Naturalistic Intelligence: Theory and Practice

     When Howard Gardner (1983) first proposed Multiple Intelligences in 1983, there were only seven intelligences in his theory. Years later, in 1996, he added Naturalistic Intelligence into the MI list. Gardner (1999) identified naturalist intelligence as the intelligence that “designates the human ability to discriminate among living things (plants, animals) as well as sensitivity to other features of the natural world (clouds, rock configurations). (p. 49)” In other words, naturalistic intelligence is the ability to interact with surrounding. Studies regarding naturalistic intelligence have been focused on the following two major topics:

1. How to identify naturalistic intelligence
Even before Gardner (1999) gave the explicit description of naturalistic intelligence, Wilson (1998) concluded several characteristics to identify that particular intelligence. If the child:

  • “Notices patterns and things from nature easily,
  • Has keen senses and observes and remembers things from his/her environment and surroundings,
  • Likes animals and likes to know and remember things about them,
  • Really appreciates being outside and doing things like camping, hiking or climbing, even just like sitting quietly and noticing the subtle differences in the world of nature, or
  •  Makes keen observations about natural changes, interconnections and patterns(p. 2)”,

then he or she has naturalistic intelligence. Even now, more scholars have been studied this topic, the above characteristics are still the main ones that commonly agree on that belong to naturalistic intelligence.

 2. How naturalistic intelligence informs teaching and learning

     In educational field, the use of multiple intelligences in teaching and learning is mostly discussed. Educators and researchers would like to know how to tap students’ naturalistic intelligence to facilitate their learning as well as encouraging students to develop this intelligence. Tom Hoerr (as cited in Meyer, 1998), Principal of New City School in St. Louis, states, “The Naturalist Intelligence offers one more way to help students understand and learn.” A lot of strategies have been developed, and cases have been tried which have proven the effectiveness in using naturalistic intelligence. For example, according to Meyer (1998), teachers could use the following to encourage students to learn and use naturalistic intelligence:

  • “sensory observation: feeling, smelling, listening
  • data collection from observation
  • grouping of natural objects (classification)
  • observation of animal behavior
  • growing things . . . plants, garden, butterfly garden
  • recycling projects and worm boxes
  • field studies . . . out of doors
  • observation through the microscope, telescope, binoculars, hand lens
  • drawing, sketching, photographing, video taping nature
  • manipulating outdoor equipment or kits (water testing kits or nets)
  • outdoor silent observation, reflection, journaling
  • identifying sounds in nature
  • interacting with animals (bugs) and plants
  • establishment of a nature trail, viewing deck, or outdoor classroom,
  • making scientific instruments (inventing)
  • designing experiments
  • field trips (real, electronic, video, guided imagery)
  • walks outside for fresh air, sounds of nature, and dirt underfoot
  • modeling, measurement, or scale drawings of animals, plants, or outdoor settings
  • writing poems or songs using adjectives from the outdoors
  • identifying shapes in natural setting
  • observation of plants or out of doors change over the course of the school year
  • observing a fruit, vegetable or other plant or animal material decompose overtime
  • collecting trash or other items (rocks, feathers, flowers, leaves . . . ) in the school yard and group (classify) the items by their characteristics (shape, color, etc.)
  • read aloud stories/articles relating to the out of doors, space, natural phenomena, animals, or plants
  • performing role plays of cycles in nature, animal behavior, plant growth etc. (p. 5-6) ”

     It also encourages project tasks as projects usually involve contexts and could be linked with multiple intelligences. Students’ learning also takes place when they are planning for the projects. (Delaney & Shafer, 2007)

     In addition to instructions, assessment and evaluation has also been considered under the impact of multiple intelligences. With multiple intelligence embedded in assessment and evaluation, students are more likely to perform their true ability without interference of other variables. For students with naturalistic intelligence, given a context of nature related setting, they are easier to demonstrate the learned knowledge and skills.


Delaney, C. J., & Shafer, F. K. (2007). Teaching to multiple intelligence by following a “slime trail”. Middle School Journal, 39(1), 38-43.

Gardner, H. (1999). Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the Twenty-first Century. Basic Books

Meyer, M., (1998). Learning and Teaching Through the Naturalist Intelligence.

Eighth Intelligence- Naturalistic Intelligence

Additional resources recommendation:

Multiple Intelligences @ JohnsHopkinsSchool of Education. 

Almeida, L. S., Prieto, M. D., Ferreira, A. I., Bermejo, M. R., Ferrando, M., & Ferrandiz, C. (2010). Intelligence assessment: Gardner multiple intelligence theory as an alternative. Learning and Individual Differences, 20(3), 225-230.

Mbuva, J. (2003). Implementation of the Multiple Intelligences Theory in the 21st Century Teaching and Learning Environments

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Famous People with Naturalistic Intelligence: Inspiration we can draw from

Charles Darwin

CDWikipedia: Charles Robert Darwin was an English naturalist. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding.”

Inspiration: As a world famous naturalist, Darwin showed us how far one could go with his naturalistic interests. His naturalistic intelligence helped him to achieve great success in the field of science and open a new chapter of human history.

Viktor Schauberger

VSWikipedia: Viktor Schauberger was an Austrian forest caretaker, naturalist, philosopher, inventor and biomimicry experimenter. Schauberger developed his own theories based on what he observed in nature. In Implosion magazine, a magazine released by Schauberger’s family, he said that aeronautical and marine engineers had incorrectly designed the propeller.

Inspiration: Schauberger is not only an example of how people succeeded in naturalistic fields but also a good illustration of incorporating naturalistic intelligence in engineering. It is thus particularly inspiring.

Gerald Durrell

GDWikipedia: Gerald “Gerry” Malcolm Durrell was an English naturalist, zookeeper, conservationist, author and television presenter. He founded what is now called the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Jersey Zoo (now Durrell Wildlife Park) on the Channel Island of Jersey in 1958, but is perhaps best remembered for writing a number of books based on his life as an animal collector and enthusiast. He was the youngest brother of the novelist Lawrence Durrell.

Inspiration: In addition to founding a zoo, Durrell integrated his naturalistic intelligence with linguistic intelligence and wrote wonderful books such as My Family and Other Animals.


Why should we integrate Naturalistic Intelligence in teaching?

In addition to tapping students’ learning styles and interest, what kind of benefits does having Naturalistic Intelligence in teaching and learning bring?

1. It helps our students to be aware of the surroundings and of themselves
How many of us have been walking around the campus or our own neighborhood without noticing the beauty round us? Here is some pictures in our campus. But when showing them to the class, almost no one could recognize them. (Click the picture to check answers and find more info.)


     And almost no one knows that we have NYU Garden Shop. (Click the picture to more info.)


     We are too busy with our life and sometimes forget about the things around us.  It is the same with our students. Focusing on homework and exams everyday, they seem to have lost the joy of being with nature. And by getting in touch with nature, our students could also learn to better know themselves. When they sense, feel, touch, smell and see the nature, they are actually feeling themselves.

2. It is particularly meaningful to urban students
Students in suburban or rural areas usually are more aware of the nature as there are more recourse around them. National/State Parks, lakes and mountains, or even farms and animals are in their life. They grow in that environment. And even the school does not teach them about nature, they will learn by themselves or their families and communities will educate them about it. But students in urban areas are usually surrounded by buildings and vehicles. The resource around them is limited. And their families and communities are more concerned about work or economies rather than nature. Thus it is even more important that teachers bring the concepts of nature and ideas of getting close to nature into the classroom to the students.

3. Skills that Naturalistic Intelligence involves could also benefit students in other subject areas
Students with a strong naturalist intelligence:

  • Are intrinsically organized
  • Demonstrate an empathy with nature
  • Pick up on subtle differences in meaning
  • Like to make collections of materials
  • Enjoy sorting and organizing materials
  • Impose their own sense of order on new information
  • Respond to semantic mapping activities
  • Prefer charts, tables, diagrams and timelines

(Retrieved from http://surfaquarium.com/MI/profiles/naturalist.htm
You may also find more information at http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/strategies/topics/mi/campbell.htm )
The skills and abilities mentioned above are very helpful to students in terms of skills and abilities. They could also be utilized when studying other subjects. For example, being organized is a very good learning habit and also very useful in sorting out concepts and knowledge. Charts, tables, diagrams and timelines could be used in Maths, Physics and even History. Students will benefit from these skills and abilities a lot once they understand how those could be used to help them. And it is the teachers’ job to encourage them to explore themselves and realize that.

In Foreign Language classrooms, it is particularly meaningful to integrate naturalistic intelligence. According to American Council on The Teaching of Foreign Languages standards, connection to additional knowledge should be provided in foreign language learning. Naturalistic topics therefore can be integrated in instructional process and curriculum as a connection. And our students are interested in these as well. Naturalistic intelligence does not only benefit the teachers’ teaching but also motivates our students.


The Power of Naturalistic Intelligence

The Power of Naturalistic Intelligence

How does naturalistic intelligence work? Do we have to bring biology or zoology in to our teaching in order to use naturalistic intelligence?

Students still share the same end goal but they achieve it through different ways. For example, if the goal is to improve writing paragraphs, students with linguistic intelligence might get to writing right away while students with visual-spatial intelligence might draw the things out first to help them organize.

Here we would like to share with you a story called Merengue Dream. It perfectly illustrates how naturalistic intelligence could be utilized as a bridge to the new knowledge. It is a story from the book Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph. It is also available in Bobst Library. (Click the picture above to see the book in amzon.com)

Due to the  document size, we are only able to upload the scan of the story as two separate files on google doc. Please use your nyu account info to sign in to view the story.
Merengue Dream Part I
Merengue Dream Part II


Hands-on Activities

Outside the Classroom Activities

There are many activities that teachers can use to help students learn about nature. The most direct way probably is field trip. When students go out of classroom and stay in the nature, they can see the trees, hear birds singing and smell the fresh air flowing in the forest. With these communications, students can know a lot about nature by themselves and learn much deeper.


However, filed trip has several limitations. It costs money, time and efforts a lot. Students don’t have many opportunities to go out. Usually, school only schedule one field trip in a semester. Then what can teachers do? Fortunately, along with the development of technology, we can do the activities that are hard to conduct in real life. For example, teachers can go online and use the virtual museum to let students enjoy the trip of different museums all over the world.

More than just knowing some knowledge about nature, students should also interact with it, be a member within and a friend of nature.  They can get involved in an environment protection program and volunteer in some environment protection events. Also, they can just protect the environment in their communities and some little actions in daily life can make a big change in the future.




Build a Birdhouse

Projects can help students apply what they know into practice and learn how to do. A very common project that develops naturalistic intelligence is building a bird house. This project helps students to have the empathy on animals and any other things in nature. Also, after finishing the bird house, students can observe birds’ behaviors if there are some birds living in.

3       But one important thing when students are building a birdhouse is that they should be under parents’ help because sometimes this can be very dangerous and some tools are difficult to use, especially for the younger kids.


Make a habitat diorama

Similar with the birdhouse, habitat diorama is also a way for students to learn about animals and their environments. Students can use a big box as the habitat and make some animal cards or 3-D models to put in the box, then decorate the environment with some pictures of grass, trees or water, depending on which habitat they want to show. After these easy steps, a habitat diorama is done. Students can hold an exhibit to show their wonderful works and learn the other habitats their peers create.




If you think your classroom does not have enough space for many habitat dioramas, another activity can meet your requirement. Students can make scrapbooks with the scrapbook 002natural materials, such as flowers, grasses, leaves, tree branch and feathers. The book could be a story like an adventure and students can decorate it with natural objects that are related to the story. On the other hand, it is not necessary to be a story. It could be just a dairy recording everything that students see, smell, hear, touch and taste in their everyday life and also use some natural materials they find to put in the book.


Grow a plant

One characteristic of students who have high naturalistic intelligence is the ability to IMG_1368take care of other living beings, for example, having a pet and growing a plant. In the classroom settings, the better way to develop this competency is growing a plant. Just as the picture shows, each student gets a little flowerpot and put a little seed in it. After a few days, a little bud comes out and if students can takes care of the plant very well, they would see the beautiful flower in the end.


Turn the classroom into a museum

Museum is an excellent place to train students’ naturalistic intelligence because it has many natural resources. Including going to a real museum and an online one, the third way to learn nature in a museum is actually turning the classroom into a museum. This is much difficult than just exploring. First, Students need to know very well about the topic they want to show; then they can use their hands to create a station.

5742245-0-4    5742244-1-4


Quick Activities

Animal Cards

In the 45 minutes of one class period, teachers could use some quick activities to teach nature. One popular activity is animal cards. The teacher gives students several animals cards and asks them to sort into two groups. The animal number of each group does not need to be even. And students are totally free to use their own way to group. For instance, the animal cards are shark, sheep, dog, snake, elephant and giraffe. Some students may put shark into Group 1 and the rest animals into Group 2 because the shark is the only marine animal here. Some other students may group elephant, snake and shark together because they are not fluffy. There are many other ways to complete this task as long as the classification is clear.

Another way to use animal cards is to create a food chain. It can be very simple: put some animal cards on a board, and then draw the arrows that show the relationships of the animals. It can also be creative, like using ropes instead of lines to indicate the eater-eaten interactions.

images (2)                dscn0602

For the purpose of doing on-class activity, the teacher can draw a food chain without giving the animals and asks students to put the correct animals in the boxes of the food chain. It is better that this activity is done as a group work and each student takes charge of one animal. This can help them to learn the social ability of cooperating with others.

food        Untitled


Students’ works

IMG_0875           IMG_0877


Nature sounds

The ability of enjoying and appreciating nature sounds is also an important characteristic of naturalistic intelligence. The teacher can ask students to create a story based on the sounds they hear. For example, the teacher gives students the sounds of ocean, people chatting. Then students may write a story about a group of people living near the ocean.

Here are two resources that teachers can find nature sounds. One is a website called “Sound Gallery”, which has many nature sounds on it. Another one is an iPhone/ iPad app called “Relax Melodies” and this app is also very convenient.


You can find a lot of activities about naturalistic intelligence online and some of the ideas are very creative and interesting. Here are some links may be useful for teachers:


Activity #1

Read Aloud in the ESL Classroom

It is not always easy to take students outside the classroom and allow them to experience nature during the class time. Using stories and poetry with vivid language that has a scope for incorporating all the 5 senses (touch, smell, taste, hear, see) through the use of lucid vocabulary is very helpful. Below is a book recommendation followed by an activity and some suggested variations that you can use in your classroom.

Title: Understanding and Experiencing Naturalistic Intelligence through poetry.

Goal: By the end of the session students write a color poem using the 5 senses to describe how they perceive a particular color in a particular season.

Objectives: To understand the use of descriptive writing through poetry. To understand personification.

Target students: ESL upper intermediate or adult learners

Prerequisite: The students have had a couple sessions on descriptive writing and understanding

personification. This can be a culmination session for the two.


Write down the name of the book in big letters on the class board. Do not show the students the cover of the book yet. After you have written the name of the book, as them the following questions:

  • What do you think the title of the book suggests?
  • Have you ever seen anything that is red and can sing on treetops?
  • Do you see different colors in different seasons? Where do you see these colors?