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

* Click on the references or resources to view more information. Please use your NYU account to sign in so that you could view some documents on google doc.


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


Activity #2

Title: Everyday is Earth Day.

Goal: to describe objects

Objectives: SWBAT

  • Use “because…” and “due to…” to explain.
  • Identify and describe different objects (waste).
  • Learn the way how to put their waste into correct trash bins.
  • Be familiar with the types of trash bins in the school.

Target students: ESL intermediate students/grade 6-8

Prerequisite: students are asked to collect some of their daily waste the day before. It is better for them to choose different types of waste, such as glass bottles, soda cans, paper food bags or magazines. The waste they bring cannot be too dirty and sticky. For example, Cans and bottles should be washed before they bring them to the class.

They are also required to bring scissors and glue to the class.


Students sit in groups. The teacher asks the students when the Earth Day (April 22nd) is.

And then the teacher can show students the following comic about the Earth Day. (Students can also do role play based on the following dialogue.)


Students will learn that we should protect our earth everyday even by doing little contributions. One of the things we can do everyday is to recycle and sort the daily waste.

Activity procedure:

Part I Sorting the waste

  1. Ask students to brainstorm which everyday wastes can be recycled and which cannot.


2. Show pictures of different trash bins around school to see how the school sorts the waste.

E.g. NYU trash bins (wet trash and mixed recycling)

There is an instruction pasted on each bins and the main types of posts are the following two. They provide a brief description about types the waste which should be put in the bins.


3. Students are asked to bring their collection of waste and share in groups. The teacher will provide two big trash boxes with post in the front (Wet trash and Mixed Recycling). Students discuss in groups and then sort their trash into the correct bins.

4. After sorting, teacher will lead students to discuss the result and comments on the sorting. Some trash may be controversial, so teachers can help students figure out different situations.

Part II Making masterpieces

  1. Students discuss in their own groups about the kinds of art crafts they want to make and the materials they need. They can choose four or five objects, and they are required to pick materials from both trash boxes instead of only one. Once they decided, they are supposed to use all the materials they choose in making the art crafts.
  2. After discussion, students can pick the materials they want from the trash boxes. In order to manage the classroom, one student from each group comes to pick one object each time. If the object is requested by more than one group, students in those groups can either negotiate about that or find an alternative one.
  3. Students will have 7 to 10 minutes to finish. Students are required to speak English during the whole process. During they are making art crafts, the teacher should walk between each group, monitoring their conversation.
  4. After they finish their art crafts, each group give a mini presentation about their masterpieces. The mini presentation should include the following information: the name of their masterpieces, the materials they used, the way they made them and the meaningful messages they want to convey.

These are the fantastic masterpieces of our demo lesson “students” (our classmates). They all did a wonderful job.


Implementation in language classroom:

  • Nouns: recycle, plastic, disposable, reproducible, solid, liquid
  • Ordinal numbers: first, second, third…
  • Verbs of making crafts: paste, cut, combine, fold, attach
  • Reasoning: …because…; due to…

Falling in love with the earth is one of life’s great adventures. It is an affair of the heart like no other; a rapturous experience that remains endlessly repeatable throughout life. This is no fleeting romance, it’s an uncommon affair, one unconstrained by age or custom, and strengthened rather than diminished through sharing. The more one gives it away, the stronger it grows.
— Steve Van Matre, Institute for Earth Education