Embodied learning as way to nurture nature connectedness

Embodied learning as way to nurture nature connectedness


by Angelica Paci



Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better. Albert Einstein

This article intends to explore the emerging perspective on the embodied mind and its correlation  with nature in the learning process. Moreover the article will offer a couple of experiential and embodied learning activities that can be carried out with adult learners as for them to feel more connected with nature.

Embodiment has been defined as “the enactment of knowledge and concepts through the activity of our bodies[1]. In other words, it is through our bodily perceptions, movements, emotions, and feelings that meaning becomes possible. This theory originates from the framework of the embodied cognition which is an approach that states that mind and body are not separate and distinct[2], but both are part of the body which contributes to determining our mental processes and cognition and the human mind is fundamentally shaped by having a human body and using that body to interact with the world[3].



For example let’s take into account the abstract concept of “justice” that, although enriched and partially determined by cultural meanings that help define it and relate it to other concepts such as fairness and democracy, would have no meaning if we were not creatures that experientially learned a sense of balance, stability, and steadiness by moving through the world and orienting our bodies in space. Abstract concepts, therefore, can be considered to be like metaphorical extensions of experiential, body-based movements[4]. The embodied theory states that thought cannot and should not be separated from feeling and doing and that reason should not be separated from emotion, as this would result in an incomplete learning process.

The human organism has a strong attraction to nature, because of our evolutionary past and its formative influence. Perspectives on embodiment may offer new views on why the connection between nature and humans exists. Having an embodied mind suggests that meaning making begins in more primitive sensorimotor processes and our visceral connections to the world. This way of looking at human nature helps to explain our intrinsic attraction to nature. The foundations of knowledge are more visceral and aesthetic than generally recognized. Nature experiences evoke these foundations more directly and are intimately connected with the sensorimotor and perceptual systems that support conceptual thought. Indeed, this approach to learning has implications for the way we think about the role of the natural environment in the learning process.

Another reason for connecting nature with education is its capacity to inspire and motivate learning through experiences of beauty and awe, as the latter, in addition to stimulating interest, give us insight about connections to something larger than ourselves. The environmental philosopher Emily Brady comments: “Aesthetic experience is first-hand and immediate, sometimes the most visceral, felt experience we can have of nature, and in that sense it can be very penetrating, have a strong impact and just stay with us”[5]. She believes such experiences are educative: they have a moral dimension whereby we gain insight about our relationship to nature. Also Abraham Maslow often used nature experiences to exemplify peak experiences and noted a similar moral consequence: “Perhaps [our] thrilling to nature will one day be understood as a kind of self-recognition or self-experience, a way of being oneself and fully functional, a way of being at home, a kind of biological authenticity”[6]. Maslow, like Brady, suggested that in moments of experiencing beauty we learn that what we perceive in nature is a part of ourselves and we gain a spiritual understanding of how humans are “isomorphic with nature.” The power of awe and beauty to change environmental attitudes is often underestimated[7] in favour of information about threats to the environment (e.g., global warming). Natural beauty can be seen as the privileged place for the spiritual development of individuals and society in general. To say it with Brady “Aesthetic valuing is a route to valuing nature for its own sake rather than any benefits it has for people. This strategy could support a non-anthropocentric environmental ethic”[8]. An embodied approach views the aesthetic experience as the qualitative beginning of the process of meaning making. Such views of human nature support the assumption that awe-inspiring nature experiences can motivate learning and transform attitudes about our relationship to the world.

The direct experience of nature would seem to afford essential opportunities for intrinsically motivated meaning making that has lasting impact and force. If learning is a process that unfolds from felt quality to abstraction, then there is a need to reevaluate how learning environments are set up and what activities can be cultivated with adult learners. Whereas disembodied education tends to emphasize only the abstract end of the learning process, models of embodied education would emphasize the entire, holistic process, including body-based feelings and perceptions.

Here below follow two experiential, expressive and embodied activities that can be carried out to focus on the body as a direct experience of the natural world for nurturing the connection between individuals and nature.








Topics: Connection between Self and Nature, Embodiment of the Other, Nurturing the creative mind

Duration:  30 minutes activity

30 minutes reflection


Materials:  Forest, or any park or garden that can host an immersive experience


Learning Objectives

Discovering the diversity of nature and humans through body experience

Training empathy through embodiment

Exploring a trustful and non-judgmental atmosphere in the group1



Prepare the setting for an immersive embodied experience and ask participants to have a sensory walk in silence in the nature. Give the group the time to feel the nature for creating a reflective mood.

Gather participants in a circle, wide enough to let everyone move freely in the space and ask them to do some breathing for focusing before you give them instructions.


Tell participants they are about to have the chance to get in deep contact with the elements of nature, embodying them at the point they will become that element with their whole body. Invite them to suspend judgment and sceptical observations. Guide them, starting from the hand to continue in the entire body, to become water (rain, calm river, rough sea), Soil (dry, wet, muddy), fire (small, big, crackling), wind (gentle, strong). Ask them to focus on their body impulses when you ask them to be any of the natural elements you mention. Invite them to create an image in themselves and to listen to their senses and their body moving when they become that natural element. Invite them to explore the idea/feeling of the natural element, until they become it. Tell them they can move in the space and make sounds freely to follow their inspiration, trying not to interfere with the experience of the others.


Give them some time to explore the natural element they are embodying and then invite them to explore a new one elements2. You can eventually add some descriptions or examples of the natural element you are mentioning, to help participants getting involved into the expressive process.

Note to facilitator

1 This exercise can easily trigger dynamics of shame/judgment/feeling ridiculous. It’s hard to participate “seriously” for a group with a low level of confidence in the others, where there’s a consistent expectation that others will laugh at you. So, we recommend you do this activity with a group that already has gone through some reflection moments and that has built trust, responsibility towards one another and ability to take the activity seriously. However, it’s also a very interesting opportunity to explore with the participants the typical resistances, like “this is stupid” “it’s ridiculous, I don’t want to be ridiculous” “why should I do something pointless like this”, reflecting with them on the reason for these thoughts and feelings.


2 Elements can be anything like water, wind, sand, tree, bush, rock, some plants. To help the participants you can add some verbs like “flowing water” or “falling sand”, but the less you say, the more they’ll have the chance to express the element the way they imagine it spontaneously. You can also try calling animals, but this is very likely to break the mindful atmosphere and provide a lot of fun, so you can use this if you want to release some tension with laughs, as an ice breaker or funny conclusion.

Reflection starting points

possible questions to start the sharing:

  • What element was easier for you to represent? What was the hardest? Why?
  • What kind of emotions did you experience while embodying the elements?
  • What surprised you?


Possible general questions to answer with body scales:

  • To what extent were you busy with the thought of the others watching you?
  • To what extent did you feel you “became” the natural element?






Topics: Connection between Self and Nature, Identity, Personal qualities and strengths 

Duration:  80 minutes activity and break

30 minutes reflection


Materials:  Forest, or any park or garden that can host an immersive experience

Learning Objectives

Identifying own qualities and sharing them with others

Using natural and environmental elements as metaphors to describe inner reality


Start by asking participants to stand in a circle and allow some time for grounding with a breathing activity of 2 minutes. Tell them to breathe in and out paying attention, with intention, to the air that enters and exits from their nose trails. Tell them that it’s normal that thoughts arise, ask them to observe what the thoughts are about, without judging them and to let them go as if they were clouds moving in the sky1.  It can happen that participants might feel a bit uncomfortable and that they start laughing or moving. It is completely normal, especially if they have never done mindful breathing before. In this case, stay present yourself, suspend judgment and kindly invite them to either close their eyes or look on the ground in the middle of the circle to avoid external disturbances.


Brief the activity by telling participants they have 20/30 minutes to individually explore the natural setting to look for beauty in the environment, to stop as many times as they want to contemplate the beauty and to come back in the circle, with the intention of presenting to the others the beauty they found. Remind them that it’s a solo activity and invite them to be curious and to wonder in nature with fresh eyes, as if they were looking at things for the first time. Ask them to describe the beauty they see in their notebook. Tell participants that after 20/30 minutes you will make a sound to announce solo time is over and that they can come back to the circle. When you brief them, tell them that this is the moment in which they will present their experience to the others by presenting them the beauty they found2


Allow 1 minute maximum per participant for the presentation, that can be in whatever form the participant likes. It can be a drawing, a sound, a poem, a sculpture made with natural elements, a picture taken with a camera, a gesture or a body sculpture. Tell them they can be as creative as they want. During the presentation allow 10 to 15 seconds of silent pause to acknowledge and appreciate each presentation and for creating the space and attention for the following presentation. 

After the presentation is over allow for a 15/20 minute break for participants to relax and refresh. 



Then ask them to find a place in nature, take the notebook on which they have previously written the beauty they saw and invite them to turn the objective description into a subjective one by punting an I whenever they are describing nature (for example if in the notebook one writes “the tree has strong branches and beautiful verdant leaves” it would turn into “I have strong branches and verdant leaves”. This of  course it’s not to be taken literally but more on an imaginative level. The message for oneself would be that of being strong and alive3).



After having turned the narration of beauty into the “I” person, you can either ask participants to form trios and to read to each other their narration (if the group is mature enough to do so) and to share how reading it resonates with them and what was surprising for them or call them back in the bigger circle and ask them the same question. 

Bear in mind that participants shouldn’t be forced to answer your question. However, you can invite the person who speaks if she/he is curious to hear from someone else.

Note to facilitator

1 Attention to the breath—and intention of the breath—is a fundamental facet of mindfulness, the practice of cultivating non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. The breath is a great anchor to the present moment because it’s with us and happening naturally all the time. If we get in the habit of using our breath as an anchor, and become more aware of our thoughts and emotions, we can stop them before they gain momentum in a way that contributes to stress or anxiety. Mindful breathing techniques promote calm, reduce stress levels and regulate negative emotions, easing anxiety symptoms. 


2 Tell your participants that presenting the beauty they found has nothing to do with performing and that it is more about sharing and letting the others know what has touched them. It’s almost an act of kindness. The word presentation, in fact, comes from present, that has the double meaning of gift and being present in the here and now.


3 We see in the outer world something that also exists within us. It is a psychological mechanism according to which we all project onto the world in general and people in particular aspects of our inner world, much as the movie projector projects the film onto a blank screen.

How we respond to the outer world and the people around us, contributes to how the outer world and other people respond to us. So, to some extent, we literally create the world we live in each and every moment by what we project onto the world. Having some awareness of this can give us greater control of how we interpret the world around us and, consequently, how the outside world will respond to us.

Therefore, in the beauty hunt exercise participants, by training to spot beauty in nature, become aware of their inner beauty and learn how to look with more kindness to themselves and consequently to others.

Reflection starting points


Possible questions to deepen/encourage the sharing. 

  • How easy/hard was it for you to find beauty in nature?
  • What did you enjoy about being in nature?
  • How was it for you to create your presentation and to present your experience to the others? 
  • How did it feel to read your narrative in the “I” form?
  • How did it feel to listen to it (with the invitation of letting the piece resonate in us before answering)
  • What did you discover about yourself?
  • What did you discover about the others?


Some of the questions that ask to rate how easy/hard it was to do something, can be  answered also with body scales. 




[1] Lindgren, R., & Johnson-Glenberg, M. (2013). Emboldened by embodiment: Six precepts for research on embodied learning and mixed reality. Educational Researcher

[2] Damasio, A. R. (2005). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Pen- guin. (Original work published 1994)

[3] Gibbs, R. (2005). Embodiment and cognitive science. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press

[4] Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh. New York: Basic Books.

[5] Brady, E. (2005, May). Aesthetics in practice: Valuing the natural world. Paper presented at the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University, New Jersey

[6] Maslow, A. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Penguin Books.

[7] Hartig, T., Kaiser, F. G., & Bowler, P. A. (2001). Psychological restoration in nature as a positive motivation for ecological behavior. Environment and Behavior, 33(4)

[8] Brady, E. (2005, May). Aesthetics in practice: Valuing the natural world. Paper presented at the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University, New Jersey.

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