Skip to main content

Do we need naturalist intelligence to save the planet?

By Nicole Pokorney

Multiple intelligences graphic

In 1983, Howard Gardner introduced the theory of multiple intelligences in his book, Frames of Mind. Naturalistic Intelligence was the eighth and most recent intelligence added to the list in 1999. In her article, The Eighth Intelligence – Naturalistic Intelligence, Leslie Owen Wilson describes individuals with "Nature Smart" as having the following characteristics, plus more:

  • Sensing patterns in nature
  • Often like to collect, classify, or read about things from nature  
  • Interest in animal species and behaviors
  • Having a connection to the outdoors

At the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Youth Devleopment’s Community of Practice for Outdoor Professionals, we were recently discussing the importance of identifying the social inequities and barriers that underrepresented youth face in having a connection to the outdoors. In his book, The Adventure Gap, James Edward Mills states:

There is a link between recreating in the outdoors and wanting to protect it. People who spend time outdoors have the opportunity to appreciate its beauty and importance. Individuals across the nation and around the world who recognize the benefits of having access to fresh air, clean water, and open green space for their health and well-being will devote time and money to preserve those qualities. Having created loyal and long-standing relationships with the places they love most, they will pass their affection down to their children, establishing a legacy of stewardship that spans generations. 

The more I dive into increasing access and equity to underrepresented youth in the outdoors, I also wonder about the level of connection to nature young people may or may not experience, no matter the quality of our outdoor programming. Is it also important that we guide youth in exploring their innate talents and abilities through such inventories as the multiple intelligences inventory, or this inventory from the American Institute for Learning and Human Development? Even if barriers are addressed, how do we ensure young people will connect to nature deeply enough to fulfill the preservation needs?

As an outdoor enthusiast, I took the inventory twice while writing this blog, with Naturalistic not rating as my highest intelligence, or even making the top three. Although there is no place that I have a deeper connection to than a trail in the woods, I wonder why I have this connection if I can’t name every bird I hear, or every plant I see. I can’t keep plants alive to save my life, and I surely would rather watch a mindless romantic comedy than a nature show on TV. What connects me in a natural setting comes from my highest intelligences: Visual-Spatial (awe and visual pleasure), Intrapersonal (reflective qualities of nature), and Bodily-Kinesthetic (hiking, canoeing). Do we need to be "Nature Smart" to save the planet? I still don’t have a clear answer, but incorporating multiple intelligences into programming, working with youth to explore another way to understand themselves, and understanding how intelligences can play a role in how we connect to the natural world is worth pursuing.

What are your thoughts? How do you incorporate inventories or other innovative ways for youth to explore their innate abilities into your programming?

-- Nicole Pokorney, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Such a good point about how it isn't one of your top types of intelligence, but is still important to you -- so important that you are passionate about sharing your love of the natural world with youth. Maybe it isn't always about "smart" but about having a good life and caring.

    1. Yes! The caring piece is what I am really curious about when working with youth. The way youth engage in nature and then connect with drive that caring and preserving the environment.

  2. Hey Nicole. I love how you shared what connects you to your natural setting. As a kid, I hated playing physical sports outside, but my mom needed me to go out. She set up an easel outside for me to draw or let me read books in the hammock. Now I love the outdoors, but I think it's because I could explore and experience the outdoors in the ways I wanted to. As youth workers, we have to think about all the reasons youth might connect with being outside.

    1. Sam - that is what I love to hear! A colleague just shared a related article about outside learning and how schools are taking many subjects outdoors. Being intentional in not only learning styles, but multiple intelligences, when designing out outdoor programs will hopefully deepen that connection to nature.

  3. This is great! Thanks for highlighting such an important topic. One of my favorite quotes we have hanging up at home is “We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.” - Charlotte Mason

    1. That quote is great! ". . .each in his degree. . ." is a perfect representation of the various ways we can connect with nature. Thank you for sharing!


Post a Comment