INSIDE Chico State
0 November 29, 2001
Volume 32 Number 7
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Traveling to the Heart of Nature

Alum Joseph Cornell demonstrates how to bring students and nature together


Joseph Cornell (center) leads Outdoor Classroom educators and canyon residents in a nature awareness activity. Mark Stemen, Environmental Studies, is at the far right.

photo: Jeff Teeter

“Let nature be the teacher,” urged world-renowned nature educator and California State University, Chico ’73 alumnus Joseph Cornell in his workshop for student and professional educators on Nov. 14.

Children learn best by personal discovery, he said, and it is the job of educators to create ways to bring children and nature together without getting in the way. In his books, Sharing Nature with Children, Volumes 1 and 2, Cornell has created a series of nature activities to help children (and adults) experience and be connected with nature.

Demonstrating his Build-a-Tree game, Cornell chose a professor from the audience to be the “heartwood,” adding strength and stability to the tree, and drew a laugh when describing him as “dead but well preserved.”

This game demonstrated Stage 1 of Cornell’s trademarked Flow Learning, a powerful teaching and learning process that brings children naturally and deeply into inspiring experiences of nature. Stage 1 is “Awaken Enthusiasm,” using activities that develop alertness and playfulness, create involvement, and generate good group dynamics.

Stage 2, “Focus Attention,” is a transitional stage. These activities deepen awareness, develop observational skills, calm the mind, and develop receptivity for more sensitive nature experiences. On The Un-Nature Trail, children search a forest path for manufactured objects that don’t belong there, learning to be quiet and observant, while still having fun.

In Stage 3, “Direct Experience,” children encounter nature directly, with activities that foster wonder, empathy, and love for nature. Cornell demonstrated his Meet-a-Tree game, in which a child is blindfolded in the forest, taken to a particular tree, and asked to feel the tree to discern its uniqueness—bark texture, leaf shape, girth, moss, etc.

Stage 4, “Share Inspiration,” clarifies and strengthens the personal experiences with nature. Cornell read from his book John Muir: My Life with Nature about how Muir and a companion were trapped in a storm on Mount Shasta. Participants were then asked to share in small groups an experience of “joy in the midst of hardship.”

Cornell has developed more than 50 nature activities using poetry, storytelling, mystery animals, clue cards, sound maps, and role-playing.

Workshop participants included students and faculty from Biological Sciences, Education, Health and Community Service, and Recreation Administration. All the classes include environmental education.

Following the workshop, Cornell joined faculty and students of the Butte Creek Outdoor Classroom, along with several canyon residents, at the Butte Creek Ecological Preserve on Honey Run Road. Alicia Eller, a senior with an interdisciplinary special major in environmental studies and education, described restoration work at the 93-acre site and the group’s work with fourth- and fifth-grade students. She called the outdoor classroom a “living lab for research, restoration, and wildlife observation.”


Joseph Cornell at Butte Creek

photo: Jeff Teeter

Cornell brainstormed possible nature activities to promote nature awareness in the community, including a Living History activity to pass on local canyon lore and weekend family programs for parent/child “quality time.”

The outing ended with a Trail of Beauty activity. Cornell placed inspirational quotes along a woodland trail and beside the creek. Participants were invited to read the signs and “feel the inspiration of the land around you.” All agreed that it was a powerful activity, promoting reflection and instilling a feeling of oneness with nature. Professor Mark Stemen, Environmental Studies, declared it the “best use of the loop trail we have had.”

Cornell concluded with a public lecture that included a slide presentation of his Journey to the Heart of Nature earth steward-ship program for young people, and an enactment from his John Muir Living History program.

Cornell was CSU, Chico’s first special major student, designing the first nature awareness degree. He values the opportunities provided by Chico’s natural environment and credits his professors with giving him the “freedom and support to be creative.”

Cornell also holds a master’s degree in nature awareness from the University of the Trees in Boulder Creek and an honorary doctorate from Unity College in Maine. His books have been translated into 19 languages and serve as popular nature-education resources worldwide. He started the Sharing Nature Foundation in 1978. “My work combines scientific and intuitive understanding of nature,” Cornell said. “It makes idealism practical.”

Cornell is a long-time resident of Ananda Village, an intentional community near Nevada City dedicated to “simple living and high thinking.” A fifth-generation Californian, he was born in the small town of Live Oak. His mother was a CSU, Chico alumna.

Cornell’s visit was sponsored by the Department of Geography and Planning with a grant from the California Department of Fish and Game, and the Rawlins Environmental Literacy Endowment, the Environmental Studies program, and the A.S. Recycling Program.

Francine Gair


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