Experiential and Object-Based Learning in Nature

A chapter in the upcoming book Object-Based Learning and Wellbeing: Exploring Material Connections, with Helen Chatterjee and a wide range of international scholars.

During the autumn months, in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, along the shores of the salmon-spawning streams favored by grizzly bears, one sometimes finds peculiar objects: the heads of salmon with bite marks from wolves. These are intense and strange objects, and all the stories of the rainforest are contained within them. Stories about interconnected ecologies, wild creatures, and humans. Myths, dreams, and ancient tales. Stories of the ocean and its romance with the land. Stories of bears, wolves, whales, of eagles perched among trees that have stood since before the arrival of Columbus. Touching such an object, holding it, discovering its interwoven metaphors and messages, is to connect with all of nature, all of humanity, and with the wider world itself. This is the curation that nature provides, the heritage it offers. All our stories are discovered in the encounter with this one, archetypal object. It leads everywhere.

And yet, disconnection and alienation from nature are increasing problems in our age of digital distraction and immersion. Many people avoid natural environments and feel uncomfortable when exposed to them. For a growing number of young people, simple and seemingly benign activities — such as going for a walk in a municipal park — can provoke strong feelings of anxiety and discomfort. The open spaces and slow rhythms of nature, and the ways in which those spaces encourage self-reflection and mindfulness, can be emotionally provocative in a variety of ways. At the same time, young people report that facilitated experiences in nature improve their mental health in profound and persistent ways. They feel more connected and capable. Symptoms of depression, anxiety, and related mental health challenges often lift, or are eased.

These experiential and often therapeutic activities take place in the context of the original human heritage: nature and its objects. In turn, these objects are curated by the ecological world itself and are revealed to participants in consistently surprising and powerful ways. This chapter, in Helen Chatterjee’s new collaborative book project, describes experiential activities with university undergraduates, in nature, and the use of objects found in nature to facilitate and promote mental health, identity, belonging, empathy, and overall wellbeing. Despite the diversity of wild spaces and the unique opportunities each presents, this chapter demonstrates the ways in which the same benefits can be gleaned from a walk in the local park as from an odyssey in the mountains. The chapter offers suggestions, cautions, and recommendations for those seeking to facilitate safe and effective experiential object activities in nature.


The book will be published in 2019. If you’d like to be notified when the book becomes available, please contact Ross.

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