Joseph Bharat Cornell, a member of Ananda Community for 35 years, is one of the most inspiring nature educators in the world today. His first book, Sharing Nature with Children, sparked a worldwide revolution in nature education and became a classic. His six Sharing Nature books have been translated into twenty languages and are used by educators and nature enthusiasts all over the world. He is the founder and director of Sharing Nature Worldwide, a popular, well-loved nature awareness program for children and adults.
He created the “Flow Learning” system that gives teachers a simple structured way to guide students into direct experiences of nature and other educational ventures. He frequently travels to work with groups in other countries as well as in the United States.
On a beautiful breezy June afternoon, I interviewed Bharat for our school newsletter.
What inspired you to write Sharing Nature with Children?
I had been an outdoor educator for the National Audubon Society in one of their nature centers, and I saw how people responded to these activities. The activities made people come alive; they brought out the best in them. In writing Sharing Nature with Children I wanted to convey the potential for what nature has to teach us. I wanted to help people to become better people. It isn’t just a scientific or intellectual approach to convey information. It creates experiences for people to really feel absorbed in nature and come away with a deep sense of empathy and appreciation for their relationship with all life. The book describes a way to meet nature in a particular way that captures peoples’ imagination.
Every author gets so absorbed in his own work that it seems it should become everybody’s reality, which is not always what happens (laughter), but the most prominent nature organization in the world said that Sharing Nature started a world-wide revolution in nature education. It’s because it gives parents, educators, and youth leaders very creative activities that they can be successful with, without having to know a lot of information. One outdoor educator said that she loved Sharing Nature so much because her students weren’t aware that they were learning—they were just so involved in the experience. Sharing Nature is currently used in virtually every country in the world. Millions have experienced it. It doesn’t have any big publisher or organization behind it that might have more mundane goals. That has been its saving grace. It’s just a very useful tool that teaches with a sense of idealism. It’s both inspirational and practical.
How did you come up with the “Flow Learning” concept?
I had different hiking experiences with kids where things would happen in a very magical way. The children would be very absorbed in nature and so enthusiastic. I remember one day we had a group of 35 children on a nature outing. One of them would run over and show me something and then another—they were so united in their awareness and enthusiasm for nature. I got kind of spoiled having those experiences. I had created nature activities where the participants would have a strongly guided experience, but after a while I realized that there was a way of sequencing them that built a sense of momentum.
I had a lot that I wanted to share, but I realized that because of peoples’ restlessness, they couldn’t always relate to an inspirational message or a sense of nobility. I wanted to bring them more into the wavelength of those feelings. I found that through the fun and playful activities I could win children to the process, and then I could help them calm down through fun challenges that they really liked to do. They would gain a sense of self-control that was very important to them. From using those sequences I found that the experience became much more rewarding, both for me and for the children. I could convey a lot more that was meaningful.
Energy is so important— first people have to be alert. Focused energy is a key to having a direct experience. It’s also important to have an inner knowledge of something. If we know about something only in a superficial way it doesn’t touch us very deeply, and we don’t really understand it. As a child I had very profound experiences in nature; I know the value of that kind of experience. Most peoples’ goal is to learn some information. But Flow Learning takes into account human nature and any barriers to having a more profound experience in nature. It satisfies and helps people overcome these barriers in a very gentle way.
Using the different nature activities in the Flow Learning sequence is like climbing the rungs of a ladder. Experiential education gets you in touch with a broader reality and your world becomes bigger rather than self-focused or self-centered. John Muir said that the contents of the human soul contain the whole world. That’s a really good definition for all of education. We’re trying to become larger in our awareness and our sympathies. That being the goal, I tried to build a bridge in order to experience that expansion.
The last stage of Flow Learning is “share inspiration” when the children can communicate their inspiration and celebrate their experience. That sharing creates a really strong sense of fellowship. It’s very magnetic and people learn from each other. “Flow Learning” is about human nature, not only nature activities. It’s used in executive training in England and in hospitals in Germany. It’s really that universal movement towards a deeper understanding of life.
Since this issue of our newsletter focuses on “direct experience,” the third aspect of Flow Learning, can you think of your favorite “direct experience” story involving kids?
I did a program in a school in Challenge, CA, which is not far from Ananda. One of the classes was from the Sacramento Valley, around the rice fields. The kids had all grown up in a hunting culture. It was a beautiful spring morning and the birds were landing all around us as we were walking out. I was pointing out and naming the different birds, and some of the boys would pull out their imaginary guns and —bang, bang, bang— like that! At a certain point, because the birds were all around and everyone was being quiet, I had them all lay down under a tree—30 of them. I used the call that birders use: “pusht, phust, phust.” We had a Western Tanager— a bright orange head with yellow body— just come and land eight feet away from us. I said, “See that tanager; he’s come all the way from South America to spend the spring and summer with us.
Then other birds came close. And all of a sudden these just weren’t fascinating moving objects anymore to practice your sharp shooting on. They were just live realities, very close to them. They put away their imaginary guns and became involved in closely observing the birds, wanting to know more. So things weren’t just there for their amusement anymore.
That’s the value of direct experience—where we realize it’s not just something outside of ourselves, but our whole being is in delight in this experience and life is enriched through uniting with other realities. That’s what can happen with direct experience.
By Hridaya Atwell