Learning Landscapes: Blending Nature with Self through Animal Allies

Animal Allies

What might be possible if children were initiated into a learning landscape in which the edges between the natural world and themselves were blurred or even non-existent? What might be possible if “becoming nature” through the body, mind and spirit of our animal allies were held as a central design component in our children’s education from the earliest years on?

Education is indeed our greatest resource, but it is not facts and figures that hold the power of change, regeneration and even transformation for humans and Earth. It is in the stories heard and experienced through the mindbody, heart and spirit that hold the richest transformative educational power.

“We spend too much time creating the world through our mind
rather than living through our hearts in the physical world.”
– Dr. David Blumenkrantz, Coming of Age the Rite Way

Transcendent Experiences

The power of initiation, especially in connection with the spirit of nature, resides in its ability to ignite natural curiosity about the great mysteries of life. Transcendent, initiatory experiences that blur the lines between nature and ourselves provide the fertile foundation for our children, families and communities to hear, connect with and begin a lifelong journey of living in our own life stories with heart and spirit, as well as mind.

What might the story and future of the world become if such transcendent and connecting experiences in, among and between self, others and nature were the norm, not the exception?

“One transcendent experience in nature is worth a thousand nature facts.”
– David Sobel, Childhood and Nature

Our children deserve a learning landscape that does more than encourage exploration of nature. Children need opportunities to “become” nature to better understand themselves, their community and make connections to people, animals and places locally, globally and throughout time because all is in relation.

Connection, love, empathy and even transcendence between children and the natural world should be our main “educational” goals. Through this our children develop not just the “know how” of the world, but come to understand the importance of ethically “knowing how” to use our understandings to participate in the transformation of the world. Initiation in the learning landscape is about using the edges and valuing the marginal.

This begins not simply in the cognitive understanding of environmental world issues, but in initiatory experiences that require children to shed their sense of separation between “self” and nature in order to transcend into relationship in which they understand they are nature and nature is them. Children have the gift (and it is a gift) to love and live within the beauty and spirit of nature. Seek to co-create a learning landscape that fosters a connection and love not just for the natural world, but with, among and in all our natural relationships.

Animal Allies

Anthropomorphizing facilitates relationships. Facts and figures, especially when couched in fear and desolation that often pervade the environmental education curriculum of our children, despite I believe the best of intentions, separate and create distance by reducing nature to an object, an “it.”

The design principle of “Animal Allies” creatively termed by David Sobel in his book Childhood and Nature, is a tool that we can use to help children enter into an “I” and “thou” relationship with the world. Literally, co-create the environment, tools and resources to dress and live as the animal. Create costumes, child-size animal homes and natural environments to become the animal(s) of choice.

Dramatic play, becoming an animal ally, is a crucial learning tool for children to make sense of the world in which they are a part. Integrate stuffed animals and puppets into the dramatic play by becoming those animals, not just talking to them or through them as people (and especially adults).

If we hope our children can become ecological regenerative ambassadors, we need to help co-create learning landscapes in which our children first playfully and adventurously become nature (or in this specific example, animals) before being asked someday to save “I and thou.”

Co-create learning landscapes in which children have opportunities to nourish life, not solve problems. Language is consciousness and this distinction is critical. By becoming animals and not just learning about “them” children experience and live empathy, which is a matter of the heart not the mind. Feeling empathy, not for but as the animals through the lens of being our kindred brothers and sisters, nourishes fertile soils from which an intrinsic willing to care for other creatures can emerge.

Power of Initiation

What might be possible if initiation into a learning landscape in which the borders (edges) between the natural world and ourselves were blurred or non-existent even? Would our primary goal be to educate or inform or might the “story” become one focused on fostering love, connection and compassion? In the words of Walt Whitman:

There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day,
or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.



Jen MendezJen Mendez

Jen is a wife, mother of two joyous children, experiential education mentor, and founder of PERMIE KIDs. She has a M. Ed. in International Education and has worked with children in the U.S. and overseas from early childhood through the primary years, as well as parent-educators. She integrates an ethical, design science methodology with her love for education to help others learn to design a customized education with their children that honors themselves, others, and the earth.


Leave a Reply