THE "EXTINCTION OF EXPERIENCE" — Is Education Dumping Reality?

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book is "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

This morning’s New York Times carried an excellent op-ed by Aaron Hirsh about the need to connect education to real world experiences. Hirsh, chairman of the Vermilion Sea Institute and the author of “Telling Our Way to the Sea: a Voyage of Discovery in the Sea of Cortez,” begins with a story.

Hirsh and the students were floating on their backs in the sea, each with an ear under water.

new education mantra
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“If you put your head underwater in the Sea of Cortez, you will hear a crackling sound,” he wrote. “In my summer field course for undergraduates, there were two students who noticed it before all the others. One was a young man who was blind; the other was a precocious musician…The blind student described the sound as ‘footsteps on kindling.”

To the students’ surprise, Hirsh told them that the sound was made by pistol shrimp that, by shooting jets of water from their claws, create popping bubbles that stun their prey and help the shrimp communicate.

There’s a lot more to Hirsh’s pistol shrimp story — and it’s worth reading every word — but the point isn’t about shrimp; it’s about the students.

Higher education, he explains, is in a major transition: “Colleges are moving many courses into an online environment, doing away with traditional classrooms and labs.” The shift offers many advantages, including a wider reach and more a new source of tuition dollars. But several studies have shown that some online students are more likely to drop out than students in traditional classrooms (and, probably far more than students in schools that emphasize experiential learning — as in Hirsh’s floating classroom). The even larger risk, he argues, is that students will increasingly see higher education as a doorway to accreditation, a means to a job. Higher education shouldn’t only lead “to a richer bank balance, but to a richer existence.”

I’d argue, too, that a richer bank balance is ultimately linked to a nature-rich life.

Long ago, Robert Michael Pyle, the esteemed nature writer, warned us about the “extinction of experience.” In his book The Thunder Tree, he wrote that our disappearing intimacy with nearby nature “can be as significant as the total loss of rarities.” And, he added,

People who care conserve; people who don’t know don’t care. What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”

The loss of connection with the rest of nature not only undermines our experience outside of our bodies, but also our inner lives, our personal resilience, and our ability to create.

Last week, at the Children & Nature Network’s annual Grassroots Gathering, Mary Roscoe, an especially thoughtful writer and advocate, offered this reminder: “Our movement is about reconnecting people to nature, but people are part of nature, so we are also about connecting people to people.” In any movement, she reminded us, leaders and activists can grow weary, and their effectiveness can wane. As we’ve witnessed every year since 2006, last week’s Gathering, which brought together movement leaders from around the country and overseas, restored us in ways that are difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify. That human restoration occurs every year.

I’m a fan of meeting-by-Skype or Google Hangouts. They’re more energy efficient than air travel. New technologies help C&NN communicate with people around the world about the latest news and research on both nature-deficit disorder and the health and cognition benefits of nature experience.

Making that information available is essential, but it’s all just data unless good souls also come together and learn from each other, face-to-face.

In an era when too many school boards are overloading schools with computers, iPads, even video games, Hirsh doesn’t reject communications technology. Rather, he urges education to adopt another approach, the hybrid online-field course. He explains: “In the online environment, students read text, watch lectures and solve problems. They then meet their professor in the appropriate field setting — a museum; a nature reserve; a certain city neighborhood — and actively apply their newly developed disciplinary perspective….This approach might give us the best of both worlds.”

Indeed, that approach would nurture what I’ve called, in The Nature Principle, the “hybrid mind” which maximizes the benefits of technology and ignites the human senses in the natural world.

From preschool to grad school, developing hybrid minds should be one of the central goals of education.

In fact, every legislator, school board member, college dean, parent and student should internalize a new mantra for education: For every dollar spent on the virtual, another dollar must be spent on the real — especially on learning environments immersed in the rest of nature, like Hirsh’s sea of sound and wonder.


Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network. He is the author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” and “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age.” Photo: R.L.

Resources and other reading:

The Pop! of the Wild, by Aaron Hirsh, The New York Times

How Nature Can Nurture the Hybrid Mind — an excerpt from “The Nature Principle“ in Outside Magazine.

C&NN Connect: America’s Wild Read Online-Book Discussion Features Robert Michael Pyle’s “The Thunder Tree”

You Can Get Your Students Outside — and Still Meet Your State Standards

10 Ways You Can Add “Vitamin N” to your Classroom & Beyond

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Smart Pills vs. Nature Smart: Want Your Kids to Do Better in School? Try a Dose of “Vitamin N”

Children’s Contact with the Outdoors and Nature: A Focus on Educator and Educational Settings, 2010, Children & Nature Network (multiple studies)

Thoughts Following the First White House Summit on Environmental Education: It’s Time to Redefine Green Jobs

How Public Universities Ramp Up Aid for the Wealthy, Leaving the Poor Behind, from ProPublica

Share your ideas with other Natural Teachers: Join the C&NN Connect Natural Teachers Group 

C&NN’s Natural Teachers Network. Download the free Natural Teachers eGuide.



  1. Richard Louv, I enjoyed your article. I know you are focused on experiencing nature, but I want to discuss people just being in the same space together.
    Do you know of any research that shows (quantitatively) that
    meeting face to face has benefits over the virtual (even when all the virtual connections are of high quality) or, for example,
    attending a live music concert is *better* than the virtual or
    being in an actual group Bible study is better than the virtual.

    Many of us (at least the older ones of us) *know* this, but it is (perceived as) personal opinion.
    Do you know of actual scientific research that shows that physiologically, different/additional things are going on when the people are physically together vs. virtually connected?

    Yours in education,

    Jim Olsen

    • Richard Louv

      Excellent question, Jim. Will look into this. In the meantime, perhaps other readers can share what they know?

  2. Rich,

    The article is a good one for us to think about education, where it is going, and how it is performing – or in some cases not performing.

    We have fallen into the same trap as our colleagues in K-12, that is, higher education is going more to testing, computer and virtual learning with the outcome being we are virtually promoting no substantive learning at all.

    When educational television came to the fore the discussion then was this technology will allow all students to learn from the best teachers via educational television. That way only the best would teach and students would be getting the best they possibly could to learn any subject. Why did that not occur? Simple – good teaching and learning is “doing” not watching. Good teachers do not fall into that pitfall – that television would replace good teaching. Good teaching may include educational television. Thus, the television teaching panacea never really occurred to the degree to which some thought it would or could.

    Virtual learning has been the next wave of panaceas. It has such a compelling appeal that universities have clamored that it must be the second coming of teaching and learning. In many cases it has also become a revenue source for universities because they charge students extra not because it is better, but because it fills the need for a revenue stream in these fiscally trying times. Professors have been asked, cajoled, or even told to prepare their courses on line because it is a boon to university pocketbooks, not because it is a superior way for students to experience and learn. In fact it is an inferior way to learn because it is as useless as learning to become a surgeon by watching how to do perform surgery.

    In the case of poor teaching potentially virtual learning is as good. In fact graduate students that have the option to take virtual classes to supplant those classes that are poorly taught do so because at least they can choose bad medicine on their time. So convenience trumps poor teaching and lack of experience.

    Yet we know that learning by doing is a very compelling vehicle. Students always remember facts/concepts/ideas better in context and when they see how they fit into the scheme of things. Learning about nature inside or virtually is as ridiculous as virtual potty training is to a three year old. They have to be there to experience it.

    Does this mean technology is antithetical to teaching and learning? No, not at all. It is however not the end all and be all. Like educational television, technology has its place in the process. We learned this with educational television and we are being asked again to see if we remember the history of what occurred before in this new set of hardware and software. Will we remember?

    I submit a hybrid course is not a bad idea, BUT, virtual education should not precede the real experience in the field. To connect learning to their world, the world of the student we must make every effort to provide them with a multi-sensory approach. They must be in the field, they must feel the bark of a Shag Bark Hickory, or look at the tessellation of the bark of a Dogwood before they are told about it or shown picture of it on the screen of a computer.

    Experience must come first, then maybe they will learn more than virtually, but substantively. Is it any wonder why some people do not understand that being in nature has value when they have been taught that it is as good virtually as the real thing? Even the Coca Cola company in their ads of many years ago said: “Coke is the REAL THING.” They understood that drinking it is better than looking at it. Now if we can convince higher education decision makers to support the REAL THING, maybe we will have students who become adults who truly know the difference between the real and the virtual.

    • Richard Louv

      Thanks, Joe. And you’re the real thing, too.

  3. Jim’s search for scientific research about direct experience compared to virtual experience is a fair request. Even if such studies exist, I doubt that they would change the power structure in schools much. People seem to make most decisions on deeply ingrained beliefs, values, and past experience. I agree with Richard when he asks for a dollar for dollar match for different teaching methods and contexts. I don’t know how far that request will go either in changing the views of school administrators. The best I can do is to keep trying to demonstrate and write about the importance of direct nature experience so the extinction of experience will be reversed.

    • Richard Louv

      And you’re doing great work, Cliff.

  4. Here is a link to an interesting article, somewhat related, from ‘Nature’. The idea of online learning with real-life “labs” is discussed, i.e. sending students into the real world to experience things as they will be in real life. I think some of the principles apply to the discussion here.

    As a geographer, and as someone who promotes geo-literacy in K-12 classrooms, I love taking the kids AND the technology outside. There’s nothing better than seeing kids’ faces light up when they make connections.

    My best example is using ArcGIS Online via a mobile device. I set up the base map and exercise in advance and have this up on the smartboard in the classroom. Then I take groups of kids outside to answer a question – Does our park have garbage cans in good locations (map garbage vs. where the cans are)? Do we need more bicycle racks at our school (map locations of bicycles vs. where the racks are currently located)? Etc. Maybe they want to identify and map tree species on the playground and monitor changes through the seasons. Then all of those points are uploaded and are waiting for us on the smartboard when we get back to the classroom – real time. Now we can start to answer our question. Kids as young as elem school can do this kind of exercise.

    This mix of technology and real-life experience goes a long way to helping kids learn spatial skills that will be needed when they grow up and look for a job in the future.

    • Richard Louv

      Thanks, Emily, for the good comment. Very true. The issue is the balance. The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need.

  5. Hello. I just wanted to let you know that last night (Monday, 10/21/13)on PBS/Bill Moyers and Company, Moyers did an interview with psychologist Sherry Turkle where they discussed her book: “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other”. There may be a clip or full interview on You might find some research in the book in addition to her input from a psychological perspective… I just ordered the book as I would like to use some of the information in sessions for a new project I am introducing. I have been teaching programs related to reconnecting children with Nature for years… Now taking things further to help cultivate new stewards for earth via a program based on civics and ecopsychology for adolescents/young adults…


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