THE HYBRID MIND: The More High-Tech Schools Become, the More Nature They Need

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.

On Nov. 16, at the annual Learning & the Brain conference in Boston, Mass., I offered some of the following remarks in a keynote address. My topic was “The Hybrid Mind.” This was drawn in part from earlier essays and my book, “The Nature Principle.”

I once met an instructor who trained young people to become the pilots of cruise ships. He described the two kinds of students he encounters. One kind grew up mainly indoors, spending hours playing video games and working on computers. These students are quick to learn the ship’s electronics, a useful talent, the instructor explained. The other kind of student grew up spending a lot of time outdoors, often in nature. They, too, have a talent. “They actually know where the ship is.”

He wasn’t being cute. Recent studies of the human senses back that statement up. “We need people who have both ways of knowing the world,” he added.

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Currently, the force of economics is on the side of technology and standardized efficiency. Optimistic researchers suggest that multitasking is creating the smartest generation yet, freed from limitations of geography, weather, and distance—pesky inconveniences of the physical world.

Others are skeptical, if not hostile to technology. In his book The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein, a professor at Emory University, reels out studies comparing this generation of students with prior generations, reporting “they don’t know any more history or civics, economics or science, literature or current events”— despite all that available information. Other researchers believe that people who experience too much technology in their formative years experience stunted development of the frontal lobe, “ultimately freezing them in teen brain mode,” as Maclean’s magazine put it.

Here’s a third possibility, what I call the hybrid mind. The ultimate multitasking is to live simultaneously in both the digital and physical worlds, using computers to maximize our powers to process intellectual data and natural environments to ignite our senses and accelerate our ability to learn and feel—combining the resurfaced “primitive” powers of our ancestors with the digital speed of our teenagers.

Want Students to Learn? Ignite the senses now

Scientists who study human perception no longer assume we have only five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. The number now ranges from a conservative 10 to as many as 30, including blood-sugar levels, empty stomach, thirst, and proprio­ception (awareness of our body’s position in space).

Ever wonder why you have two nostrils? Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley did. They fitted undergraduates with taped-over goggles, earmuffs, and work gloves to block other senses, then set them loose in a field. Most of the students could follow a 30-foot-long trail of chocolate perfume and even changed direction precisely where the invisible path took a turn. The subjects were able to smell better with two functioning nostrils, which researchers likened to hearing in stereo. And they found themselves zigzagging, a technique employed by dogs as they track. “We found that not only are humans capable of scent tracking,” said study researcher Noam Sobel, “but they spontaneously mimic the tracking pattern of [other] mammals.”

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In 2009, researchers at Madrid’s University of Alcalá de Henares showed how people, like bats, could identify objects without needing to see them, through the echoes of human tongue clicks. According to the lead researcher, echoes are also perceived through vibrations in ears, tongue, and bones—a refined sense learned through trial and error by some blind people and even sighted individuals. It’s all about hearing a world that exists beyond what we normally mistake for silence.

What else can we do that we’ve forgotten?

The U.S. military has studied how some soldiers seem to be able to use their latent senses to detect roadside bombs and other hazards. The 18-month study of 800 military personnel found that the best bomb spotters were rural people—those who’d grown up in the woods hunting turkey or deer—as well as those from tough urban neighborhoods, where it’s equally important to be alert.

“They just seemed to pick up things much better,” reported Army Sergeant Major Todd Burnett, who worked on the study for the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. “They know how to look at the entire environment.” And the other enlistees, the ones who’d spent more time with Game Boys or at the mall? They didn’t do so well. As Burnett put it, they were focused on the proverbial “screen rather than the whole surrounding.”

The explanation may be partly physiological. Australian researchers suggest that the troubling increase in nearsightedness is linked to young people spending less time outdoors, where eyes must focus at longer distances. But more is probably going on here. Good vision, acute hearing, an attuned sense of smell, spatial awareness—all of these abilities could be operating simultaneously. This natural advantage offers practical applications. One is an increased ability to learn; another is an enhanced capability to avoid danger. Still another, perhaps the most important, is the measurement-defying ability to more fully engage in life.

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Today, students (and the rest of us) who work and learn in a dominating digital environment expend enormous energy to block out many of these senses, in order to focus narrowly on the screen in front of the eyes. That’s the very definition of being less alive. Who among us wants to be less alive? What parent wants their child to be less alive?

I believe that a central goal of modern education should be to encourage such flexible thinking, to nurture the hybrid mind — to stimulate both ways of knowing in the world: digital and direct experience.

Screens and Streams: The river of knowing

Research in this area remains a frontier in the academic world, but evidence is growing. Schools that do use outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education report significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math. Students in Finland lead the world in math and science scores; in that country, it’s an article of faith that the best education includes time spent in the classroom — with lots of recess and learning time outdoors.

Children are more likely to invent their own games in green play spaces rather than on flat playgrounds or playing fields. Green play spaces also suit a wider array of students and promote social inclusion, regardless of gender, race, class, or intellectual ability. One study found that so-called at-risk students in week-long outdoor camp settings scored significantly better on science testing than in the typical classroom. At the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, researchers have discovered that children as young as 5 show a significant reduction in the symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder when they engaged with nature.

Cognitive and behavioral benefits accrue well beyond school boundaries. In inner-city housing projects in Chicago, investigators found that the presence of trees outside apartment buildings were predictors of certain behaviors: less procrastination, better coping skills, greater self-discipline among girls, better social relationships, and less violence. Educators benefit, too. Canadian researchers found that teachers expressed renewed enthusiasm for teaching in schools that engage their students in natural settings.

Maximum learning usually takes place when more of our senses are engaged. Yes, tight digital focus is often needed, but the healthy brain — the learning brain — also needs to pay a different kind of attention, an attention that researchers have called “fascination,” which often happens in more natural settings. This kind of attention restores the parts of the brain fatigued by too much “directed attention.” This is true for students, for teachers, for all of us.

Is education moving in this direction? Some schools are. They’re creating natural play and learning spaces, school gardens; they’re using nearby nature in cities and wilderness beyond them to connect the young to the world of knowledge. Often, they’re incorporating new technologies into these experiences.

But too many school districts are putting all their eggs on one computer chip, while reducing recess, canceling field trips, and demanding that students spend ever more time at their desks, staring at screens.

Few today would question the notion that every person, especially every young person, has a right to access the Internet, whether through a school district, a library, or a city’s public Wi-Fi program. We accept the idea that the divide between the digital haves and have-nots must be closed. But all children also have a right to develop a wider spectrum of their senses and mental abilities, to know the real world, and to be fully alive.

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Richard Louv is the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE, from which some of this essay is excerpted, and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS. He is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network.

 More reading and resources

 C&NN Report: Children’s Contact with the Outdoors and Nature: A Focus On Educators and Educational Settings, adapted from C&NN Annotated Bibliographies of Research and Studies by Cheryl Charles, Ph.D., President, Children & Nature Network, and Alicia Senauer, Yale University.

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

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

Learn more about C&NN’s Natural Teachers Network.

On blending technology with nature experiences

High Tech High Nature: How Families Can Use Electronics to Explore the Outdoors

Wild Snapping: Digital Photography Helps Techno-Savvy Kids Focus on Nature

Three good pieces from Andy Revkin of The New York Times (Dot Earth):

A Child’s Video Tour of Her Family’s Garden

On Children and Digital Depictions of Nature

On Birds, Twitter and Teaching

Leaving technology behind

Going on a Techno-Fast: Taking a Break from the Virtual World 

Photo of children with digital cameras copyright 2012 David FitzSimmons.


  1. Jenifer Joy Madden

    Too many school administrations and teachers don’t realize that cancelling recess causes more stress among students which can interfere with learning. Running around and free play are good for so many reasons. One Italian study even shows that kids who have more unrestricted play also tend to have more friends!

  2. I wish you could see our public school…Primary Village South in Centerville, OH…our outdoor classroom is just as important as our inside learning spaces.

    I have invited someone out to visit. It is an open invitation. You would be surprised at what our public school has done in outdoor exploration!

    Laura Peterson
    Naturalist in Residency

  3. Hi Richard. Great post! I love your blog. I greatly appreciate the detail and research you provide. The concept of the “Hybrid Mind” is one I’ve been promoting for the last few years in my work to connect technology and nature for young children. (Although I did not come up with nearly a nifty term as that!) Incidentally I am giving a speech at the Early Childhood STEM conference at Cal Tech February 8th if you are near Orange County. I’d love to meet you in person! ~Cynthia

  4. I meet more and more teachers and parents in the UK who don’t appreciate the value of play as an essential part of a child’s development. I don’t know whether it’s been dropped from teacher training in recent years; retired teachers know how important it is and felt it was being phased out. More demand for achievement, results, learning outcomes even for 2 yr olds coming for outdoor muddy play in the woods. No no no! They are here to play and have some freedom!

  5. Hi Richard,

    I just love how well-received you were at the Learning and the Brain Conference…. That’s a high-powered and tech-leaning audience. You got a standing ovation!!! Awesome.
    Looking forward to a nature-rich future.
    Thanks for all you do!


  6. I appreciate Richard’s outreach across the country and abroad. His message is clear and logical. All of us who believe that nature should be a part of every child’s formal and informal education should do their part in extending Richard’s influence. I believe that the integration of direct experience in nature and the use of new technologies is the best way to create whole children. Will the power structures in schools listen to this critical message?

  7. Richard, as you know, I’m a big fan of your work and admire your communication skills. I’ve also thought and written much about so-called multitasking. I’m not so sure what you’re describing here is really multitasking as you term it.
    For example, I still see being fully present with Nature and taking pictures of it as two distinct activities. Using technology to observe or record something by definition removes one from the experience.
    I certainly understand the reality of having to integrate technology with our reclamation of our native connection with Nature, but I hope you and other educators, including parents, will still encourage time spent in direct conversation with Nature, without an interpreter.

  8. I was lucky to meet attend a study visit this year with European colleagues many of whom work in schools in various countries. All reported an increase in the use of ICT, tablets etc. Being a play advocate, when I raised the issue of children’s wellbeing and the increased need for children to have access to green spaces and play to restore their concentration, this was as if an alien idea. I think ICT will very much enhance learning but only if in balance and I strongly believe schools that head down this road need also to appraise their whole school environment to give children chance to access quality play opportunities in rich green spaces. Few schools appear to have a whole school play policy that feed in to their other policies and yet there are some excellent examples of work in the UK where schools have made sweeping improvements to enhance children’s experience of the school day and supported children’s wellbeing through play in the school day.

  9. 1. What have you experienced as the importance of nature, the senses and direct contact with the physical world for CHILDREN and their learning?
    I experienced that nature is important for children. It is everywhere around them and yet they do not see it and have the opportunity to interact with it as much as I did as a child. For the project in my Pre-k field, we explored water. Water is everywhere and I really wanted the children to go out and explore water in nature, not just in their homes. This is why I gave them cameras to take home so they could explore their environment. I also talked about the water cycle because nature is involved in that. It helped them to understand how water is connected to their lives and environment. I also experienced how important their senses are at this time. Again, this project emphasized observation and really helping them to open their eyes about the world around them. I also realized how important direct contact with the physical world is. The children see water in nature. They went over a stream everyday and never noticed until we began discussing water. They became excited and pointed out things they saw in the water. I thought it would be really neat if I allowed the children the opportunity to recreate the stream and show and understand how it works. This is also why I decided that this stream would be our field site for the project. They also did so many activities that involved their hands. They love to touch everything and this is why I incorporated art activities. I also incorporated science experiments. They were able to observe what was happening and then understand why it happened. They were also able to taste and touch to explore. That was really important to them.
    2. How have you used your Hybrid Mind this semester for your own inquiry on Trees or with Children in their Project Approach?
    I used my Hybrid Mind this semester for my own inquiry on Trees by visiting my tree often. I would study the leaves, the bark, the shape of my tree, and also anything else I could find on it. I conducted a leaf and bark rubbing. I also collected a few leaves from my tree to take home with me. I used my eyes to observe and my hands to touch and feel the tree. I then took a photo with my phone. This incorporated technology into the project. This allowed me to go back and look at the photos of my tree to see how it changed over time. I used a tree book to go through and find my leaf. Once I found a leaf that looked like the leaf I found from my tree, I wrote down the name of the tree. I conducted further research by using the internet. I looked up images of the tree I thought it was. I compared the bark and leaves. I also saw pictures of what was growing on my tree. This reassured me that I had a Horse Chestnut Tree. Throughout this inquiry, I used direct experiences with my tree because I visited it and collected items from it. I also used the internet to research it further. I also used my Hybrid Mind for the Project Approach that I was exploring with the children in my Head Start classroom. I came up with direct experiences that the children and I could conduct together. It allowed the children to touch and feel. We constructed our own stream and this allowed the children to have a direct experience with what a stream is really like. I also took them to the stream they cross over everyday going to school. I also introduced technology to them. They each were able to take a digital camera home to take pictures of water they saw in their environment. I then developed the pictures and posted them in the classroom for them to revisit and look at. We also watched videos on water and the water cycle. That also incorporated technology into the project.
    3. What can you do as a beginning educator to cultivate your Hybrid Mind both personally and professionally?
    As a beginning educator, I can cultivate my Hybrid Mind personally by going out and being in contact with nature. I love taking walks and going in the woods to observe the wildlife. I myself do not hunt, but I know many people who do and I have gone in the woods to look for deer and it’s amazing how my senses open up. It is quiet and you learn to observe very carefully, especially since the deer blend in so much. I also have to be quiet and when I am quiet, I hear so much more besides the ruffling of leaves and tree branches falling. I hear animals running and walking and making calls to each other. I enjoy these direct experiences and not just in nature. In school it was always better conducting or participating in experiments instead of just reading the textbook. It was boring and I did not always understand the concept by reading about it or looking at pictures. The students feel the same way. They would much rather go somewhere than read about it. I can also spend less time on the computer. As a college student, I spend most of my time during the semester typing papers and doing research on the internet and that narrows my ability to learn and understand the physical environment that surrounds me. During my breaks, I tend to stay away from the computer. To cultivate my Hybrid Mind professionally, I can read more research about the Hybrid Mind. I enjoyed this article and I think that there will eventually be more and more research. Things change on a daily basis and I need to keep up with the latest and greatest research. I can go to conferences that discuss it. I can also make sure that as a teacher, I have direct experiences for the children in my class. I want them to go outside for recess and for other content areas in my class that include art and science. They can collect items from nature to explore or I can even have a scavenger hunt for the children. I want them to expand their learning and spend less time on the computer. I will minimize how much time they can spend on the computer or IPad to about 15 minutes a day. I do not want them blocking out everything that is happening around them. I want them to focus on the rest of the classroom. I also do not want them spending a lot of time on the computer because they need direct contact with their classmates. They will expand their play and learning by playing and communicating with others. We learn from each other.

  10. Listening to this talk on my car radio on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, at Lake Karapiro, New Zealand.
    Very informative & rings true to me . Thanks.


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