Introduction to Naturalistic Intelligence

How to nurture children's interest in the natural world.

Introduction to Naturalistic Intelligence

Introduction to Naturalistic Intelligence

Intelligence is the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. IQ tests measure a range of cognitive abilities and are used to assess human intelligence. If so, why are most IQ tests exclusive to testing logical reasoning and problem-solving? 

IQ tests are a useful tool, but there are things that they won’t tell you. It might not tell you about your sharp memory for detail and skill in recognizing patterns, and it won’t tell you that you’re skilled in classifying and categorizing information. These are two markers of naturalistic intelligence.

There is more than one type of intelligence, and the explanation is in the theory of multiple intelligences. This article will discuss naturalistic intelligence—what it is, its benefits, and how you build it in the classroom.

Naturalistic intelligence: what is it?

Infant standing on log with adult


Naturalistic intelligence is the ability to identify, observe, categorize, understand, and manipulate natural elements like plants, animals, and the environment. People with high naturalistic intelligence are interested in nurturing, exploring, and learning about the environment and other species. They’re also said to be sensitive to even the most subtle changes in their environment, which help them find patterns and relationships with nature.

People have likely been exhibiting naturalistic intelligence since the time of the first humans. Centuries ago, their survival relied on their ability to recognize useful and dangerous subjects, observe climate changes, and use the land for resources like food and potable water. Today, naturalistic intelligence is often characterized by:

  • Love of nature: You’ll find that people with naturalistic intelligence love nature. They often immerse themselves in nature and nature-related concepts, whether it’s through books, media, or outdoor activities.
  • Sharp observation skills: Naturalists have great observation skills. Enhanced by their sensitivity to nature, they often have a sharp memory for detail and are skilled in noticing patterns.
  • Motivation to understand how things work: Nature is complex, and many concepts and phenomena involve observation and exploration. This trickles down to people with naturalistic intelligence by guiding them into a fascination for nature and how plants, animals, and ecosystems function.
  • Aversion to pollution: People with naturalistic intelligence often dislike pollution or anything that destroys the environment. They’re environmentally friendly and care about the natural world. This propels them toward preserving it through sustainable actions such as decreasing plastic use and reducing food waste or working in a career that enables them to care for the environment.
  • Efficiency in sorting information: Naturalists are experts in sorting through natural patterns and relationships. They can find existing patterns, create new ones, and easily classify and categorize information. When it comes to nature, you’ll find them categorizing plants, flowers, leaves, shells, stones, and rocks.
  • Caring for animals: Naturalistic intelligence is closely associated with loving and caring for animals. People with this intelligence type often adopt pets or work in careers that allow them to care for animals. It also helps develop empathy for animals and natural life.
  • Interest in scientific careers: People with high naturalistic intelligence tend to favor nature-related careers. Before their skills manifest into careers, you’ll see naturalists gravitate toward nature courses in botany, zoology, and marine biology.

Examples of notable people with naturalistic intelligence would be Charles Darwin, an evolutionary biologist; Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist; and Jane Goodall, a primatologist. They likely began displaying the characteristics of naturalistic intelligence when they were young. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence introduces the idea that babies are born with naturalistic intelligence—among seven others—and they start developing these skills during early childhood education. 

Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences

Psychologist Howard Gardner is the mind behind the theory of multiple intelligences. In the 1983 book Frame of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, he disputes the concept that only one intelligence exists.

While he acknowledges the widely recognized logical-mathematical intelligence, usually evaluated on an IQ test, he proposes at least seven additional intelligences. Gardner also suggests that everyone is born with varying levels of each. In addition to naturalistic intelligence, the theory of multiple intelligences includes:

  • Linguistic-verbal intelligence: People with linguistic-verbal intelligence are characterized by a strong understanding of written and spoken language, affinity for learning new languages, and the ability to use language to achieve goals. This intelligence involves reading, writing, and speaking where people can manipulate syntax, phonetics, and the semantics of a language and create things involving oral and written language such as books or speeches.
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence: This intelligence refers to the ability to understand and identify logical or numerical patterns and non-numerical logical relationships. People with this type of intelligence can think conceptually about numbers, relationships, and patterns. They are very skilled in analyzing problems logically, making calculations, and solving abstract problems.
  • Visual-spatial intelligence: Visual-spatial intelligence involves the ability to perceive, analyze, and understand visual information and store and recall them in the mind. This type of intelligence allows people to configure and manipulate patterns in large and small scale spatial relationships. People with this type of intelligence have strong visual perception skills, can quickly recognize patterns and solve puzzles, and have an understanding of proportion and distance.
  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: This refers to the ability to use gross or fine motor skills to express emotions or create, learn, or solve problems. People who exhibit bodily-kinesthetic intelligence are often physically strong, flexible, balanced, and dexterous. They also have a keen knowledge of movement, expression, and body language. 
  • Musical intelligence: Those with musical intelligence are skilled in composing music, singing, and playing instruments. This type of intelligence is characterized by having an understanding of musical structure, rhythm, pitch, and melody and appreciation for musical patterns.
  • Interpersonal intelligence: Interpersonal intelligence is often compared to emotional intelligence and refers to the ability to sense, understand and relate to others’ feelings and motivations. People with this type of intelligence work well with others, communicate effectively, and often display qualities of leadership and conflict resolution. 
  • Intrapersonal intelligence: This involves the ability to understand yourself and have an awareness of your own emotions, needs, capacities, and motivations. People with this type of intelligence have a distinct sense of themselves and how to achieve their goals.

There are many situations where one of Gardner’s eight intelligences would be preferred over another. Dancers would likely favor strengthening their bodily-kinesthetic intelligence over linguistic-verbal intelligence. If you don’t work in nature, you might not see the importance of your naturalistic intelligence; however, there are great benefits associated with developing and strengthening it.

Naturalistic intelligence: the advantages

Whether or not you work in a natural setting, developing your naturalistic intelligence has advantages in and out of nature. Interacting with nature helps build your observation skills. When nature activities require collecting and sorting, not only does it keep your mind active, but it also helps develop your motor skills.

Naturalistic intelligence is also associated with empathy and curiosity. By being involved in environmental activities, you can build your empathy towards people, animals, and nature. Empathy is what helps us build social connections and feel connected to others. People with high naturalistic intelligence are known to be inquisitive. These qualities help with problem-solving and can lead to increased participation and academic achievement.

Naturalistic intelligence activities

The theory of multiple intelligences isn’t an argument of nature versus nurture. Gardner proposes that everyone is born with varying levels of each intelligence, and they can be nurtured over time. There are ways you can help teach your children naturalistic intelligence. You can create activities for them to:

  • Experience nature: Being outdoors is a great opportunity for children to be active. It also helps them develop naturalistic intelligence by exposing them to nature. They can experience nature by taking walks or trips to experience wildlife.
  • Observe nature: After experience comes observation. Using all available senses, your children can watch animal behavior, use observation tools (magnifying glasses, microscopes, and telescopes), watch the weather, and take notice of ecological principles (plants growing or decomposing over time).  
  • Explore nature: During exploration, children can dive deeper into natural life. They can accomplish this by working with and learning in the natural world. They can grow plants, work in gardens, go on hikes, perform skits, and read or watch stories about nature.
  • Classify nature: After they’ve experienced, observed, and explored nature, all that’s left to do is classify. Your children can classify things based on what they’ve seen. They can collect items to identify different plants, leaves, berries, and more. They can use these collections to highlight differences and similarities between their natural objects.  

The following activities will help you incorporate these techniques to build and strengthen naturalistic intelligence in young children. A tool like brightwheel’s daily activity report allows your teachers to easily record activities and share milestones, keeping families connected to their child’s learning.

Children looking through glass at aquarium


Nature walks

Children with naturalistic intelligence enjoy spending time outside and are interested in the environment. Give them time to connect with nature by setting up nature walks. It’s an added opportunity for them to observe and explore. Additionally, you don’t have to find a unique habitat for them to explore. A simple walk around the building or in a park will allow them to interact with nature. And while nature walks are excellent for strengthening naturalistic intelligence, they’re also a great mental health activity. Nature walks can improve attention, lower stress, and increase empathy and cooperation. 

Trip to a zoo or aquarium

Children don’t typically have to exhibit naturalistic intelligence for them to enjoy a trip to the zoo or aquarium. Trips to the zoo and aquarium can help young children differentiate between land and marine life. They can learn about the difference between fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds. These trips can help increase environmental awareness in your children and give them an opportunity for hands-on learning.

Nature journals

A nature journal is a journal where you can write or draw ideas about and in response to nature. Many scientists, naturalists, and artists use nature journals to collect their observations of a place or object. There is no wrong way to create a nature journal. All you need is paper, pencils, and something to color with. As you take your children on a nature walk, prompt them to write or draw what they see. Help them by guiding them to notice colors, shapes, sizes, smells, and textures. Tell them to look at the weather and season. And as a bonus, if your children find any natural items while exploring like feathers, leaves, or flower petals, they can also be added to their nature journal.


Gardening activities are great hands-on learning experiences for young children. Children typically have no problem getting their hands a little messy, which is a chance to turn it into something educational. While experiencing nature and the environment, gardening can demonstrate how and where we get our food. It creates the opportunity to explore dirt, plants, and bugs. To help keep them interested, start with large-seeded or fast-growing plants. You can grow sunflowers, beans, and even pumpkins. Gardening is also known to have great mind and body benefits for people of any age.

Nature photography

Nature photography allows children to slow down and pay attention to nature. While you might be a bit apprehensive about putting an expensive digital camera in your children's hands, instant print cameras act as a great alternative where they can see their picture almost immediately. You can develop this into an ongoing activity where you change the instructions each time. One day, have them take pictures of birds. During the next walk, have them take pictures of their favorite leaves. Cater your nature photography prompts to your location and what your children are likely to find.

Class pet

Many young children are often interested in having a pet. While it might not be possible for them at home, you might be able to get them a class pet. Having a class pet stimulates learning and teaches responsibility. It also promotes compassion, empathy, and respect for animals. When choosing a classroom pet, consider the size of the animal, allergies to animals, the level of care it needs, the age of your children, weekend care for the animal, and how you will connect the animal to your lessons. Common classroom pets include ants, fish, birds, and hamsters. To increase their interaction with the animals, have your children help you feed and give water to your class pet.

Watch documentaries

You might want to cut down the amount of screen time your children have, but if they’re going to be in front of a screen, have them watch a nature documentary. Zoos and aquariums are a great chance for them to explore nature at their fingertips. Alternatively, documentaries give them a chance to explore nature that’s inaccessible to them. They can bring some of nature’s biggest wonders—the Aurora Borealis, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Grand Canyon—in front of their eyes. Some options include Disney’s Penguins, Bears, and Growing Up Wild.

Trip to a botanical garden

Trips to the zoo and aquarium are likely the most popular of the nature-related class trips but don’t forget about botanical gardens. Here, young children can still explore fascinating habitats with an emphasis on plants. Although they’re usually open all year round, spring and summer are peak growing seasons when your children might have the chance to walk through Japanese, rose, or even desert gardens. Botanical gardens are the ideal location to explore the flora, but your children can also get a look into the fauna surrounding them. They might have the chance to see hummingbirds, dragonflies, ducks, and more.

Career day

A career day focused on individuals who display naturalistic intelligence can expose your children to different career paths. Not only does this give them a chance to learn more and ask questions, but it could pique their interest in a particular career or nature subject. They might be interested in physical sciences (astronomy and planetary science), earth and environmental sciences (ecology and ocean sciences), biological sciences (evolution and zoology), or scientific community and society (agriculture, water resources, and forestry). For career day, try to give them a variety of options. You might choose veterinarians, farmers, archaeologists, or meteorologists.

Nature collection

A nature collection is an efficient way for children to experience, observe, explore, and classify nature. It’s also easier than it looks. During your nature walks, guide your children to collect objects they find around them. While rocks and sticks are plenty, help them add leaves, flowers, or feathers to their collection. They can even collect blades of grass. The more they collect, the more they can learn the differences and similarities among nature. Depending on the object, their nature collection can easily be added to their nature journal.

What it means to be “nature smart”

The last of Howard Gardner’s eight intelligences, naturalistic intelligence, focuses on how people relate to the natural environment and their ability to observe, identify, and understand natural elements. With strengths in finding patterns and relationships to nature, people with naturalistic intelligence excel in science and nature-related careers. These careers require immersing themselves in nature, caring for plants and animals, and having sharp observation skills. Naturalistic intelligence can help young children grow into observant, empathetic adults. It can be done through small but significant changes to your curriculum that cater to their intelligence and increase their chances of success.

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