An Interview with Joseph Bharat Cornell

Joseph Bharat Cornell is a world-renowned naturalist, educator, and storyteller. He founded the nature awareness program Sharing Nature Worldwide and, among other works, authored Sharing Nature with Children, which ushered in a transformation in nature education. His latest book, Deep Nature Play: A Guide to Wholeness, Aliveness, Creativity, and Inspired Learning, shows through vivid storytelling and tried-and-true nature activities how children and adults alike can achieve greater engagement, retention, and inspiration through absorption in deep play.

Define deep play for us, and tell us what elevates run-of-the-mill play to deep play.

The difference between regular play and deep play is the degree of absorption and focus of one’s play. When you’re totally immersed in the experience it’s the experience itself.

For example, a golfer once told a story about his ten-year-old son’s basketball game. At the end of the first half, his son’s team asked, “What’s the score?” The coach told them it was 30 to four. The team’s next question was, “Who’s ahead?” They were just playing basketball. So often, as we get older, we become so goal-oriented that we inhibit our ability to immerse ourselves in play.

In extreme sports, we often play with so much intensity that our thinking process falls away and we feel a sense of freedom and exhilaration. That’s why people love to do those activities. Sharing Nature activities is a softer approach that stimulates this same focused awareness through a variety of more gentle means: the novelty of new perspective, sensory challenge, immersive encounter, meditation, storytelling, playful group interaction, and joy.

How can we cultivate deep play in children?

One way of getting children into a captivating, deep play experience is by playing simple nature awareness games, such as Interview with Nature. In this game, the player chooses a plant, animal, rock, or other nature feature to interview. You might, for example, ask a tree, “What events have you seen in your life?” and other questions. You seek to get to know the tree from its own perspective. You use your imagination and intuition. In this way, you broaden your ability to relate to others’ reality and not just your own — and step outside of your world and into the larger world around you.

You made a strikingly simple statement that actually took me by surprise, because I’d never thought about it before. You said, “Play requires total focus.” Explain how it makes sense that the words “focus” and “carefree” actually belong in the same sentence.

People often have a lot of things going on in their mind at once. Even when doing something they enjoy, (according to a research study) they typically give only 47 percent of their attention to the activity. Maybe someone is doubting their ability to perform an activity well. If doing the activity before wasn’t a positive experience, then every time they participate in the activity, they will likely be distracted by a sense of unworthiness. Typically, children will jump feet first into an activity, while adults may first question and censor themselves. When the focus is singular and the attention is no longer fractured and torn by competing thoughts and emotions, we feel a sense of wholeness and empowerment. Absorbed in the present moment, we feel less stress and more peaceful.

Child psychologist Peter Gray said play is very important to children because they make up and agree to their own rules. When children negotiate and create rules for open-ended play, they commit themselves totally to the play activity.

In Deep Nature Play you briefly touched on the connection between lack of imagination and violence in discussing what happens when children with little imagination are confronted with an unpleasant, demeaning, or threatening situation. Can you elaborate on that?

A Swedish study found that when children lacking in imagination were confronted by an unpleasant or threatening situation, they would strike back and meet force with force, because they couldn’t imagine another response. Children with imagination, on the other hand, were able to think of different scenarios and select one that was more productive and would deescalate the situation.

What is Flow Learning, and why is it such an effective means of teaching?

Flow Learning is a teaching system I developed that creates a step-by-step accelerating flow of inspiration. By using a sequence of playful activities, you can elevate play to deep play and, in doing so, remove human barriers that separate children and adults from the natural world. The four stages of Flow Learning are: 1) Awaken Enthusiasm, 2) Focus Attention, 3) Offer Direct Experiences, and 4) Share Inspiration.

The first stage uses people’s love of play, creates involvement, and provides direction and structure. This stage is like driving a car. You need motion. If you’re stationary, it’s hard to turn the car. Even if you’re driving just a few miles an hour, it’s easy to turn the wheel with one finger. The first stage gets people moving and involved physically, mentally, and energetically.

The second stage increases one’s observational skills and calms the mind. Activities in this stage challenge children to use one or more of their physical senses to successfully complete the activity. Here, children are learning and they don’t even know it, because their whole being is embracing the experience.

In the third stage, players become more lost in the experience. Camera is a great game for this stage. It takes two people to play. The person in front is the camera, and the person standing behind is the photographer. The photographer guides the camera to a beautiful “shot,” aligns the lens (the eyes), then taps the camera twice. The camera-person opens their eyes for three seconds, and the photographer taps their shoulder again to signal them to close their eyes. We’ve had children remember the picture they saw eight years later.

The final stage is where players reflect on their experience and then share it with the whole group. This clarifies and strengthens personal experience and fosters group bonding. It also provides feedback for the leader.

I’ve found that by using Flow Learning with groups of restless children who aren’t introspective, I can work with their energy level, calm them down, and get them to a place where they wholeheartedly participate and really appreciate a beautiful nature experience.

There are a lot of parallels between the effects of meditation and those of deep play. Why is that?

If you look at people who are gifted musicians or mountain climbers, they bring 100 percent of their focus to those activities. In order to do well at anything, you have to put your whole self into it. Being fully aware and present is the key, and, of course, that’s what meditation is also.

Because players aren’t concerned about the thoughts or expectations of others, or questioning their ability to perform, play makes them more authentic and self-integrated. They engage completely in the play and, therefore, live more powerfully and joyfully. A characteristic of play is a diminished sense of self. With the ego quieted, we open more fully to nature and to others.

You said, “We each have head, heart, and two hands; how well we use them depends on our ability to transcend everyday thinking and its accompanying limitations — and to create new realities and possibilities.” That sounds an awful lot like empathy and resilience, which are things we talk about in the camp world. How does deep nature play promote these?

Creativity is the intelligence having fun — but after early childhood, people tend to become creatures of habit, and sometimes apply old solutions to new situations. “Well,” we think, “it worked before.” Habitual responses lack immediacy, resonance, and awareness. When we become totally immersed in a nature (or life) experience, we no longer think of our past, our doubts, or our fears. We respond and relate to life in fresh, loving, and highly imaginative ways. Deep nature play’s rapport with life can inspire in campers a growing confidence, empathy, and ability to harmonize with others. All are skills essential for navigating life successfully.

A teacher in the Southwest once asked the children in his class to draw a picture of themselves. He recalled that his American students completely covered their paper with a drawing of their bodies, but his Navajo students drew themselves differently. They made their bodies much smaller and included in the picture the nearby mountains, canyon walls, and dry desert washes. For them, the environment is as much a part of who they are as their arms and legs.

Camp is so valuable because it’s one of the most effective environments for learning to broaden one’s spirit and empathy. After four decades of international travel and observing numerous national education systems, I am more convinced than ever that camp offers an essential complement to modern education.

Given the forest and lake settings of many overnight camps, they are ideal locations for deep nature play opportunities. But what advice would you give to day camps that operate and serve child populations closer to the inner city?

Use experiential nature games, Flow Learning, and storytelling, to create absorbing nature experiences. Campers who are deeply attentive and immersed in their surroundings aren’t concerned that they’re not in a wild setting. Children — as opposed to adults — are quite happy to be in urban parks and landscapes, especially when they’re engaged in stimulating activities.

Sharing Nature games like Interview with Nature offer engaging and transformative nature experiences even in a busy city park.

In 1981, I gave a nature class to secondary students in an inner-city schoolyard in London. I was on a media book tour and many reporters were present to observe the promised “transformative” nature class I was to give. When I arrived at the site, I took in the fenced-in concrete playground and noted that the only living being besides us humans was an eight-foot-tall, scrawny tree. I thought, “How am I going to facilitate a profound nature experience here?”

In the beginning, we played games that awakened their enthusiasm for learning about nature. Then I brought the pristine world of nature to the students through their imagination by telling stories of the great naturalists. Research has shown that storytelling is a “shared-brain experience.” When a storyteller shares a tale and experiences a shift and stimulation in their brain region, the listening audience experiences the same shift and stimulation in their brains.

We ended our session by sharing how nature has inspired each of us. The sounds of the city traffic and construction faded away; the earnestness of the students’ words and hopes for the future transported us to a more harmonious and uplifting world. Their teacher was deeply moved to see her class interacting with so much authenticity and respect for one another.

Any other advice you would offer the camp community in general about how we can best promote meaningful play?

After the age of five or six, children start to lose their sense of wonder and act more from habit. Before this age, most children are naturally curious and creative, while only 2 or 3 percent of adults are. The camp community is marvelously positioned to help people of all ages regain their natural openness and child-like wonder and curiosity.

All play has amazing benefits. To go beyond regular play to deep play requires creativity and often thoughtful planning. One question I always ask myself is, “How can I help others gain an inner experience of the subject — one that is transformative and life-changing?” I try to create moments where people are quiet and absorbed in nature, so they can really feel a part of the landscape. To understand something deeply, we must understand it with the heart.

Flow Learning is an excellent process for achieving a deep resonance with any subject matter. Although the activities I have created to use with Flow Learning are nature oriented, becoming familiar with these activities can give you many ideas for making play more meaningful in your programs.

Photo courtesy of Green River Preserve in Cedar Mountain, North Carolina.