Play Activates the Whole Person
by Joseph Cornell
From Deep Nature Play: A Guide to Wholeness, Aliveness, Creativity, and Inspired Learning
Johann, a professional German forester, described to me a profound change in his relationship with the forest: “I was trained in my profession to see trees as a commercial commodity. But now, after experiencing the Sharing Nature forest exercises, I realize that the grasses are my friends, the trees are my friends, that every living thing in the woodland is my friend. This, for me, is a new way of looking at trees. This awareness is going to fundamentally change the way I work with the forest.”
As a participant in a Sharing Nature workshop, Johann interacted with trees in a variety of innovative ways. First, he and his co-participants, foresters from all over Germany, built a tree together. Several foresters acted out each tree part—tap root, lateral roots, sapwood, cambium, phloem, and bark—and in doing so experienced the nature and function of that tree part kinesthetically.
Johann was then guided through a visualization of himself as a deciduous tree, living through the seasons of the year. During the guided imagery, Johann planted himself firmly in the earth, spread his branches out, drew nourishment from the sun and sky, and turned air and light into life. With his sheltering branches, Johann cooled the summer air and warmed the winter air, thus making a more favorable environment for other life forms. Reenacting a tree’s life enabled him to experience personally the role trees play in the forest ecosystem and to feel in himself many of the noble qualities of trees. By imagining himself living as a tree and nurturing the nearby plants and animals, Johann strengthened his sense of stewardship and love for the earth. Adopting the role of a tree and offering sustenance to the life around him, Johann felt the energy of life flowing through his body and a marvelous sense of vitality, resilience, and wholeness.
Earlier in the workshop, Johann, blindfolded, had “met a tree”; through his sense of touch, smell, and hearing, he explored the tree’s unique features. Johann was then asked to remove his blindfold and—guided by what he remembered about his tree and the path leading to it—to find his tree again.
Johann also interviewed a venerable tree: “What events have you seen in your life?” Trying to feel the tree’s response to this question, he looked for signs that could tell him how wind, high water, snow, fire, or an animal might have shaped the tree. He reflected on the many dramatic and commonplace events the tree had witnessed during its centuries of life.
The day closed with a song accompanied by graceful arm movements, an exercise that allowed Johann and his fellow foresters to celebrate their kinship with the forest and all living things.
The variety of learning modes enhanced Johann’s imagination, intuition, reason, empathy, and love, as well as his kinesthetic and sensory awareness, and thus enriched his appreciation and understanding of trees. Sharing Nature exercises activate multiple centers of perception and cognition; they stimulate different parts of the brain and strengthen the neural connections between brain regions, thereby enhancing understanding, long-term memory, and creativity.
“Nature must be experienced through feeling,” said legendary naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. It is through the heart that we understand new and profound truths. If you want to motivate people, first touch their hearts, because it is their feelings that will inspire their thoughts and behavior.
If one’s experience is mainly mental, one’s viewpoint on the subject tends to be materialistic. As a trained, practicing forester, Johann understood tree science well; but his scientific training had caused him (in his own words) to see trees simply as “a commodity.”
Intentional, multifaceted exercises enriched Johann’s whole being. As he experienced the forest in a more living, nuanced way, Johann himself became a more empathetic human being.