Listed as one of the “100 Best Nature Books” by Mark Zuckerberg on Book!

When absorbed in deep play our sensory awareness is heightened, we become immersed in the present moment and feel intensely alert and alive. Because play is fun and rewarding, we operate at the peak of our mental and physical capacity.

Animals love to play. Crows will slide on their backs on a steep snowy slope, then fly to the top to slide down again; bison will repeatedly sprint onto a frozen lake, then bellow gleefully as they skid across the ice. Brown bear cubs who play the most, Alaskan scientists have found, live the longest.

Why is play behavior so prevalent in the animal kingdom? Through play, animals explore their world and discover all its possibilities. In higher animals, play stimulates the brain, enhances cognitive function and adaptability, and strengthens social bonds. Beyond these biological and social explanations, scientists are starting to believe that play is a means by which animals can express their joy of life.

Play energizes and enlivens people’s experience of nature. How does deep nature play differ from regular play? Deep play incorporates greater absorption with the object of play.

Play energizes and enlivens people’s experience of nature. How does deep nature play differ from regular play? Deep play incorporates greater absorption with the object of play.

“Play,” Albert Einstein said, “is the highest form of research.” Through his “thought  experiments,” Einstein could visualize a concept and see the unseen. In this way he  discovered the theory of relativity, which has been called the most influential theory in the history of modern science. “Imagination,” Einstein once said, “is more  important than knowledge,” because knowledge tells us only what is known already whereas imagination tells us what can be. Play is imaginative, and play’s openness, aliveness, and newness are essential to creativity.

This book is for those who have forgotten how to play, or who want to incorporate more play into their lives and revive their innate curiosity and sense of wonder. Let Joseph Cornell, Founder of Sharing Nature Worldwide and one of the world’s most popular nature educators, empower you with the tools to maximize play, and transform it from mere entertainment into a doorway to enhanced living, creativity, and concentration.

More Books by Joseph Bharat Cornell

Joseph Bharat Cornell

Joseph Bharat Cornell is an internationally renowned author and founder of Sharing Nature Worldwide, one of the planet's most widely respected nature awareness programs. His first book, Sharing Nature with Children, “sparked a worldwide revolution in nature education” and has been published in twenty languages and sold half a million copies. He is the honorary president of Sharing Nature Association of Japan, which has 10,000 members and 35,000 trained leaders.

Mr. Cornell is the author of the Sharing Nature Book Series, used by millions of parents, educators, naturalists, and youth and religious leaders all over the world. Mr. Cornell's books, Listening to Nature and The Sky and Earth Touched Me, have inspired thousands of adults to deepen their relationship with nature.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service selected Mr. Cornell's Sharing Nature with Children as one of the fifteen most influential books published since 1890 for connecting children and families to nature. His highly effective outdoor learning strategy, Flow Learning™, was featured by the U.S. National Park Service as one of five recommended learning theories, along with the works of Maria Montessori, Howard Gardner, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget.

Mr. Cornell’s books have received the following prestigious awards.

Sharing Nature:

Winner, Silver Nautilus Award in the Animals & Nature category
Winner, Grand Prize: Indie Book Awards in the Non-Fiction category
Winner, Indie Book Award in the Science/Nature/Environment category
Winner, Indie Book Award in the Parenting/Family category
Winner, Silver Evergreen Medal in the Nature Conservation category
Winner, Green Book Festival Award in the How-To category

The Sky and Earth Touched Me:

Winner, Grand Prize Indie Book Awards for the Non-Fiction category
Winner, Indie Book Awards for the Science/Nature/Environment category
Winner, Gold Medal IPPY Book Awards for Best Environment/Ecology/Nature Book category
Winner, Green Book Festival in the Spiritual category

John Muir: My Life with Nature:

Winner, ASPCA Henry Bergh Children's Book Award, Non-Fiction Humane Heroes

Mr. Cornell has received many international awards for his Sharing Nature books and work. He received the prestigious Countess Sonja-Bernadotte Prize in Germany for his vast influence on environmental education in Central Europe.

In 2011 Cornell was selected as one of the world's “100 most influential opinion leaders committed to the Environment” by the French organization, Les Anges Gardiens de la Planète.

Along with Jane Goodall and David Attenborough, Joseph Bharat Cornell is
an Honorary Member of the Hungarian Society of Environmental Education

Known for his warmth and joyful enthusiasm, Cornell “has a genius for finding the essence of a subject, explaining it in clear and compelling ways, and then giving the reader creative exercises to gain an actual experience.”

Joseph and his wife, Anandi, are senior ministers and residents of Ananda Village in Northern California.

For more information on Joseph Cornell's books and activities, please visit

Foreword by Tamarack Song | 7
An Introductory Story | 11
1. Play Is Universal | 14
2. Play Is Innate and Integral to Learning | 19
3. A Positive Learning Experience Is Essential | 24
4. Play Energizes Us | 29
5. Play Unites Us with Others | 3 5
6. Play Activates the Whole Person | 40
7. Creativity Is the Heart of Play | 47
8. Attunement: The Secret of Creativity | 50
9. How Play Frees Your Creative Nature | 57
10. Mindful Play | 62
11. Play Is for Everyone | 67
12. Converting Play into Deep Play | 72
The Flow Learning™ Process | 76
13. How You Can Play More Deeply | 89
14. Four Deep Nature Play Games | 96

  • Camera | 98
  • Sound Map | 102
  • Interview with Nature | 105
  • Vertical Poem | 107

Appendix: Meditation | 111
Notes | 115
Photographer Credits | 118

Chapter Two
Play is Innate and Integral to Learning

Young children are like sponges: they absorb the world around them. Their innocence and their heightened attentiveness and awareness enable them to soak up experiences and information effortlessly.

In her book Original Mind, neuroscience pioneer Dee Joy Coulter, drawing on contemporary brain research, reports that “[m]ost children under the age of six live in a realm of direct experiencing, engaging the senses, and becoming absorbed in events as they occur without activating the constant mental chatter of the adult mind.”

In Leaves of Grass, the American poet Walt Whitman celebrated the remarkable aptitude of young children for absorptive learning:

. . . a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him . . . .

A small child can be mesmerized by a butterfly in a field of flowers. For a brief moment, that butterfly can become the child’s whole world. I can still vividly recall such an experience when I was a boy, playing alone outside on a cold foggy morning. Suddenly I heard a startling chorus of “whouks” coming toward me through the air. I peered intently at the thick fog, hoping for at least a glimpse of the
geese. Seconds passed; the tempo of their cries increased. They were going to fly directly overhead! I could hear their wings slapping just yards above me. All of a sudden, a large flock of pearl-white snow geese burst through a gap in the fog. The sky seemed to have given birth to snow geese. For five or six wonderful seconds their sleek and graceful forms were visible; then they merged once again into the fog. Ever since this deeply thrilling moment, I have wanted to immerse myself in nature.

To know trees, John Muir maintained, one must be as free of care and time as the trees themselves. At the age of five, Richard St. Barbe Baker, the illustrious forester and conservationist, begged his nurse to allow him to walk alone in an English forest. Once alone in the forest, St. Barbe experienced what he called a “woodland re-birth”:

[A]t first I kept to a path which wound its way down into the valley; but soon I found myself in a dense part of the forest where the trees were taller and the path became lost in bracken beneath the pines. . . . [A]ll sense of time and space [was] lost. . . . I became intoxicated with the beauty around me, immersed in the joyousness . . . of feeling part of it all. . . . The overpowering beauty . . . entered my very being. At that moment my heart brimmed over with a sense of unspeakable thankfulness which has followed me through the years . . . .

The elation St. Barbe Baker felt in the forest* was akin to “the ‘state’ athletes call the Zone, what researchers and professionals refer to as Flow and what children call Play [all of which] share selfless absorption and complete engagement in the moment.” (Michael Mendizza)

The elements of deep play are essential to an engrossing experience of nature. The attributes of deep play are: being fully in the moment;  experiencing a sense of timelessness; feeling deep rapport with the focus of play (e.g., elation at seeing geese emerge from the fog, gratitude for the woodland’s exquisite beauty), and having a diminished consciousness of self. Learning requires keen attention. Self-forgetfulness and deep receptivity—hallmarks of deep play—enable us to apply our entire being to the task at hand.

Play is inner-directed and self-rewarding. Because the player’s will and energy are completely committed—not divided by and preoccupied with external pressure or convention—the player experiences an exhilarating sense of wholeness.

Why don’t our schools recognize the power of play in learning? The founder of the Living Wisdom Schools, Michael Deranja, a colleague and friend, once visited a public school class of kindergarteners, then afterwards, a class of high school students. The five-year-olds were full of joy and zest for learning. The teenagers, unfortunately, were bored and listless. Feeling compassionate concern at their indifference, Michael asked himself, “Where did their joy in learning go?”

In contrast, when Catarina, a twenty-year-old Finnish woman visited Ananda Village in California, she was asked, “How did you like going to school in Finland?” Catarina’s face lit up with joy and she exclaimed, “I loved it! We had so much fun.”

Finnish educators put a strong emphasis on play because they believe children learn best through play and self-discovery. Finland has been called the international all-star of education because its students consistently excel in academics. In a 2006 study of teenage students in fifty-seven countries, Finnish fifteen-year-olds ranked first in science, second in math, and third in reading. The emphasis on self-directed learning, collaboration, cooperation, and developing the whole person keeps Finnish students curious and engaged throughout their school years.

A spirit of play is intrinsic to every human being. Play—propelled by the player’s own drive and enthusiasm—is, by its very nature, a perfect antidote to apathy.

Many older children and adults today are play-deprived; play could help them reconnect with their innate wonder and spontaneity. Our motivation for play comes from within; from play comes inventiveness, joy, and connectedness with the focus of play that can keep us curious and creatively engaged throughout our adult lives.

Maria Montessori said that if you compare the learning ability of an adult with that of a child, you will find that an adult requires sixty years of hard work to match what a young child can learn in three. As people age the natural openness, confidence, and adaptability of their early childhood years generally subside, to be replaced by such inhibitors as self-criticism and fear, inhibitors that often stifle an adult’s ability to learn. Two of the benefits of deep play—self-forgetfulness and living in the present—effectively quiet critical self-talk and other habits harmful to one’s capacity to learn.

* St. Barbe’s passion for trees led him to Kenya in 1920 to begin his social forestry work: to encourage local people to reforest their land. Through his international organization, Men of the Trees, and other organizations he assisted, St. Barbe was responsible for planting billions of trees. Wherever St. Barbe traveled, people would suddenly decide to plant a few million trees. His rapport with nature enabled him to inspire countless thousands to re-green the earth.

“Joseph Cornell is a hero to many of us. His newest book is a beautiful meditation on and guide to achieving a state of awareness that he calls ‘deep nature play.’ This melding of nature connection, mindfulness, compassion and fun offers, no matter our age, creative passage to the worlds around us, to knowledge and to peace. In these times, we need deep nature play and Joseph’s gifts more than ever.”
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the WoodsThe Nature Principle, and Vitamin N

“Leave it to Joseph Cornell to give us the counterintuitive news that play is more important than ever: that for every animal, but especially human beings, it is a key to a happy and meaningful life. This book will bring joy into your world, if you let it!”
Bill McKibben, author of Radio Free Vermont

Deep Nature Play reveals a direct pathway to our most authentic selves. During play, Joseph Cornell explains, we become completely absorbed in the present moment. Our creativity is unleashed and we become joyfully, wholly alive. This book is pure delight!”
Kathryn Gann, Vice President, Theosophical Society in America

“No one is more effective than Joseph Cornell in connecting people of all ages with the profound peace, joy, and exhilaration available to us through direct experiences in nature. In Deep Nature Play, Joseph brings us an enchanting, authoritative, and important new guide for why and how to experience nature’s gifts in our daily lives.”
Cheryl Charles, PhD, Co-Founder, President, and CEO Emerita, Children & Nature Network

“Few people besides Joseph Cornell could have written Deep Nature Play. As he shares experiences from the participants in his nature awareness workshops, you begin to see the profound impact he has had on a number of generations. His inspiration and gentle ways of immersing people in nature are not just for children—I have seen adults of all ages and backgrounds completely absorbed and shedding tears of joy.”
Alan Dyer, PhD, Founder of the Centre for Sustainable Futures, Plymouth University, UK

“If you are a practitioner in the field of environmental awareness, or a person who feels the need to get outside and take an enlivened breath of fresh air, then this book is definitely for you!”
Jon Cree, Trustee for the UK Forest School Association, environmental trainer and educator

“Beautiful, profound, thought-provoking, deep, and true. Deep Nature Play is a wonderful book that takes us on a journey into the secrets of discovering nature by touching our very core, stirring our senses, and making us intensely joyous. Through the help of Joseph Cornell’s books, I have experienced the great joy of communing on a deeper level with nature. In Deep Nature Play, he gently guides us to ‘discover, through nature, our own higher nature.’”
Mahrukh Bulsara, Co-Founder, Ecomantra
Nature Awareness and Travel, India

“This book connects people to the joy of learning.”
Joe Baust, Former President, North American Association for Environmental Education, Emeritus Professor, Murray State University

“Every educator should read Deep Nature Play. And adults who want to reclaim their childlike openness and joyful connection with life will love this book. I was moved, inspired, and impressed.”
Joseph Selbie, author of The Physics of God

“Joseph Cornell offers oodles of practical tips and tools for playing more deeply and sharing this powerful teaching tool with others. Deep Nature Play is a fantastic new resource for teachers, parents, camp counselors, and grandparents.”
Rocky Rohwedder, PhD, Professor Emeritus,

Environmental Studies and Planning, Sonoma State University “I am amazed how well Joseph Cornell describes the benefits of deep nature play and the processes behind it. In our work, we use forest pedagogy to promote science among children and adults. His book gave me the inspiration and the challenge to transform forest pedagogy activities into Deep Play.”
Urša Vilhar, PhD, Slovenian Forestry Institute, co-author of Handbook for Learning and Play in the Forest

Deep Nature Play is a guide for living joyfully and playfully while exploring our connection with nature. It shows how we can supercharge our brains and enhance our creativity, cognition, learning, memory, and brain plasticity. Cornell’s book is a must read for anyone who wants to feel uplifted and connected to others and to nature. It will enhance your health, physically  and mentally, and help you live your life to the fullest, with an expanded awareness of your own nature as joy.”
Sue Mangala Loper-Powers RN, MN, NP, C-IAYT, Former President of Washington State Nurses Association, Director of Ananda Yoga Therapy Training

Deep Nature Play offers an essential message for all ages and cultures. So much love and depth of experience has gone into this book—it is clear Joseph Cornell has devoted his life to being deeply engaged in nature and is an awe-inspiring teacher.”
Elizabeth Murray, author, artist, gardener, and teacher

“In Deep Nature Play, Joseph Cornell guides us to a deeper level of engagement with nature and with one another. He provides the rationale adults need to do what children know innately: having fun in nature fosters creativity and learning. Parents, educators, indeed anyone leading outdoor experiences, will find that the Flow Learning process and nature games enrich interactions with nature and engage people mentally, physically, and emotionally. This book is a perfect bridge for connecting adults with children, and us all with the joys of playing in nature.”
Janet Carrier Ady, PhD, Chief, Division of Education, Interpretation, and Partnerships, Bureau of Land Management

“As one of the earth’s leading nature awareness educators, Joseph Cornell has brought a new and fresh look to the field of the natural world and its exploration. This exceptional work should be on every educator’s go-to bookshelf.”
Tom Mullin, Associate Professor, Parks and Forest Resources, Unity College, Maine

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