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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.

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

by Tamarack Song

I used to be a classic example of what Joseph refers to in this book: a play-deprived adult plagued by “constant mental chatter,” someone who thinks that games are solely for children. I was quite content to learn by “simply sitting and listening.”

In his 2005 classic Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the phrase, nature-deficit disorder, to describe the current increase in developmental and behavioral issues—especially evident in children— that stem from insufficient time outdoors. Clearly, I suffered from this disorder—and that wasn’t all.

Joseph describes eloquently in this book how play, and deep play in particular, enlivens one’s whole being. Play heightens our sensory awareness, helps us feel alert, alive, and absorbed in the now. We operate at the peak of our mental and physical capacity. Because of my own lack of play in nature, I relegated myself to a cool, intellectual relationship with nature. Taking Richard Louv’s phrase one step further, I would say I suffered from play-deficit disorder.

To help me out, unfortunately, I didn’t have what you now have in your hands: the inspiration and guidance of Joseph Bharat Cornell. Intellectually, I had a basic awareness of much of what Joseph shares in this book: that play is a great learning tool that energizes us, fosters creativity, and helps build relationships. But I lacked the tools and processes to apply that awareness.

My salvation came from the same source as Joseph’s inspiration for his life’s work—nature herself. Joseph describes how a special moment Days. with snow geese instilled in him the undying desire to immerse himself in nature. For me, it was wolves.

Through a series of serendipitous events, I became the caretaker of a pack of semi-domestic timber wolves. The wolves became my family; my marriage had gone sour, I was struggling with employees at work, and fed up with the state of the world. I began to feel closer to the wolves than to any of my own kind.

The wolves accepted me as I was. They saw through my dysfunction— and my stoic façade— and insisted that I be real with them. Through a combination of body language, bared teeth, and avoidance, they coaxed me out of my grumpiness and got me to . . . yes, play.

I am not referring to ordinary throw-a-stick-and-retrieve-it play, but rather, deep play. The wolves and I remained calm and stress-free, and therefore were able to absorb ourselves fully in the spirit of play. To join them, I had to cast aside my ego and personal agendas.

We played games of deception—and games akin to tag, hide-andseek, and discover the hidden object. Playing was everything: we were completely consumed by it. When we made wrong moves and went tumbling head over heels, we’d pop back up and hardly miss a beat.

At the same time, the wolves could switch gears in a flash. Something very small, like a butterfly, a sudden breeze, or a strange sound might catch their attention. They would instantly stop and perk their ears. An aura of serenity would overtake them, and they would merge with their surroundings like fog drifting through the treetops.

The wolves’ spontaneous responses to such moments remind me of Joseph’s description in chapter 12 of the children’s discoveries while playing the Camouflage Trail game. These are beautiful examples of what Joseph means by the singular focus of deep play, and its ability to concentrate the life force.

One day when I was out hunting meadow voles with the wolves, I jokingly admonished them: “Quit playing!” In that moment, it hit me that the hunt is a game. No wonder their life force was concentrated, and no wonder they gave their all—fun as it was, this was serious business! Games are training for the hunt, and the hunt is a game being played deeply.

Of course, we ask ourselves, “What’s in it for me?” Very few of us have to hunt for our food, and our survival is not dependent upon whether we engage in deep nature play. However, there is something else for which we all yearn: I believe we long to feel fully awake, engaged, and operating at our highest potential. I believe we wish to feel a profound rapport with nature when we go there to play, and that we harbor a natural desire to express what Joseph calls “gratitude for the woodland’s exquisite beauty.” If this isn’t reason enough for deep nature play, what would be?

Tamarack Song is the director of the Healing Nature Center and the Teaching Drum Outdoor School. His latest books are Becoming Nature: Learning the Language of Wild Animals and Plants and Zen Rising: 366 Sage Stories to Enkindle Our Days.

An Introductory Story

It was a brisk, clear day in Germany’s Rhön Mountains; the magnificent beech forest surrounding us made a perfect setting for our outdoor program. The participants were playing Silent Sharing Walk, one of many Sharing Nature activities we enjoyed that day.

In Silent Sharing Walk, participants in teams of three stroll serenely through an area chosen for its natural beauty. When a walker is captivated by something, he or she gently taps the shoulder of other players, then points to the object. The players silently share the experience.

The German “sharing teams” walked slowly and silently under a canopy of stately beeches. The forest floor was populated with early spring wildflowers and a few small shrubs. I sensed among the members a tangible harmony with one another as well as with the forest.

The Silent Sharing Walk was not long: 120 feet. I stationed myself at the end of the trail to silently greet each finishing team. One German naturalist approached with twinkling eyes and a bright smile. He gestured for me to follow; I knew he had found something special. He led me back along the trail for perhaps fifty feet, then gestured toward the edge of the trail; he wanted me to find the magical surprise. I looked carefully over the ground before me; I saw blue wildflowers, a mossy rock, and forest litter, but I knew I should be seeking something unusual. Then it came into focus: a perfectly round nest, stitched together with spider silk—filled with four baby birds, their feathers just beginning to fill out. Superbly camouflaged, the nest and fledglings were all but invisible.

Most people would not have spotted the nest of birds. When absorbed in deep play, however, 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.

How does deep nature play differ from regular play? Deep play has greater absorption with the object of play. It is a matter of degree—an important distinction for any parent, educator, or outdoor leader who wants to help others to feel a part of nature, or to truly understand any other field of study.

This book is for those who perhaps have forgotten how to play, or who wish to incorporate more play into their lives, and for educators who want to teach their subject matter with greater impact and inspiration. This book is also for parents and early childhood educators who desire to nourish and keep alive their children’s innate curiosity and playful spirit. Most of all, this book is for those who want to touch and feel life deeply.


In 1979, I published my first book, Sharing Nature with Children. Soon after its release, there was a tremendous worldwide response to the book’s playful games and uplifting message. Soon I began leading nature awareness programs throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific. The book quickly sparked a worldwide revolution in nature education and connected millions of children and adults with nature.

Why was there such an enthusiastic response to Sharing Nature with Children and its experiential games? The answer readers have given me over the decades is that they have, through practice of the book’s principles, through nature play, felt in themselves joy, intense aliveness, and inner illumination. My sincere hope is that the present book will take you even deeper into the wonders and joy of nature.

“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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