Don't Just Do Something, Sit There: Suggestions for Observing in Nature

Jean MacGregor, Director of the Curriculum for the Bioregion Initiative and Adjunct Faculty in the Master of Environmental Studies Program at The Evergreen State College
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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


Reflective observation in nature can be powerful for deepening connections to the natural world. Both in my own classes and in workshops in other academic programs here at Evergreen, I teach workshops called "Don't Just Do Something, Sit There," to develop students' capacity for observation and for contemplation in the natural world. Depending on the particular academic program and its purposes, students engage in these activities to prepare to do field research, to develop their drawing or writing skills, or for more open-ended contemplative time. Often, these field observation experiences are tied to journal assignments that ask students to record observations or engage in reflective writing.

Learning Goals

Regardless of the specific academic purpose, my goal is to encourage and support students in stilling their bodies and minds to the degree that they can become closer to nature-on several levels:

First, by learning to breathe quietly and sit absolutely still and unobtrusively in nature for extended periods of time, students discover that they can observe, at very close range, the actuality-not to mention the beauty and fascination-of animals going about their lives. For the first time, students report watching a spider spin an entire web, or ants move their colony, or a pair of birds feeding their nestlings, or a shrew shredding a mushroom in search of an insect meal. They often remark on how they became so engrossed in their observation that "time stood still"-or that they were surprised and delighted to make detailed discoveries all on their own.

Second, through disciplined stillness, students discover their own acute powers of listening and observation, capacities they did not know they could cultivate. In field natural history classes, my students have carried out detailed field studies on bird, mammal, insect, and spider behavior and have consistently reflected that these strategies were key to their field studies.

Third, for those students who work at honing these practices, patterns of ongoing curiosity and reflectiveness open up for them, and they consistently report a strengthened affinity and empathy for the more-than-human world.

Context for Use

For over 30 years, I have used these activities and strategies in a variety of courses. In courses in undergraduate natural history, and introductions to ornithology and entomology, I ask students to learn these strategies in order to make field observations and keep natural history journals. In undergraduate and graduate-level courses in environmental education, I ask students to learn these strategies well enough to consider using them in their own outdoor or environmental education programs.

I also give "Don't Just Do Something, Sit There" workshops in various academic programs at The Evergreen State College, including programs in natural history, environmental studies, visual art and drawing, and creative writing. Faculty members teaching in these programs have a variety of goals for student learning.

Description and Teaching Materials

Ideally, a first "Sit There" workshop should be held outdoors with access to a natural area; even a less-busy natural area or garden on the campus will do. I ask students to bring a field notebook or journal and something to sit on - a cushion, small blanket, or some newspaper will do.

I plan on a first workshop lasting at least two hours; it would include some introductory directions and advice, some time for students to go off on their own to try about 30 minutes of sitting still; and some time for coming back together as a class to talk about their experiences and work through questions.

Key to introducing these strategies is clarity about what the larger academic goals are for engaging in these practices. Sitting quietly and observing is not a typical practice in academic settings and students will immediately want to know "why we are doing this." It is important to explain why-whether it's to build observational skills for field work, to build "seeing" ability for drawing or other visual arts projects, to build reflective and contemplative skills for writing assignments, or for another purpose.

The handout attached here, "Don't Just Do Something, Sit There" - Suggestions for Sitting and Observing in Nature, provides students will some suggestions for building their "sitting" skills. In first workshops, I talk students through this handout, and take time especially to engage students in finding ways to sit comfortably and in breathing exercises. I hope you will modify these suggestions in whatever ways you find useful! Sit There Handout_MacGregor (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Oct9 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips

For many students, sitting in silence for periods of time is extremely challenging at first. They find it hard not to fidget. Some become anxious about "not doing it right" - as if there were a "right." I tell students that with any new endeavor, there will be natural uncertainty and discomfort. And, I create opportunities for students to talk about their experiences with each other and me, and to ask questions. If students stay with building their disciplines of sitting still and observing, they usually not only become comfortable with the practice, they discover how powerful it is.


Because learning to sit quietly and observe in nature is usually a means to other academic goals (such as a bird or insect study, or other natural history observations, or personal reflections) I rarely assess student skill development related just to sitting in and observing in nature. Rather, I am assessing other work, to which the skill of nature observation has contributed. However, because I believe that the skill of quiet, intent nature observation is so central to doing detailed field work and so central to helping learners to develop affinity with their living world, I consistently ask for informal, formative feedback of the "classroom assessment" variety. I ask for short reflections on "how this is going for you" and "what questions are coming up" as you explore and experiment with sitting in the natural world. This reflections provide me with formative feedback on students' progress or problems, and they often help students, too, in better understanding what is working or not working as they learn these skills.

References and Resources

"Buddhism, Man, and Nature." A 14-minute film produced by Irving and Elda Hartley, and narrated by Alan Watts. Hartley Productions DVD. I have occasionally used this film to introduce students to eastern, contemplative ways of encountering the natural world. However, I use it not as a strategy for studying Buddhism, but rather as a prompt for discussing Americans' relationships with nature.

Any of the works of naturalist-writers, such as John Burroughs, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, William Kittredge, Aldo Leopold, Gary Paul Nabhan, Robert Michael Pyle, Scott Russell Sanders, Terry Tempest Williams.

Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing by Frederick Franck. Bantam Books, 1993. Useful ideas for learning to draw, using everything around us.