top of page

Research Paper: Coyote Mentoring as a Learning Framework

Coyote Mentoring as a Learning Framework

Instilling stewardship through nature connection programming

Written by Renee Baron


Experiential learning is an active process, a full body experience that activates the senses and holds personal meaning. It is wrapped into a story, a visual, or a song, and retrieved in the rarest of ways. Smells, movements, or changes in the light can bring up random memories, experiences long forgotten. As an educator, it is important to recognize the value of experiential learning and how it serves to integrate knowledge in a meaningful way. Before the implementation of the free school movement, our current mainstream schooling structure, experiential learning was the way most people learned how to survive (and thrive) in their local landscapes. Place-based knowledge was inherent and created an intimacy with the land that is largely absent in today’s modern societies. This disconnect, or absence of care ethics, is a primary cause for the environmental issues encountered today and consequently, gives one cause to reevaluate how learning occurs. Care ethics “refers to approaches to moral life and community that are grounded in virtues, practices, and knowledges associated with appropriate caring and caretaking of self and others” (Whyte et al., 2017, p.2). This ethical paradigm is a foundational piece to environmental ethics and reflected in nature connection practices. For reconnection to occur, one needs to start at where learning begins, and as an educator, it begins when the child, family or community member walks through the door (or the cedar tree portal).

DV8 Education was born out of concern for the health of the earth and all its inhabitants and uses experiential learning as its primary tool for creating deep nature connection. Experiential learning is “a philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people's capacity to contribute to their communities (Association for Experiential Education, n.d.). DV8 Education incorporates outdoor place-based, environmental education programming that engages child interests. Using activities such as games, music, storytelling, exploration, and field studies, it creates authentic and meaningful experiences that develop empathy, mindfulness, resilience, cooperation, and problem-solving skills. As personal relationships develop with the land and peers, so does engagement with the local and global community.

Program offerings are structured to fit the participants needs, ranging from 3-hour workshops on fungus or ocean plastics, to a full day in the woods activating the senses and connecting with the natural world. Current programs include a weekly vulnerable youth program, a monthly family nature connection day, and a full-day professional development workshop for teachers on nature connection routines.

DV8 Education is structured around the Coyote’s Guide for Connecting with Nature (2016) by Jon Young, Ellen Haas, and Evan McGown, a learning framework that draws both on the natural environment and ancestral knowledge for guidance. Grounded in child learning theory, it provides meaningful ways for building deep nature connection routines. The Coyote plays the role of the trickster, the mentor who subtly facilitates learning. As invisible schooling takes place under the guise of having fun, the participants experience meaningful learning that inadvertently shapes their identity and worldviews.

In order to understand this mentoring model, one needs to comprehend the role of the mentor. Coyote mentors have specific learning objectives, role-modeling goals, and understand the importance of relationship building. In terms of learning objectives, this mentoring framework includes knowledge of place and sensory awareness; scientific curriculum; global ancestral knowledge and mythology; and primitive skills. This requires that the mentor be rooted in personal nature connection practices and actively engage in urban and wild living. “Coyote teaches us to straddle the edge between “two worlds” – the ancient, primitive world of wilderness and instinct, and the modern, civilized world of science and technology.” (Young et al., 2016, p.13) This leads into the importance of role modeling. As keen observers, children are watching their instructors constantly, looking to them for direction and acceptable behaviors. As mentors embrace challenge, embody curiosity and play, the more likely the child will feel comfortable to follow suit. Lastly, the key to effective teaching is relationship building. Through observation and questioning, the mentor can see what captures the child’s curiosity and engage their natural gifts. From there they can look for the edges of their comfort zones, sensory awareness, knowledge base, or experiences and subsequently, help them to safely stretch their boundaries. This is like Vgotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD), “a level of development attained when children engage in social behavior. Full development of the ZPD depends upon full social interaction. The range of skill that can be developed with adult guidance or peer collaboration exceeds what can be attained alone” (Culatta, 2013).

The means for initial child engagement requires tapping into their wonder and universal love of play, stories, and music. These tools create connections and open the gateway into their interests. From there one can channel their passions into learning. Child’s Passions, as outlined in the Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature (Young et al., 2016), are categorized as follows: games, curiosity, storytelling, and music making. Children love all sorts of games whether it be hiding, sneaking, and seeking; hunts, errands, and adventures; or make-believe and imitation. All of these activities provide engaging opportunities for learning and skill building. “Student interest in a topic holds so much power. When a topic connects to what students like to do, engagement deepens as they willingly spend time thinking, dialoging, and creating ideas in meaningful ways. Making learning contextual to real-world experiences is a key learning technique with differentiating for student interests” (McCarthy 2014). As children sneak, observe, track, build shelters, and identify wild edible plants, they are expanding their knowledge base. Amid all this fun, they are participating in what the Coyote Mentoring community refers to as Invisible School. This unorthodox method of teaching is inspired by indigenous ways of learning where no formal school setting exists. The land and community act as teachers. Consequently, knowledge of place is at the heart of this learning model and facilitates intimate relationship building with the natural environment.

The second Child Passion is the art of questioning, a means for exploring child curiosities.

“The simplest way to open an information gap is to start with the question. Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham notes that teachers and parents are often “so eager to get to the answer that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question.” Yet it’s the question that stimulates curiosity; being told an answer quells curiosity before it can even get going. Instead of starting with the answer, begin by posing a genuinely interesting question—one that opens an information gap.” (Paul, 2013)

The passion for discovery is an important aspect of mentoring as it encourages investigation on the part of the participant. “Start with their curiosity, then extend the opportunity for learning as far as it will stretch. Try to lead the answers out of people, guide them along from one logical question to the next, and throw them tidbits of partial answers on the way, until they arrive at the answer they seek for themselves” (Young et al., 2016, p. 95). This process seeks to instill self-sufficiency when faced with the unknown, encouraging problem-solving and resilience.

The third and fourth Child Passions are storytelling and music making. All kids love a good story and can appreciate a catchy song. Stories and music can serve to “set the scene” for an upcoming activity. They can inspire, inform, and instruct. In the context of outdoor learning, they are selected or shaped to provide relevant lessons regarding connecting with nature and can help to transition, focus, and gather energy.

These passions are incorporated into the Natural Cycle of Learning. It is a model inspired by Joseph Cornell’s Flow Learning which starts by creating enthusiasm, moves into focusing attention, then concentrates on direct experience of nature and at the end, gathers and shares the inspiration (Young et al., 2016, p.209). This flow is attractive for many reasons. It integrates experiential, game and interest-based learning; ethics of care; and provides time for percolation and reflection (Carey, 2014, p.134).

The Coyote Mentoring model also recognizes that learning occurs through repetition and routine practice, processes that can lead to habit formation. These habits then shape and define perceptions and influence what is noticed. This learning-through-habit is called Brian Patterning (Young et al., 2016). The Core Routines of Nature Connection are “habits” that are incorporated into the learning cycle. There are thirteen core routines of which the sit spot, wandering, and listening for bird language are three. All external information is received through the senses and filtered by mental focus. This information results in brain patterns which in turn, influences how the world is perceived. Beliefs inform actions and behaviors, and consequently, influence mental focus and sensory input. This brings one back to the beginning of the cycle. To create a culture of nature awareness, the core routines are inserted at the actions and behaviors stage of the cycle (Young et al., 2016, p.26).

Involving families and community members in nature connection is essential. The notion of village building involves all generations, each one supporting the other with the use of their gifts. The elder can support the struggling teen as they navigate their evolving identity, providing valuable wisdom and perspective. The child can offer vitality and joy to the aging and isolated grandparent. Erik Erikson, an ego-psychologist known for the epigenetic principle and its eight stages of development, refers to this process of learning from one another as mutuality (Boeree, 2006). It acknowledges that development is continuous and does not end at the onset of adulthood. Therefore, opportunities for cross-generational connection are so important for community health. It is important to surround children with caring and helping adults who also love nature. Providing space for children to share their excitement and knowledge with others brings them into the fold and encourages positive relationship building.

Another means for family involvement in nature connection programming is to invite families to participate in rites of passage and ceremonies. For example, as teens prepare to go on a multi-day journey, families and community members are invited to see them off and welcome them back upon their return. The mere presence of family (and other community members) at these transition points are significant. Personal experience has demonstrated that this type of community support instills a sense of belonging and importance. Recognizing personal growth helps to celebrate overcoming adversity and fears, giving the experience meaning. Vygotsky, a soviet psychologist known for his works on psychological development in children, speaks to the value of community and how it plays a fundamental role in the process of “making meaning.” “Vygotsky states cognitive development stems from social interactions from guided learning within the zone of proximal development as children and their partner's co-construct knowledge. […] For Vygotsky, the environment in which children grow up will influence how they think and what they think about” (McCleod, 2008).

It is important to consider family background in regard to nature connection. Often, the children who participate in these kinds of programs come from families who already have a positive relationship to the natural world. It certainly is important to provide opportunities for these families to further their connections, but it does not solve the greater issue of societal disconnect to the natural environment. To access the greater disconnected population, DV8 Education strives to become a mentoring presence within elementary schools. Building supportive relationships with teachers and helping them to shift their teaching practices to incorporate child passions, core routines, and indigenous knowledge and ways of learning, appears to be the most effective way to access more children and their families. This is where change is most likely to occur.

The ideal scenario for learning is to experience things firsthand; one need only look at children to confirm this theory. Observation of children also provides a window into their passions for song, play, stories, and discovery. Using these means to tap into their interests makes for an engaging and meaningful learning experience. The natural environment provides an ideal environment for experiential learning, not only building resilience, empathy, and critical thinking skills, but also facilitating deep nature connection and place-based learning. As children integrate the earth’s lessons into their identity, stewardship innately follows. This progression is supported by looking to indigenous cultures who inherently understand this relationship, working with nature rather than against it. Learning is a community process and the more we can integrate all societal members, the greater the sense of belonging and love for all.


Carey, B. (2014) How we learn: The surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens. New York, NY: Random House.

Culatta. (2013). Social development theory (Lev Vygotsky).

McCarthy, J. (2014, August 25). Learner interest matters: Strategies for empowering student choice. Edutopia. john-mccarthy

McLeod, S. (2008, February 5). Lev Vygotsky's sociocultural theory. Simply Psychology.

Paul, A. M. (2013, November 4). How the power of interest drives learning. KQED. learning

Whyte, K. P., & Cuomo, C. (2017). Ethics of Caring in Environmental Ethics: Indigenous and Feminist Philosophies. content/uploads/2019/10/Ethics_of_Caring_in_Environmental_Ethics-1.pdf

Young, J., Haas, E., & McGown, E. (2010). Coyote's guide to connecting with nature. Owlink Media.

21 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page