The oldest and simplest definition, “student of plants and animals,” dates back to 1600. The term has evolved over time, it's importance changing as the values of dominant culture have changed. 400 years after that old definition, Howard Gardner, the paradigm-shifting education theorist, added “naturalist” to his list of “multiple intelligences.” Gardner challenged the notion that intelligence is a single entity that results from a single capability. Instead, he recognizes eight types of intelligence, all of which enable individuals to think, solve problems or to create things of value. To Gardner, the Naturalist intelligence enables human beings to recognize, categorize and draw upon certain features of the environment.
A true naturalist has not simply Googled and learned the names of plants, animals, rocks, etc. Rather, he or she has had direct experience with them, coming to know about them and using all senses to develop this intelligence. A naturalist also has a reverence for nature, valuing and caring for living things from the smallest mite to the tallest tree. A naturalist comes to not only knowing the creatures and features of his or her environment, but treasuring them in thought and action.
Why does it matter?
In the process of becoming a naturalist, children become stewards of nature, a connection that is associated with a range of benefits, including greater emotional well-being, physical health and sensory development (not to mention the benefits to nature itself!). In a world in which primary experience of nature is being replaced by the limited, directed stimulation of electronic media, kids senses are being dulled and many believe their depth of both their interest in and capacity to understand complicated phenomena are being eroded. To contrast, the naturalist learns about the key features of their natural environment by using all of his senses and be interpreting open-ended and ever-changing stimuli.