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    Notes on Nature Study

    September 26, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    A year ago, maybe a year and a half ago, I felt like nature study was impossible for us. The biggest issue was that I felt like we had to go somewhere to do it, and it seemed that something was always against us. Either I didn’t have the extra money to spend on gas, or it seemed overwhelming {because I was great with child at the time} to put the other children into their carseats, get them out, unfold and fold strollers, lift various little people, and so on. On the rare occasions when we did it, I felt like I was wiped out for the rest of the day.

    When I write it out like that, I see that I am such a baby when I’m pregnant, but that is the reality of it.

    So as I was saying, I felt like I was overwhelmed. But, I asked different people what they were doing continually. They pointed me to great resources.

    It also helped that God brought to mind a memory.

    When my second child was a wee babe, we had no landscaping in our backyard at all. Just a giant 10,000 square feet of dirt. Because of this, I liked to take the children for a morning or two a week at my parents’ house, which was only a mile away at the time. The baby would sleep in a crib they had, and E. and I would spend the morning out of doors.

    I was reading through Volume One of Charlotte Masons’s Original Home Schooling Series {a bit of a misnomer, since one of the books is about school education}, which is called Home Education. Miss Mason believed that young children were best educated at home and in the Great Outdoors.

    My son has always played independently, but inevitably he would decide he needed my help with some entertainment. This is the way with firstborns {or onlies}. I was inspired by Mason’s section on nature study to try a modified version of a game she suggested. Basically, I gave him things to do in the yard, the purpose of which was to hone his attention naturally.

    He needed a lot of guidance in the beginning {he was only three}, so I would say, “I see a pink flower with five petals on a short bush. Can you go pick it for me?” So he would run and pick the flower {and was scolded if he tried to pick two}, and then we’d look at it together, discussing our observations. This is where he first learned words like pollen, stem, and petal.

    After doing this a few times, he was able to advance through various modifications of this game until he reached a final stage, which was where he would go and find something interesting in the flower beds. He would look at it. He would figure out how to tell me about it accurately. He would run back to me and describe it, and I would try to guess what it was. If Mommy couldn’t guess, he’d go back and try again.

    The reason why this memory was significant was that I realized how much we learned in a smaller, confined space. We were always in the same location, and had no end of learning. This, along with some advice from older mothers concerning nature study, unlocked its potential for me in suburbia.

    Now, a few days ago, Rachel R. wrote this:

    Can you explain more about how you go about your nature studies? This is something I have been wanting, for a while, to do with my 7yo. But I don’t know what instruction to give her, to help her understand what I would like her to do. {We also now live in a subdivision, although we do have plenty of wildlife in our own backyard, so our subjects for observation are somewhat limited.}

    To tell you the truth, I feel quite silly giving advice in this area! It is something that we are learning to do, and we are in no way where I hope we will be in a few years. But I can describe what we are doing now, and I can point to folks who are wiser than me.

    What We Do

    I am a firm believer that simple is best. If I try to throw in worksheets and coloring pages and songs about flowers and all sorts of clutter, we {1} lose sight of the actual thing in its actual environment, {2} do not learn to enjoy simple pleasures, and {3} are more likely to fail in our goals. The interesting thing is that the children are all soaking this up.

    The supplies we use are simple:

    1. I have two books that I reference over and over: Anna Botsford Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study and Carla Emery’s The Encyclopedia of Country Living {which, incidentally, is actually part of our disaster planning/survival resources, but has turned out to be invaluable in our learning and also our move toward more self-sustenance}.
    2. Everyone has a nature journal. E. received a water-color journal, while A. and Neighbor M. have simple bound heavy-weight drawing-paper pads. Everyone has a pencil. Everyone has colored pencils to use later, when we go back inside, to color their work accurately.
    3. A garden, an orchard, and ducks in a pen. These are resources that we have because of our lifestyle, but they have proven invaluable for nature study because it gives us a lot to look at. We can watch the stages of our {baby} fruit trees. We can learn to see the difference between citrus trees and other trees. We watch corn grow through its stages. Last week, we sketched the flowering of spaghetti squash, and then compared it to the pumpkin blooms {they are cousins} on the other side of the garden, and learned that you never want to plant two next to each other, or they will come out as mixed breeds. And we have watched ducks grow up from a day old all the way to the laying of the first egg. {Comstock’s book even has a section for studying a family’s dog.}

    The way that we do this is simple. First, every week I have already chosen what we are going to study. Typically, I examine our garden, or my next-door neighbor’s beautiful flower garden, looking for something new to study. Plants and animals are dynamic, so there is always something new to see. On our assigned nature study day {Thursday}, we head outside. Using what I’ve learned from Comstock and Emery {and occasionally Google}, I give a brief lesson on the plants.

    These kids are all little, so we are mainly working on vocabulary  They can go from seeing stems as stems as stems, for instance, to understanding a corn stalk with joints. We start with what they know {stems} and move to what they are learning {more specific words concerning the stem of corn, which is the stalk I mentioned}. I do not bother with Latin names at this point.

    Then, we draw {with pencils} what we’re looking at. I try to get them to draw it as realistically as possible. I have one little dreamer who wants to embellish God’s creation, but I try to get her to come back to earth and see things as they are, reminding her that she can draw wildly pink corn in her free time if she likes.

    When we go back inside, they add color to their sketches, trying to do so as accurately as possible. This is good for getting what we’ve studied into their memories a little deeper.

    As we draw, we discuss how beautiful God made the world, and how amazing it all it. Wonder is the key to humble learning, I think.

    People Wiser Than Me

    In all, I would say that anything that we do is from Charlotte Mason, a now-defunct Yahoo group I was once a part of, and the Handbook of Nature Study blog. The best thing about the latter is that she gives so many examples, even people like me, who really struggled with this in the beginning, can begin to wrap their minds around the concept. If people need or want it, she sells little kits to get you started, with prepared assignments.

    One last thing: I remember that once, in that defunct Yahoo group I mentioned above, a woman said that her students were going to go outside once per week and draw some fruit on a tree. I think it was a peach. The idea was that they would understand peach trees, and more specifically peaches, intimately. They would trace the development from a tiny bud, to a flower, to a small, hard, green fruit, to a fresh peach ready for picking. There are many ways to approach nature study, and sometimes narrow subjects are not as limiting as we assume they are.

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  • Reply Mystie October 13, 2009 at 1:01 am

    Will do! πŸ™‚

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts October 12, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    For anyone still watching this post, I wanted to point out KM’s post, which was wonderful:

    Go forth and read! πŸ™‚

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts September 27, 2009 at 3:23 am

    One last note on Comstock’s book: at this point, I use it to make sure I know what I’m talking about. I never learned, for instance, the names of the parts of a flower.

    If I have chosen something to study that is in her book, I read over that section. I usually choose two or three grammar-level type facts to use in my little talk with the children

    I can say that more than once it came in handy because a child asked me a more complex question than I expected, and I, since I had it with me, was able to glance at the page and find the answer.

    I suppose when they are older I can let them read the sections themselves, especially my oldest, who has general interest in this area.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts September 27, 2009 at 3:21 am


    Carla Emery’s book is now the cornerstone of my “distaster” library. Where else are you going to learn how to turn a ground squirrel into a stew?? πŸ™‚


    I look forward to your post.


    A year ago I would have said…”They can’t!” πŸ™‚ Actually, my four-year-old still can’t! The best draw-er in the bunch is Neighbor M., and that is probably because we aren’t anything alike, genetically speaking. πŸ˜‰

    With A., I do the drawing and she colors. We are working up to her directing me in my drawing. I am hoping that she just wants to take the process over as we go along.

    I did the same thing with E. at this age (4-5). Also, I had forgotten, but before that (early 4s) we went outside and took a lined sheet of paper, and he just told me what he observed that God made. So, he listed verbs, like birds singing, dogs barking. Over time he transitioned to seeing the differences over the days. Like in the winter, he noticed that most of the birds disappeared, that sort of thing.

    As far as the idea that boys draw verbs…I totally get it, because I remember my son doing this. However, I also know that they must be able to transition to nouns over time because most of the greatest famous painters were men, and Raphael’s earliest masterpieces were in his early teens.

    In general, I think that my children (who are not natural born artists like KM’s little boy), do well with an assigned thing to draw, but only for a short (15 minutes or less) time. If my boy has to think of something to draw, he draws a diagram with lots of arrows and labels. Go figure. But if I tell him to replicate a painting, for instance, he has gotten to where he draws very decently for his age.

    A few things with drawing: between the nature journaling and art narration (if you do that), they will improve over time. Good advice that was once given to me was don’t wait until they are good artists to have them draw because it is the practice that makes them good at it, especially if they are praciticing mimicking masterpieces.

    This year, I can tell what my son is drawing. Last year, I wouldn’t have had a clue if I hadn’t assigned it. With nature study, the point really is that they are spending time observing closely.


    I’m glad it helped! I always need concrete examples, too. They always serve as starting places for me from which to figure out what fits our family. Let me know if you start doing nature study! I’d love to hear how your daughter responds.

  • Reply Rachel R. September 27, 2009 at 2:39 am

    Thank you!!! Your specifics really help me to “see” what this looks like for you. “Nature study” has always been something of an ethereal concept for me, and this post has made it much more concrete.

  • Reply Mystie September 27, 2009 at 1:02 am

    Just how realistic can your children draw? We are learning and we have done nature drawing a few times this term, but Andrew’s statement that boys draw verbs more than nouns is becoming very apparent to me! πŸ™‚

    Comstock’s book is completely overwhelming to me. I saw your post just before leaving for the library and picked it up again, but again, yes, I just can’t envision what in the world to do with it. Listening to the Mimetic talk the other day, though, made me realize so far I’m not “instructing” or actively teaching any set material yet. We read books on topics I’ve chosen, and we talk about things if the boys have questions, but I don’t do lessons yet. The time will come, but this year I’m focusing on exposure, tastes/appetites, and skills (like drawing).

    Our library does have the Country Living book; I placed a hold on it. πŸ™‚ Maybe it will be more useful. I have no “natural affections” for plants or animals, but if it’s put in the context of useful information, maybe I can absorb it better.

    Thank you, as always, for sharing what you do. πŸ™‚ It helps to be able to envision it.

  • Reply Kansas Mom September 26, 2009 at 8:34 pm

    I love Carla Emery’s book! We read from it at least two or three times a week, for useful information on our garden. I’d love to see what else you have in your disaster planning library.

    I started to write out what we are doing for nature study, but then decided I’d just include in on the post I’m planning on yesterday’s nature study club meeting. After a few rough nature study exercises, we’ll be taking a more relaxed approach starting next week.

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