A big thanks to another AO Forum mod, Michelle Dawn, for taking the time to give us a hand with nature study. Thanks, Michelle!
Michelle is the homeschool mom of four lively, curious children. They have been using AmblesideOnline to guide their Charlotte Mason education. Michelle collects living books, and loves organizing them and sorting them into her school library. The children are thriving with living books, nature study, and the other components of a classical, liberal education. They love exploring the beautiful mountains where they live in Colorado. Michelle is a moderator for the AmblesideOnline Forum, where she loves learning more about the Charlotte Mason philosophy and education in general, and join in the book study groups. Michelle is also a writer for A Journey Through Learning Lapbooks, and enjoys raising chickens and gardening.
He must live hours daily in the open air, and, as far as possible, in the country; must look and touch and listen; must be quick to note, consciously, every peculiarity of habit or structure, in beast, bird, or insect; the manner of growth and fructification of every plant. He must be accustomed to ask why — Why does the wind blow? Why does the river flow? Why is a leaf-bud sticky? And do not hurry to answer his questions for him; let him think his difficulties out so far as his small experience will carry him.Charlotte Mason (Vol. 1, p. 264)
Implementing nature study in the homeschool is sometimes confusing and difficult. While the general principles sound simple — go outside! — figuring out how to take outside time and make it into nature study can sometimes be more difficult. There are some things we can find in Charlotte’s books that can help us, but like most of her ideas, they aren’t going to be found in a step-by-step lesson plan or list to check off. For this article, I decided to compile the basic foundations of Nature Study from Charlotte Mason’s book, Home Education, in one place.
They must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education few are worse than this — that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder — and grow.Vol. 1, p. 44
In the first place, it is not her business to entertain the little people: there should be no story-books, no telling of tales, as little talk as possible, and that to some purpose. Who thinks to amuse children with tale or talk at a circus or pantomime? And here, is there not infinitely more displayed for their delectation? Our wise mother, arrived, first sends the children to let off their spirits in a wild scamper, with cry, hallo, and hullabaloo, and any extravagance that comes into their young heads.Vol. 1, p. 45
…but few children are equal to holding their own in the face of public opinion; and if they see that the things which interest them are indifferent or disgusting to you, their pleasure in them vanishes, and that chapter in the book of Nature is closed to them.Vol. 1, p. 58
Does so wide a program alarm the mother? Does she with dismay see herself talking through the whole of those five or six hours, and, even at that, not getting through a tithe of the teaching laid out for her? On the contrary, the less she says the better; …Vol. 1, p. 78
…because my object is to show that the chief function of the child — his business in the world during the first six or seven years of his life — is to find out all he can, about whatever comes under his notice, by means of his five senses; …Vol. 1, p. 96
But Not Too Quiet
At the same time, here is the mother’s opportunity to train the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and to drop seeds of truth into the open soul of the child, which shall germinate, blossom, and bear fruit, without further help or knowledge of hers.Vol. 1, p. 44
There is one thing the mother will allow herself to do as interpreter between Nature and the child, but that not oftener than once a week or once a month, and with look and gesture of delight rather than with flow of improving words — she will point out to the child some touch of especial loveliness in colouring or grouping in the landscape or the heavens.Vol. 1, p. 79
Be Ready to Answer the Questions
The mother cannot devote herself too much to this kind of reading, not only that she may read tit-bits to her children about matters they have come across, but that she may be able to answer their queries and direct their observations. And not only the mother, but any woman, who is likely ever to spend an hour or two in the society of children, should make herself mistress of this sort of information; the children will adore her for knowing what they want to know, and who knows but she may give its bent for life to some young mind designed to do great things for the world.Vol. 1, p. 64
Now, consider what a culpable waste of intellectual energy it is to shut up a child, blessed with this inordinate capacity for seeing and knowing, within the four walls of a house, or the dreary streets of a town. Or suppose that he is let run loose in the country where there is plenty to see, it is nearly as bad to let this great faculty of the child’s dissipate itself in random observations for want of method and direction.Vol. 1, p. 68
Let Discovery Happen
Children should be encouraged to watch, patiently and quietly, until they learn something of the habits and history of bee, ant, wasp, spider, hairy caterpillar, dragon-fly, and whatever of larger growth comes in their way. … the bright keen eyes with which children are blest were made to see, and see into, the doings of creatures too small for the unaided observation of older people.Vol. 1, p. 57
By degrees the children will learn discriminatingly every feature of the landscapes with which they are familiar; and think what a delightful possession for old age and middle life is a series of pictures imaged, feature by feature, in the sunny glow of the child’s mind!Vol. 1, p. 47
Facts Come After Ideas
For convenience in describing they should be able to name and distinguish petals, sepals, and so on; and they should be encouraged to make such rough classifications as they can with their slight knowledge of both animal and vegetable forms. Plants with heart-shaped or spoon-shaped leaves, with whole or divided leaves; leaves with criss-cross veins and leaves with straight veins; bell-shaped flowers and cross-shaped flowers; flowers with three petals, with four, with five; trees which keep their leaves all the year, and trees which lose them in autumn; creatures with a backbone and creatures without; creatures that eat grass and creatures that eat flesh, and so on. To make collections of leaves and flowers, pressed and mounted, and arranged according to their form, affords much pleasure, and, what is better, valuable training in the noticing of differences and resemblances. Patterns for this sort of classification of leaves and flowers will be found in every little book for elementary botany.Vol. 1, p. 63
And this is the process the child should continue for the first few years of his life. Now is the storing time which should be spent in laying up images of things familiar. By-and-by he will have to conceive of things he has never seen: how can he do it except by comparison with things he has seen and knows? By-and-by he will be called upon to reflect, understand, reason; what material will he have, unless he has a magazine of facts to go upon? The child who has been made to observe how high in the heavens the sun is at noon on a summer’s day, how low at noon on a day in mid-winter, is able to conceive of the great heat of the tropics under a vertical sun, and to understand the climate of a place depends greatly upon the mean height the sun reaches above the horizon.Vol. 1, p. 66
[B]y-and-by he will learn the bearing of the facts with which he is already familiar — a very different thing from learning the reason why of facts which have never come under his notice.Vol. 1, p. 70
They Are Never Too Young
As for the baby, he is in bliss: divested of his garments, he kicks and crawls, and clutches the grass, laughs soft baby laughter, and takes in his little knowledge of shapes and properties in his own wonderful fashion — clothed in a woollen gown, long and loose, which is none the worse for the worst usage it may get.Vol. 1, p. 45
Practical Applications of Nature Study
Along with these basic methods for nature study, there are some more specific ideas Charlotte, and other people in more recent years, have come up with to study specific aspects of nature.
Charlotte recommends studying trees throughout the year. Winter is a great time to begin by observing bark, color, and growth patterns. Bark rubbings are a fun way to explore how different trees can be, and a great thing to add to nature journals. Later, as Spring buds emerge, the colors and shapes are fascinating. All (or nearly all) trees have flowers, many emerge before the leaves. When summer comes the leaves are full size, and can be saved for the journals by leaf rubbings, pressing between wax paper, and sketching. In the fall, the trees are at a perfect time for saving leaves.
Observe a few trees throughout the year, or even one each year. Pick a tree close by your house, or somewhere you go frequently. If your children pay careful attention to the subtle nuances of the species throughout the season, they will ‘own’ that tree for life, and recognize it anywhere in any season. They will know a single leaf that has fallen to the ground.
Flowers should be a delight to the child. Even wildflowers and weeds are incredible, intricate, and delicate. Flowers can be pressed for the journal, if there are enough available. Children should be guided in the best practices for picking plants- one good rule of thumb is to never pick a flower unless there are ten more of the same kind in the stand. They should also know that many plants are poisonous. Drawing flowers with pencil, colored pencil, or paint (Charlotte used a dry brush technique) requires careful observation, and once a flower has been studied and drawn in detail, it will never be forgotten.
Some specific aspects of each plant may not be immediately noticed if your children haven’t been training in careful observation. (Young children develop this naturally in time spent outside, but older children may not have had that chance.) A field guide book will detail specifics of each plant to watch for, in order to distinguish similar species.
Learning about wild animals can be tougher then stationary plants. In studying nature, it is important not to get caught up in the wildness of creation. A flower is still worthy of study, no matter whether it is a wildflower or a domestic rose. In the same way, an animal is still worth observing, whether it is a wild beaver or your family pet. Many close, detailed observations are available close to home, which may never be possible in the wild.
There are ways to observe wild animals. Zoos may not be the best way, because animals often don’t follow natural behavior patterns in confinement. However, it is an opportunity to study the physical characteristics of animals up close, which you might never see otherwise. Some of the best animals to watch in the wild may be small. Squirrels are found all across the country, even in cities. Small reptiles and amphibians can sometimes be found in warm, sunny areas, near small ponds, and in flowerbeds. If you are quick, they can be caught and studied for a few minutes.
Insects are excellent for observing. They have little fear of humans, and can often be caught and kept for longer periods of time. Charlotte gives examples of keeping both a caterpillar, through it’s metamorphosis, and an ant farm, in her book. She recommends learning the attention and patience needed to watch the habits of animals by first observing the smallest ones, the insects. A child that can sit and study the ways of an ant hill, or a grasshopper munching leaves, or a bee gathering pollen, will be the same child that later on can lay quietly, hidden in brushes, watching a beaver at work, or a bird feeding its young.
Larger wild animals can also be found and studied, but they may take more time and persistence. Deer are common even in towns, where they may be tamer then their rural cousins. Sometimes the best way to record these discoveries in a nature journal is to take pictures, and sketch from them later. You can try staying very quiet near animals, to observe their natural behaviors for an hour or two. Smaller animals are again best to start with, but with experience even larger mammals can by studied.
Birds are wonderful for nature study. Set up a few bird feeders, waterers, and make sure to give them shelter for protection. Keep a field guide near by and your children will soon be able to recognize many of your local feathered friends. During the summer, sitting quietly near the feeders, your garden, flower beds, a park, or on the edge of a meadow, children (and adults!) can watch the birds in their natural settings. Watching them feed their babies, find water and food, learning to recognize their songs and actions, these things give more scientific knowledge to the child then any text book ever could.
The Rest of Nature
The same types of observations, collections, journaling, and careful attention that have been used for plants and animals can also be used for the rest of nature. The ways of water, weather, and air can be observed in nature. The living things along the seashore and in ponds can often be caught and studied up close. These are perfect things for sketching. Empty seashells can be collected, as can rocks. Nature doesn’t end with the atmosphere, and learning about the universe is also part of nature study. They can learn to find constellations, recognize direction by the stars, and watch comets, eclipses, and other phenomena when they occur.
Although many other topics can be added to the child’s outdoor time, such as geography and foreign language, nature study will probably be the most prominent. Nature study has so many benefits, for all ages, but especially for children. The skills and passions nurtured in these years will help the child through the rest of his life, and love for the outdoors is a love that will never go away.
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