Educational Philosophy, Home Education

Why Charlotte Mason Families Should Study Astronomy

February 23, 2015 by Jay Ryan
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne thing that impresses me about the Charlotte Mason approach to homeschooling is the emphasis on observation.  The AmblesideOnline article entitled What Is CM? states that:

Based on Miss Mason’s writings, a CM education would include… Nature study with an emphasis on close, focused observation of creation as a means to knowledge of God, and Outdoor life is necessary to teach nature first-hand, which means plenty of time spent out of doors each day in all weather and in different environments for students of all ages. “School” for children younger than six consisted almost entirely of time spent outdoors.

 

Why Charlotte Mason Families Should Study Astronomy

 

In my opinion, observation is the true heart of all education. Indeed, education is most effective when it arises from a natural curiosity, an innate desire on the part of the student to know and understand. This is especially true of science education, which is, after all, nothing more than the close, methodical observation of God’s natural world.

It can be truly said that the great scientists of history were curious individuals, and their desire to know and understand impelled them into careers in science. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying,

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.

There is no better way to instill curiosity in a child than to teach them to observe their world, as Charlotte Mason instructed. It is important for children to discover their world, to study rocks and watch animal behavior, and identify indigenous plants. But it is also important to observe the celestial bodies, and the amazing visually-apprehended cycles of Classical Astronomy. Indeed, our modern educational system does not teach astronomy as an outdoor activity.

Instead of learning the wonderful things there are to observe in the sky, modern astronomy education is an indoor activity, confined to books and videos, dwelling on mere factoids gleaned from science, such as the sizes and distances of planets, the temperature of the Sun, and the exotic properties of oddball objects such as black holes — but with no observational methodology. Meanwhile, a wonderful outdoor education can be found in the sky, if we lift our gaze above eye level.

There are many things we can learn from a methodical study of the heavens. In fact, Classical Astronomy was the first empirical science in the modern sense of the word. Since antiquity, geometrical techniques have been used to measure the cycles of the Sun, Moon and stars.

It is no accident that the physics of Isaac Newton grew out of Classical Astronomy, and from there, the entire realm of modern science. As a matter of fact, the ancients were keen observers of nature. Without the benefit of modern technology, they had only their eyes and their wits to rely upon for understanding their world.

For example, Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, records numerous observations of nature, including the heavens. The Greek geometer Euclid wrote an entire treatise on applying geometry to the sky. Using such geometrical techniques, the Greeks were able to prove that the Earth was round, that the seasons would be reversed in the southern hemisphere, and that daylight would last for six months at the poles … millennia before these facts were actually observed by modern explorers.

Homeschool families can follow in this ancient tradition of observing the sky. There are lots of things that can be observed in the sky, without a telescope or other special equipment. These observations can be notebooked over the days and months, and can help fire your kids’ youthful curiousity to learn and understand.

Here’s a short list of things that can be observed in the sky:

  • We can notice the regular daily motion of the Sun, as it rises and sets.
  • We can explain to our kids about the exposures of the windows in our homes, and have them observe how the Sun shines into east-facing rooms in the morning, and in other directionally-aligned rooms throughout the day.
  • We can also observe the shifting shadows produced by the Sun, how some places are sunny and shady at certain times of day.
  • We can observe the monthly cycle of the phases of the Moon.
  • We can follow from evening to evening how the Moon increases in phase over a two week span, growing from a skinny crescent to a Full Moon.
  • From Moonfinder

    We can then watch from morning to morning for the next two weeks as the Moon decreases in phase, shrinking from a Full Moon back down to a crescent. We offer a picture book called Moonfinder which explains the cycle of the Moon’s phases, in a way that is understandable to little kids (and their parents!)

  • We can also observe the annual cycle of the seasons, how the days become longer in the summer and shorter in the winter.
  • We can notice that the Sun rises and sets to the north in the spring and summer, and then rises and sets toward the south during the fall and winter.
  • We can place a stick in the ground to measure the changing length of its shadow at noon over a span of weeks and months.  From these observations, we can see how the Sun is higher in the sky at noon during the warm seasons, casting a short shadow.
  • We can also observe how the Sun is lower in the noon sky during the cold seasons, casting a longer shadow.

Additionally, we can also begin to learn about the constellations at night.  This can be challenging, especially for those living under the bright glare of the city lights, which dims the stars, making them less visible. But with regular, consistent, dedicated observations, over a period of weeks and months, we can learn to spot the brighter stars, and identify the more conspicuous constellations.

Everyone knows the Big Dipper! Parents can start by teaching that to their kids, how the Big Dipper points to the North Star. Notice how, over the span of hours, the Big Dipper moves across the sky, circling the North Star, in response to the rotation of the Earth. Look across the North Star to learn Cassiopeia, which appears in the sky as a big “W.” Starting with these two star patterns, a family can easily learn 20 or 30 constellations. And after learning constellations, learn how to identify the planets. Venus and Jupiter are the brightest “stars” in the sky, and can be easily picked out by an experienced observer of the sky. Mars and Saturn are also easy to see, and can be learned upon gaining experience with the sky. Notice each month as the Moon passes these planets, a beautiful sight in the evening sky.

Parents wishing to begin learning astronomy with their little kids can read our Signs & Seasons curriculum. Many adults have enjoyed this as an introductory text, and have used with their little kids. Studying the sky can be a rewarding blessing, as homeschool families discover the wonders that the LORD has hidden in plain sight, and how “the heavens declare the glory of God.” (Psalm 19:1).

 

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5 Comments

  • Reply Betty February 23, 2015 at 10:11 am

    Hey Brandy, is there a good age to start with S&S? I had purchased to start it this past year with our MT, but my just turned 11yr old didn’t seem quite attentive or able to retain much. She is a struggling learner. Do you have any suggestions? I love this book myself and really want to share it with her. Thanks!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 26, 2015 at 12:27 pm

      I’ve done it with varying age groups. In my experience, the younger they are, the less I read at a time. With that said, AO doesn’t assign it until Year 7, and it takes them a few years to get through it because they really want to place the emphasis on field work.

      One option, I think, in the younger ages, is to study it ourselves and teach a lot of it through field work only, and then use the book when they are older.

  • Reply Kelly February 23, 2015 at 7:21 am

    Oh, I love this — watching they sky (day and night) with my daddy is one of my fondest childhood memories and something I’ve tried to pass down to my children. We have a few annual sky-watching events that are important family holidays — the Perseids, the Harvest Moon — and certain things we’re always on the lookout for, like the first night anyone sees Orion, and whether Venus is the Morning Star or the Evening Star, or absent altogether. Friday evening my son, who’s been working a night shift, called to tell me to go out and look at the moon — Venus and Mars were having an assignation near it — and the thrill of realized I’d successfully passed that love down to the next generation was as great as the thrill of running out look at the event.

    I’m glad you mentioned watching for the moon in the day — I’ve found that a lot of people don’t realize that it can sometimes be seen in the middle of the day.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 23, 2015 at 9:46 am

      What lovely memories, Kelly! That is really awesome about your son, too. 🙂

    • Reply Heather February 26, 2015 at 10:25 am

      My son helping my husband take the garbage out the curb last week also came in excited that he could see Venus close to the moon. The next morning, I saw a NASA image showing how close Mars had been as well and he said that he had noticed that as well. We have not done Signs and Seasons, but he did just finish reading Exploring Creation: Astronomy, so I know he is interested. I like looking for the moon during the day and sometimes my kids spot it before I do.

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