Get the exclusive (almost) Weekly Digest.

    Educational Philosophy, Mother's Education

    Nature Study: Handmaiden of Natural Philosophy

    October 29, 2015 by Brandy Vencel

    Not only did I read the Natural Philosophy section of The Liberal Arts Tradition, I also listened to a wonderful podcast from the CiRCE Institute featuring Martin Cothran. These two complement each other so well that I highly suggest, if you are reading along, that you go listen to the podcast. Conversely, if you haven’t been reading along, but did hear the podcast, it’s time to start reading. Seriously good stuff!

    Nature Study Handmaiden of Natural Philosophy

    In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain tell us that natural science was called natural philosophy for thousands of years — and that natural philosophy means “the love of wisdom in the natural world.” Corresponding to this is the idea of wonder — since wonder is so powerful when it comes to inspiring love. Clark and Jain, just like Martin Cothran in that podcast I mentioned above, are encouraging us to return to real things — to let our students experience the natural world first hand.

    Science experiments, learning the history of scientific development, and nature study are three ways to return to this love-based approach. Thankfully, all three of these things are included in a classical, Charlotte Mason education.

    Science Experiments

    Do we need to do all of the scientific experiments we come across? No. I loved this quote from The Liberal Arts Tradition in regard to this:

    Teachers can assist students in experimental verification of the greatest and most beautiful experiments.

    Greatest and most beautiful? Sounds good to me.

    Shortly after this, they tell us what makes experimentation important:

    Reproducing the great experiments allows students to recognize the centrality of sense experience in proving one’s thesis. It unites the wonder and wisdom.

    I long resisted science experiments because I think of them as a hassle. I prefer to live in my head, and this real world stuff is inefficient and messy. But, in keeping with my recent repentance, I bought a fancy chemistry set that is on its way to my house as I type. We’ve (and by “we” I mostly mean my husband and son ahem) been trying to do the experiments found in Kathy Wickward’s Chemical History of a Candle Study Guide without a chemistry set, and it just hasn’t been working very well. All of this, by the way, is a small part of the living science found in AmblesideOnline Year 8, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

    Charlotte Mason definitely encouraged experimentation. In Home Education: Training and Educating Children Under Nine, she recommends that students be reading Holden’s The Sciences — and that they be sure to do the experiments.

    The History of Scientific Development

    In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Clark and Jain tell us that understanding the history and philosophy of science is necessary to doing science well. Students, they say, “need a narrative framework.”

    This more narrative approach asserts that there is a great conversation that has been going on for millennia even in natural science. The teacher’s job is then to mediate that great conversation…

    This reminds me so much of Charlotte Mason’s desires a literary way for teaching science! In her Philosophy of Education, Miss Mason quotes M. Fouillée:

    How interesting Arithmetic and Geometry might be if we gave a short history of their principal theorems, if the child were meant to be present at the labours of a Pythagoras, a Plato, a Euclid, or in modern times, of a Descartes, a Pascal, or a Leibnitz. Great theories instead of being lifeless and anonymous abstractions would become living human truths each with its own history like a statue by Michael Angelo or like a painting by Raphael.

    Later in the book she says:

    Books dealing with science as with history, say, should be of a literary character, and we should probably be more scientific as a people if we scrapped all the text-books which swell publishers’ lists and nearly all the chalk expended so freely on our blackboards. The French mind has appreciated the fact that the approach to science as to other subjects should be more or less literary, that the principles which underlie science are at the same time so simple, so profound and so far-reaching that the due setting forth of these provokes what is almost an emotional response…

    A Charlotte Mason education is a good application of Clark and Jain’s principle of using a narrative approach — Miss Mason used a delightful combination of books about scientists and the history of science (biographies) as well as works written by scientists or written about science that are literary in nature.

    Nature Study

    While Clark and Jain did not use the words “nature study,” it is such an obvious application of what they were talking about in their chapter that I have to bring it up. Tracing science’s history, they spoke of “the historical Christian vision of man tending nature as a garden” and explained:

    While investigating the natural world, medievals and ancients beheld nature as the ground of wonder, mystery, and a locus of God’s activity.

    How can the natural world be investigated without a child ever going outside and observations? The nature notebook would be such a lovely addition to what Clark and Jain are promoting — the nature notebook, I mean, understood as the indispensable tool that sustains the attention and assists the student in making extended observations of a subject, that brings to light both the parts as well as the whole through the act of drawing — which is to say, imitating what as been observed.

    It is so tempting in the upper years to think we are “done” with nature study. Or that we no longer have time for it. I have been tempted that direction myself! I was struck recently by Miss Mason’s insistence in School Education:

    It seems to me a sine quâ non of a living education that all school children of whatever grade should have one half-day in the week, throughout the year, in the fields. There are few towns where country of some sort is not accessible, and every child should have the opportunity of watching from week to week, the procession of the seasons. Geography, geology, the course of the sun, the behaviour of the clouds, weather signs, all that the ‘open’ has to offer, are made use of in these walks; but all is incidental, easy, and things are noticed as they occur. It is probable that in most neighbourhoods there are naturalists who would be willing to give their help in the ‘nature walks’ of a given school.

    In fact, she goes on to explain that object lessons (the half-sibling of science experiments) are mere supplements — it is nature study in this form which is the main dish here. Books, she says, are an adjunct to out-of-door work, and not the other way around.

    Why the Handmaiden?

    A handmaiden is a servant. Natural philosophy — a love and understanding of the natural world — is the goal, and it’s the foundation upon which true science must be built. But these are not born from nothing. Something must nurture these inclinations in childhood, and personally — as much as my tendency is to view nature study as an inconvenience! — I think nature study is the key.

    In my backyard, there are many tiny cages. Inside of them, there is an odd assortment of insects. One box contains a praying mantis, who as laid two egg sacs so far. The children looked her up in their field guides and discovered that they will have to wait until spring to meet her babies, and also that she can lay up to six of these sacs. Therefore, they decided, she needs nourishment. That is where the other cages come in. They are full of the unfortunate ones who will serve as future meals. Today, one of the grasshopper collection was led to his death. They chose him because, after long observation, they have figured out what grasshoppers look like before they die. They know the order of the moltings and what he’s like at the end — all this, without me ever having taught them. They claim his chest area turns darker shortly before his demise.

    There has been much studying in their books in their spare time, and all because their observations have caused them to ask questions. This is the sort of thing that is irreplaceable — and it cannot be replicated in a laboratory.

    Need Some Inspiration?

    Go check out Beyond the Nature Journal: Five Kinds of Nature Study Gifts for Children to get you started … or keep you going!

    Click here to return to the series index.

    Get the (almost) weekly digest!

    Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

    Powered by ConvertKit


  • Reply #03: Ancient Liturgies for the Modern Homeschool | The Classical Homeschool October 5, 2016 at 10:11 am

    […] Charlotte Mason Nature Study: Nature Study: Handmaiden of Natural Philosophy by Brandy Vencel […]

  • Reply Tania October 29, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    Brandy, this was such an encouragement to me. Thank you so much. I am not reading the book either at the moment. Like Sharron, I feel like it would be over my head, but I really love your discussions about it. My oldest is in year 4 and I have been thinking a lot about science and whether what we are doing is “enough”. I keep thinking that maybe it might be easier and more reliable to just go with a standard curriculum to make sure we don’t miss anything. Thank you for reminding me how much we would lose by doing that. I’m not a science person at all so I freak out about the areas where I am weak. I am so thankful for your encouragement.

  • Reply Patty October 29, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    I am intrigued bout the insect boxes also. My kids usually let their insects go after a short while. They usually observe them in jars. Would a cardboard box be better? I do think the jars might get too hot. What do they cover the boxes with?

    We just started AO 7 a few weeks ago. Our seeds are planted and sitting by the window, for our observations of plants, but it is taking us 3 weeks to get the petri dishes in and get sample water from the river for our amoeba observation. It is a little bit trickier to do science experiments from living books as they don’t have experiment supply kits to go along with them. However, I find that living books inspire us to want to do the experiments much more so than text books. So even if we do just a few of the experiments, I am determined to at least try.

    My library was not willing to purchase “The Liberal Arts Tradition”. It is sitting in my Amazon wish list. Every post you write about it makes me want to go ahead and order it.

    Patty B.

  • Reply Amber Vanderpol October 29, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    We are really enjoying Chemical History of a Candle and doing the experiments. We had some chemistry gear from a previous go at chem experiments using Messing Around with Baking Chemistry (lots of fun, btw) and I ordered a few more chemicals and odds and ends from Home Science Tools to round out what we need for Chemical History of a Candle. Isn’t Kathy’s guide great? We did get hung up on our most recent one though because I forgot to procure some soda cans… whoops! But I hope to get some from a neighbor soon so we can do the experiment.

    And we haven’t done anything more than watch and sketch praying mantises around here… We came home one evening and found over 30 of them on the side of our house, all clustered around the front door! It was a little creepy, really, but amazing too. It has been a bumper year for them around here, we’ve never seen so many. I’m not sure if I want to suggest bug cages or not now… 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 1, 2015 at 8:48 pm

      Yes, Kathy’s guide is *fantastic*! Our set arrived yesterday, and I can’t wait to get back into it.

      We’ve had a ton to praying mantises here this year, too. And for the first time, we’re seeing their eggs sacs everywhere. I’m not sure if there are more of them than usual, or if we just didn’t notice them before. We kept a couple sacs so that we can watch them hatch in the spring. And I have heard about how creepy it can be!

      • Reply Amber Vanderpol November 3, 2015 at 8:30 pm

        I just did a search for the images of the egg sacs because I didn’t know what they look like… and I haven’t seen any of those around! I’ll have to ask my kids if they have seen them. I’ll be curious to hear what they say – they often notice so much more than I do.

  • Reply Kstie October 29, 2015 at 11:04 am

    I’d love to know more about those tiny cages!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 29, 2015 at 2:50 pm

      Well, we have one “real” bug cage that one of the girls received for her birthday. But all of the others are an imitation — handmade using cardboard boxes and anything else they managed to pilfer from around the house. 🙂

  • Reply Sharron October 29, 2015 at 5:19 am

    I really love this. I haven’t been reading the book because I honestly feel like it is sooo over my head! I’m getting more and more tempted though. There are a few books that you and Cindy Rollins have mentioned that I would like to read, but I’m not sure which one to start with! Karen Glass? Stratford Caldecott? This book? Any advice? I still haven’t read all of Charlotte Mason, maybe I should start there. Anyway, thank you for giving us mom’s an education!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 29, 2015 at 8:12 am

      Sharon, I think Karen Glass’ Mind to Mind is the *perfect* starting place! And then after that maybe Karen’s other book, Consider This. That first one is an abridgment of Charlotte Mason’s sixth volume, which was where she really laid out her whole philosophy from first to last.

      • Reply Sharron October 29, 2015 at 8:20 am

        Sounds perfect! Thank you.

    Leave a Reply