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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    The Origin of Nature Knowledge in a Charlotte Mason Education

    March 7, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

    I like to get my knowledge out of books. I’m a born reader. I’m also not naturally an outdoor person, though I’ve been attempting something like repentance over the past decade. Because of these natural inclinations of mine, I’m always looking for a way out of nature study. True confession. After all these years, I still haven’t learned. I still fight it. And then I still read Miss Mason and realize (all over again) that she’s right, I’m wrong, and I ought to know better by now.

    The one thing that saves me is my second child. A-Age-11 is a born naturalist. She’s everything I’m not, and her enthusiasm gets the other children (and me!) looking and noticing as well.

    Charlotte Mason seems to disparage nature knowledge that comes from books, and yet she assigned nature books to her classes. Why?

    I’d like to take credit for her, but I can’t. She’s this way in spite of her mother, not because of. It’s possible that the only things I’ve done right are to affirm her interest, pay for her bug cages and other supplies, and allow our backyard to be something of an untamed wilderness.

    In Home Education, Charlotte Mason disparages nature knowledge gotten out of books. She wants the children outside, observing the world. She wants them to learn classifications from first-hand observation rather than picture books or nature magazines:

    [A] classification got out of books, that the child does not make for himself, cultivates no power but that of verbal memory, and a phrase or two of ‘Tamil’ or other unknown tongue, learnt off, would serve that purpose just as well.

    Daughter A. is so interesting to me. Because of the constant attention she pays, she is always learning something new. She’s discerned all of the stages in the life cycle of lady bugs on her own. (She might not use the proper terms to describe it, but she could explain it all to you nonetheless.) She kept grasshoppers in cages long enough to learn the order of molting, and she knows what a grasshopper looks like right before he dies. She can identify praying mantis eggs without the praying mantis needing to be present. She figured out that lady bugs eat other, smaller bugs, and so when she found an infestation in the garden, she calmly gathered a collection of lady bugs and put them to work defending the lettuce.

    And it actually worked.

    Daughter A. has taught me that grasshopper wings are beautiful, and that by spending my own childhood focused on mammals like cats and dogs, I was missing a larger world of creepy crawly things all around me.

    She amazes me.

    But I’m not actually writing this to talk about my daughter. She’s just an interesting example — dare I say specimen? — of what Charlotte Mason was talking about. First hand knowledge is the Real Knowledge.

    And yet.

    And yet Miss Mason did assign naturalists’ books to her students.


    That’s what I wanted to know.

    Turns out, she tells us, but I somehow missed it during my first umpteen readings of her books.

    The real use of naturalists’ books at this stage is to give the child delightful glimpses into the world of wonders he lives in, to reveal the sorts of things to be seen by curious eyes, and fill him with desire to make discoveries for himself.

    Home Education, p. 64

    Isn’t that interesting? In the early years, the children aren’t reading the naturalists’ books for the sake of the content — to get facts. No! It is rather that the books offer the children a sort of model for interest, observation, patience — oh, the patience!

    I remember a number of years ago when my oldest child was reading Secrets of the Woods. (A book that, incidentally, I cannot seem to locate right now, which is irritating since Q-Age-Nine is supposed to be reading it.) This book made him long to spend extended time in the woods, and it enticed him into holding still and listening for movement, and then seeing what there was to see. It changed a boy that once romped wildly along the path into someone who tried to be quiet as a mouse.

    To this day, he behaves differently out on a trail because of that book.

    So. The mystery — it was a mystery to me, anyway — of why on the one hand Miss Mason says that the children must get their nature knowledge first hand and yet, on the other hand, she assigns naturalists’ books is solved.

    Nature knowledge does come first hand in a Charlotte Mason education. The naturalists’ books, however, offer an inspiring example and are not to be missed.

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  • Reply Rochelle April 7, 2017 at 5:10 am

    Thank you for your CM research! I grew up by the ocean so being in central Texas, by the river, makes me want to picnic and read a book- not investigate creation. My children are like yours and they notice, more and more, the insects (because Texas has plenty) I ignore. The Secret in the Woods – huge fan! – I believe had a lot to do with it, mixed with the natural curiosity of children who are not allowed to satisfy their boredom with iPhones or tablets.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 7, 2017 at 4:20 pm

      “The natural curiosity of children who are not allowed to satisfy their boredom with iPhone or tables” — this is a really important thing you’ve mentioned, Rochelle. When people say their children are not interested, one of the first things I’ve learned to ask is how much screen time they’re getting. Unfortunately, there seems to be an inverse relationship between quantity of screen time and level of interest in the world around us. 🙁

  • Reply Barbara March 10, 2016 at 7:19 am

    We have found all the nature study readings to be a great source of inspiration and the children have retained many of the facts. I think the books help to promote a relationship with nature and can provide great models of keen observers. We live in the country so it’s always been a both thing for us – we’re outside and we’re reading naturalists. I never thought of questioning the combo. I guess we could have an outside without the naturalists books but then I think we’d be missing something that opportunity of kinship and learning from the great lovers of nature that wrote those books. So I concur with you that the book can make that great difference as a teacher helping you to better see nature.

    BTW My son is easing Secrets of the Woods now. All five of my children loved it. This one always wants to read ahead.

  • Reply Anne White March 8, 2016 at 5:39 am

    I think you have touched on something absolutely vital here. It reminds me of Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses.” “I am a part of all that I have met; / Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades / Forever and forever when I move.”

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 9, 2016 at 8:17 am

      Oh, Anne! That is a beautiful connection! ♥

  • Reply Dawn March 8, 2016 at 3:22 am

    “Because of these natural inclinations of mine, I’m always looking for a way out of nature study. True confession. After all these years, I still haven’t learned. I still fight it. ”

    This reminds me of something very wise you once wrote, Brandy, regarding affections. Along the lines of if the child does not like Shakespeare, etc, it’s not because there is something wrong with Shakespeare. It is the child and his/her affections that are wrong. It’s wonderful when we acknowledge that!!

    Nature study does not come “naturally”:) to me, either, but since finding AO several years ago it has become a regular part of our lives. My children initially seemed resistant, but the fruits of all that quiet observing and expressing wonder on my part
    are consistently making themselves known. Just this weekend my children were outdoors for 4 straight hours playing “Manhunt” with the neighbor kids. I heard my oldest son pounding on the back door for me to let him in – I thought. But that wasn’t the case. He excitedly told me, “I just saw the hawk flying directly over our house, Mom, so keep your eyes out so you can see him, okay?” and then he turned tail and resumed the Manhunt. Nature study is absolutely infectious.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 9, 2016 at 8:31 am

      YES, Dawn! It has really helped me to get over myself to admit that my preferences aren’t *right* and that I’m missing a whole world. I really do think that some of it comes from fear — I had Lyme Disease as a child, and so I really have to work through some feelings {ew…feelings} sometimes in regard to being anywhere where I know there are ticks.

      Oh, and I love the hawk story! You’re right: nature study is infectious. I love that. I see the neighborhood kids catching a bit of it from my own children, and I feel like that is such a blessing for them since they have to be inside so many hours per day.

  • Reply Patty Scott March 7, 2016 at 11:12 pm

    Yes and amen. Now, I’m just like your daughter. I would live outdoors if you let me. I spent my childhood on trails while my parents bird watched. I learned the nature of things – pun intended – by observation. A bored child in the woods won’t be bored for long. As an adult, my favorite time of the year is when we go camping so I can get back into my element. We have friends who have moved to farms or larger properties in more rural communities and I see the fruit in them and their children. Since that doesn’t appear to be in our future as a family, we garden. My youngest has the same penchant I do. Our back yard, as small as it is, provides hours of goodness for us by way of bug spotting, listening and observing birds and butterflies and cultivating plants. We had been much better about taking nature walks regularly when my oldest was at home with us. I’ve let the habit slide and have been chided inwardly by my conscience and outwardly by my youngest. I’m grateful for the reminder and for the insight into the role naturalist books have in the lives of our younger children. Thank you, Brandy, as always, for sharing what you glean.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 9, 2016 at 8:28 am

      Oh, I agree that farms can be so fruitful! This is why I miss having our goats and ducks as we used to — now that there are no flocks requiring my presence, I don’t *have* to be outside multiple times per day, and so my natural inclinations are showing {badly} again. I had hoped that the barn chores life had changed me, but it turns out they only disciplined me. So I’m trying to find new ways to cause the same effect. 🙂

  • Reply Amber Vanderpol March 7, 2016 at 11:00 am

    Unfortunately, I think I am far more of a naturalist than any of my kids! Living where we do they’ve picked up a lot along the way, but I haven’t had one yet who seems to have that sort of passion.

    Along the lines of your post though, I’ve found that having my 7 yo read aloud Arabella Buckley’s Wild Life in Wood and Field and now By Pond and Stream has made him far more interested in looking and seeing than any of the nature lore reading we’ve done over the years (which is quite a bit, because I love it and I always have at least one or two books in that vein in our read aloud loop and have since before he was born). There’s something about having him actually doing the reading that seems to be having an entirely different impact in him than listening and narrating when I read.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 9, 2016 at 8:27 am

      You know, Amber, I am reminded that Miss Mason wrote something about Goethe that fascinated me — she said that everything he had as an adult was initiated in his childhood, and what he lacked as an adult were the things that had *not* been initiated in his childhood. It really could be that we don’t see fruit in certain areas until adulthood — even later adulthood — but if we’ve planted the seeds, if we’ve initiated, there is something there to take root when they are older. All of that is to say that even if they don’t have the passion, the seeds are there, and that is oh so important! ♥

      Also, you remind me that I have a Buckley book on my shelf that I wanted to pull out this summer.

      I wonder if your son is illustrating Miss Mason’s point about learning to forage for themselves? It does seem like some of our children do better if they read it on their own…

  • Reply Tanya Stone March 7, 2016 at 8:08 am

    Check your daughter’s room. I also couldn’t find “Secrets of the Woods”, and my 2 children are starting it this week. So I looked in the boys’ room and lo, there it was. My oldest had kept it in his personal collection. 😉
    Thank you for this post. And for the link to your Nature Study supplies post. My oldest really needs stuff.

  • Reply Kim Cameron-Smith March 7, 2016 at 7:34 am

    Aha! I can so relate! I, too, am the sort who reads a lot. If my house caught fire, of course I would take my kids first but my books would definitely be next. I, too, avoid nature walks but I always enjoy myself when I’m there. But MY second child (age 12) is a born naturalist. She collects bugs, lizards, and frogs in addition to “normal” domesticated animals like dogs and chickens. My house is a little zoo. She is fascinated by everything in nature and knows more than I do. She inspires our family to pay attention when we out in nature.

    I appreciate you posting Mason’s thoughts about learning about nature from naturalists’ book. And I love it that you point out that purpose is not to glean facts but inspiration. When I was doing Well-Trained Mind I recall very clearly feeling something was “off” when the point of reading science books was to collect facts. That’s a great way to make kids think nature is a snooze.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 9, 2016 at 8:21 am

      Oh my goodness, KIM! I was laughing at the fire thought. I was thinking — why not have your kids carry books while running out of the house? Two birds, one stone. 😉

      I think every family needs a naturalist, don’t you?

      I haven’t much experience with WTM, but I have read many science books where the point seemed to be fact-collection, so I know what you mean. We’ve read a lot of naturalist’s books over the years, but I think it was reading Fabré that finally helped me get it.

  • Reply Kansas Mom March 7, 2016 at 6:35 am

    My younger daughter is the naturalist in our family. She’s the one willing to sit on the edge of a creek for hours to discover the hiding place of the creatures huddled under the rocks. She’s only seven, but can usually identify more birds than anyone else if we don’t all scare them away first. Perhaps I should consider Secrets of the Woods as a family read aloud.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 9, 2016 at 8:18 am

      KM, I think Secrets would be a great read aloud!

      It sounds like your daughter and my daughter would get along quite well. 🙂

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