[dropcap]I[/dropcap] 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.
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 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.
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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