Educational Philosophy, Home Education

Nature Study in Suburbia: An Un-Wild Approach

April 16, 2019 by Brandy Vencel

Some of us live in places that aren’t considered Instagram-worthy. I’ve heard folks call this place — our place — ugly. It’s so brown, they say. It’s so smoggy, they say. Other places are so much better, they say.

So what? I say.

I love this place. It’s home. I belong to it and it belongs to me and it’s been that way ever since I can remember. It’s a great place to worship God and raise children, and the people are funny and genuine (and often genuinely kind). This place has its own quirky culture — its way of talking, its hand gestures, its inside jokes, and its politics.

Nature study can be intimidating, though. All those photos on the internet featuring woods, for example. We don’t have that. Woods would shrivel up and die on our dry 110+ degree summer days.

I live at the edge of the city in a Suburban neighborhood that backs up to carrot fields … and oil fields. I have to drive quite a distance to observe anything that would qualify as “wild.”

Maybe “wild” is an unnecessary pressure we put upon nature study? I mean, yes, if you have the opportunity, that’s great. But when the people who have little “wilderness” access start to feel like their nature study is second-rate, maybe it’s all gotten a little upside down?

The Real and Unreal Limits of Suburban Life

Nature study was something I grappled with early on. I have always had health issues. My pregnancies involved constant nausea for all nine months, and one of them included almost eight months of bedrest as a bonus. I spent years severely anemic. I had low milk supply while nursing. My point here is not to complain, but rather to explain. The early years would have been the perfect time to drive a little further and take “real” nature walks.

But we didn’t do that.

If you had told me, back when the fatigue was crushing, when it was all I could do to make it through the day, that “nature study” meant I had to buckle four kids into car seats, pack lunch and snacks and formula supplements, drive 45 minutes, and then take a long walk, well, I would have never tried doing it in the first place.

Since I read Charlotte Mason and not social media (it had hardly been invented then), all I knew was “go outside and observe things.” That seemed doable.

Many of the limits we place upon nature study aren’t real — they’re mental blocks developed because pictures on Instagram don’t match where we live.

These days, I’m extra grateful for the skills and tricks I was forced to develop as a young mom. I have teenagers, you see. They are busy, and they disappear with my car, leaving me and the younger children strandedat home.

Because being home is how it’s always been, we can still do nature study as we’ve always done. It’s normal for us to do nature study at home, and special for us to do it out and about.

Free to Enjoy Suburbia

People talk about suburbia like it’s a bad thing. You know what? If it’s where you live, you’re called to love it. Don’t feel ashamed. That’s silly. Suburbia is the best of both worlds. It’s easy to run to the store if you need something, but there’s less traffic, and the streets tend to be safe.

More importantly, this is the place God has given you to love.

Are you ready for some ideas on how to “do nature study” in the suburbs?

1. Learn to See, Learn to Describe

In Home Education, Charlotte Mason explains a little game she calls “sight-seeing.” I used a modified version of this with my oldest when he was four. He had so much fun. I was doing this as an experiment, and it turns out that this is where he first learned to see and describe what he saw.

My version of the game took place in my parents’ backyard. I was nursing the baby (who is now twelve) while my toddler (who is now fourteen) took a nap, and my son (who is now sixteen) would run off and “see” something in the yard. It might have been something from the vegetable garden, a tree, a flower, or a shrub. He would return and tell me about it until I could guess what it was. It was a simple game, but he had such fond memories of it that he played it with his sisters when they were older.

I think I would have forgotten about it except that he never did.

2. Talk About the Weather

Kindergarten year, we did something that, if I could go back, I would wait until first grade to start. (Live and learn, amiright?) We kept a weather notebook. Once per week Son E. took his little chair to the front yard and drew the weather. Then we’d talk about it. Was it hot or cold? Windy or still?

No matter where you live, the weather can be discussed. This is great comfort for those of us who need conversation fodder.

3. What’s Growing in the Fields?

It’s easy for us to adopt the modern view that man is not natural. His work here is artificial. He’s a pest upon the earth.

He’s a menace.

This is partly why we think nature study needs to be wild — in the wilderness we get “pure nature” — nature untainted by man.

Now, it’s true that mankind often messes things up. We act in foolishness. We pollute. We make mistakes.

But it’s also true that God created man and commanded him to tend the Garden. Man is a creature — a created thing — which means he’s part of nature, not an alien intruder.

When we make the trek to Great Gran’s house, we pass miles of almonds, cotton, carrots, potatoes, grapes, and more. If you eat food in the United States, there’s a good chance much of it was grown here where I live.

So I couldn’t help but stand up and take notice of this:

Children should know Field-crops. … If there are farm-lands within reach, they should know meadow and pasture, clover, turnip, and corn field, under every aspect, from the ploughing of the land to the getting in of the crops. (Home Education)

Another little game we like to play is a simple guessing game — what is that bit of green peeking out of the earth? Whenever a field is newly plowed, we start to guess. We observe the way they’re planted, what machinery the farm has used, how the rows are laid out, where and how the sprinkler systems are set up. Each little detail is a clue.

And then the green starts popping out and we observe the tiny leaves, and they grow bigger, and we guess and guess again, but we often only know for sure when we observe the harvest (or smell it — garlic harvest makes our whole neighborhood crave spaghetti).

The nice thing about carrots is that they only take about a month to grow, so you don’t have to wait very long to see if you guessed correctly.

4. Grow Things

It’s hard to get a close look at the fields. For the most part, we drive by the farms — we don’t stop and examine closely. Many ranchers frown upon nosing around, especially when cars kick up a lot of dust (and therefore dust mites) near the crops.

Closer looks can be gotten at home, where each child has their own little plot of land. When our oldest was little, we gardened together. The other children never really needed this from me — by the time they had their own plots, they also had opinions due to years observing their brother.

These days, the biggest sibling squabbles are over boundary lines.

One child grows flowers to attract hummingbirds and bees. Another grows herbs for her pet rabbit. A third has a traditional vegetable garden that supplies my kitchen, while a fourth runs a vegetable stand and chooses his crops according to what he’s learned from past sales. He specializes in basil because the ladies in the neighborhood pay him top dollar. He also hopes for giant pumpkins this year in time for Halloween.

Many a nature notebook entry has been crafted in the gardens. The children have drawn out the process from seed to fruit. And they’ve learned things they haven’t written down, like encouraging seeds to sprout by soaking them before planting and using a soil test kit to get information when something goes wrong.

5. Attract Wildlife

It doesn’t have to be a deer to be wild. Our girls have collected a wide array of bird feeders and bird baths. They’ve figured out how to build habitats for certain insects. They check their flower seed packets to make sure they’re suitable for animals and beneficial insects.

There is a whole quiet drama going on in suburbia if you have eyes to see. We see hawks and falcons weekly, more often if we have baby rabbits in the cages. There’s an owl that visits many nights. Swallows nest outside the grocery store.

The years we had a pocket gopher were The Worst. It killed all the trees in my tiny orchard save two. I have never forgiven myself for the day I saw it moving in and didn’t have the heart to kill it. (It was so cute!) I had no idea the devastation that would follow.

But we learned something from that, too.

6. Finding the Semi-Wild Areas

We have also found the quiet places no one else sees. One time, when one of our pet rabbits got out, we scoured the neighborhood and discovered at least five rabbits living wild on our streets!

Local parks usually have wild things at the edges, especially if there’s a canal nearby. There are snakes and possums if you know where to look. Endangered kit foxes, even.

7. Keeping Pets

I’ve written about pets before. Keeping pets teaches us about animals more thoroughly than a textbook ever could. Over the years, we’ve had ducks, goats, a dog, a cat, a number of rabbits, a desert tortoise, and more.

We know exactly what the Bible means when it details splitting the hoof and chewing the cud because our goats did both, but our rabbits only did one, and the other animals did neither.

We learned the medicinal power of herbs when animals were sick. We learned where eggs and milk come from. Every animal we’ve ever owned has its own nature journal entry.

8. Climbing Trees

There is a tree in the neighborhood so tall, I can’t bear to watch the children climb it. A-Age-Fourteen claims she can see for miles. A couple weeks ago, she put a camera up there to document a mourning dove preparing her nest.

My children don’t know the names of all the trees in the neighborhood, but they do know what can be seen from the tops. They know which birds nest where. They know what other creatures are up there. They know which nests the scrub jays have plundered.

They know the dreaded cowbird when they see it.

9. Keeping Lists

A list is a way of collecting things without bringing them indoors (though admittedly we do that, too). It’s also an easy nature journal entry for a resistant child.

Lists like “Birds That Have Visited Our Neighborhood” or “Flowers That Will Grow In Our Yard” are good ones.

10. Building Habitats

One of our daughters likes to build insect habitats in little jars out of dirt and rocks. She also builds water habitats for freshwater snails. She collected the original inhabitants at a creek at the park and has been breeding them ever since.

She gives them away as gifts to friends.

We’ve had praying mantises hatch all over our house. That was a mess. Each habitat now has a mandatory top of some time — a screen at the very least.

11. Observing a Year

We once divided a page in our nature journals into quarters. We each picked a tree, then drew it every season.

The child who chose a palm tree was disappointed, I think, though admittedly there was more to being a palm tree than I initially assumed.

One project I keep meaning for us to do is draw, once per month, exactly where the sun sets along our fence line, and also document the time. We have a fence that would be perfect for this. I think it’d be interesting to note how the sun’s angle changes with the seasons.

A Million Opportunities

Don’t be paralyzed by idealism. Limitations are opportunities to be creative. It’s harder to learn to see, yes, but the skill becomes stronger than it would if it were easy.

Of course, we take advantage when we can. We make the longer drive to the hiking trail. We stop on vacation and see the woods. We find that park the rarer birds like. Yes.

But this doesn’t mean there is “nothing” where we’re at, anymore than a child learned “nothing” at school today and during summer there is “nothing” to do.

Nature study in suburbia, you see, starts with mindset.

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19 Comments

  • Reply Corrie D. October 13, 2019 at 1:40 pm

    This post is awesome! I especially love the game idea. It would be a way to get my kids started. Thank you!

  • Reply April April 21, 2019 at 6:51 am

    Oh my goodness. Thank you! Nature has always been a sanctuary to me and growing up I would run wild in the woods that backed up to our house in Maryland. Currently I am raising my 4 little kids in Idaho where I have felt to do all these great nature study suggestions and plans I would need to drive half an hour, pack snacks, all the equipment for a little baby, just to drive back because someone has a potty accident. On top of it I am miserable doing pregnancy and then when not pregnant have some other draining issue ranging from depression to some unidentifided gastro issue. I have been feeling like we are missing some of the most important teachings of Charlotte Mason and this post has been helpful in being okay that our nature walk is just a walk around the neighborhood.

  • Reply Katharine KN April 20, 2019 at 1:12 pm

    This is such an excellent post! Idealism is such a double-edged sword isn’t it! Inspiring us to great and beautiful things on the one hand, and paralysing us out of doing anything at all on the other.

  • Reply Carla April 20, 2019 at 11:40 am

    This is a wonderful post. Thank you so much!

  • Reply Anna April 19, 2019 at 1:01 pm

    Thank you Brandy for this beautiful post. You are amazing.

  • Reply Mary April 19, 2019 at 10:22 am

    I love this! It reminds me of a favorite quote from “Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child”:

    “One way to neutralize this fascination with the natural world is to cordon it off in parks and zoos, and then to act as if only the parks and zoos were worth seeing. Persuade a child that a giraffe he sees once every couple of years is really impressive, but the wren on the fence post is only a drab little bird—though he warbles out a love song in the morning, cocking his stubby tail, and is in general one of the bravest and most cheerful of birds.”

    I think it’s not only possible but crucial to teach our children to wonder at the nature right where we are…even in the suburbs. We live in the suburbs in a (frankly) rather ugly neighborhood, and it is amazing what we find when we keep our eyes open. (Although I do still dream about living in one of those Instagram-worthy places!)

  • Reply Valerie April 17, 2019 at 3:11 pm

    This article is so inspiring, Brandy! And to listen to you in snippets of conversation, I thought nature study was not something you felt you did well. These things are amazing!

    And I wholeheartedly agree with loving where you live. When we lived in Lancaster, people looked at me surprised when I would say how much i loved it and thought it beautiful. The “armpit of California” is what other Californians called it. But to me, it was home. And I loved it! And I miss it. ?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 17, 2019 at 8:22 pm

      Yes…I think I felt like our nature study was “less than” because it’s not what people seem to envision when they think of CM nature study. But I just can’t drive an hour and a half every week to make the wild stuff happen!

      People always speak badly about the high desert — and I’ve heard people call us the “armpit of California” too! But I know exactly what you mean, as you know. It’s okay to love something and when you do, you see its peculiar beauty, I think. ♥

      • Reply BETHANY TALLMON April 25, 2019 at 7:35 pm

        When we lived in Kern County my dad always called it the “armpit of California.” He used it as his general user name on the internet and to this day it is his Netflix profile name!

  • Reply a. borealis April 17, 2019 at 1:34 pm

    Paralyzed by idealism, indeed. So true.

    I live rurally, but surrounded by the monoculture crops of corn and soybeans; it is very easy to feel like there is no nature out here either, in spite of endless miles of green fields.

    What a joy nature study is, in every nook and cranny. Another super simple idea with so much richness, is hanging a bird feeder outside a main window. What a joy it is to watch birds, admire their beauty, see the slight variations from year to year, watch parents feeding their babies, get to know their temperaments and habits, see who’s traveling through, etc.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 17, 2019 at 8:23 pm

      That’s so interesting! I never thought about how monoculture would feel limiting, but you make perfect sense. I love your bird feeder idea! ♥

  • Reply Lanaya April 17, 2019 at 1:11 pm

    Love these ideas! Thank you.

  • Reply Danielle Crain April 17, 2019 at 11:19 am

    I can’t love this blog post enough! I love your approach – thank you for the inspiration. It doesn’t always have to be a trek – spot on!

  • Reply Lucy barr-hamilton April 17, 2019 at 12:11 am

    I feel a theme… I post on the forum about a big issue I’m having and you write a blog post about it. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but in both of them (instagram, nature study), the key word has been idealism. A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with a new CM friend and I realised that I don’t do, and never have done, anything which I could not do perfectly without effort. So those things I am good at we do… some handicrafts, some cooking, lots of reading… but things like drawing nature (drawing anything! ) we just don’t get to because I have no idea how and my learned behaviour (habit ) is to give up. I have a son like me and I can already see strong tendency to the same. So, there is much to pray on and I expect a lot of our home school mums are like me, paralysed by our idealism and our habits.

    Your nature study sounds incredible and makes me feel inadequate and that we have failed… instinctively that makes me cross and makes me want to give up… but i need to deal with this attitude.

    By the way, no other curriculum would have led me to this place in my heart, and that only confirms that CM was one of the Lord’s gifts to humanity.

    Thank you.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 17, 2019 at 8:24 pm

      Ha! I’m not stalking you; I promise!

      And my nature study really ISN’T that impressive. Remember: we’ve been at this for almost a dozen years, so that list isn’t of all that we do in a year — it’s what we’ve done over many years.

  • Reply Carol April 16, 2019 at 4:34 pm

    This is so good, Brandy. I think you could write a whole series on, ‘Don’t be paralyzed by idealism. Limitations are opportunities to be creative.’ 🙂

  • Reply Debbi April 16, 2019 at 1:24 pm

    Caring for my mom recently has forced me, and my boys by extension, to appreciate the nature right in front of us. Do we still love, even prefer, to explore new places? Absolutely. But we’ve also learned the joy and restrain in studying the wilting flowers in a bouquet sent to cheer someone up in the hospital or study the small, daily changing buds on a tree outside of a rehab window or dig into the dirty, icy snowbank in the parking lot of a doctor’s office. None of it feels”pretty enough” for instagram but worth noting in our nature books which means curiosity in God’s world is always a beautiful thing.

  • Reply Flannery April 16, 2019 at 12:22 pm

    What a lot of great ideas! I am still working on getting into nature study with my kids and our situation is “limited” too… thanks for this!

  • Reply Amanda Gauthier-Parker April 16, 2019 at 10:32 am

    Oh, Brandy, I think this is my very favorite post of yours ever!!! So many wonder-full ideas and so much insight… thank you for the reminder that the purpose of nature study is to learn to open our eyes and appreciate what is right in front of us!

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