Home Education

Nature Study – Get Out of the House, Sweet Mama!

It is so easy to just hibernate and implode as Home Educating Families.  I know some families who leave the home only to go to COSTCO or a doctor appointment and others who barely ever see their home because of outside involvements like field trips, outside classes and co-ops, sports practices and games, music lessons and the like.  Though all of those things make for a wonderful educational experience for our children, they don’t quite “count” in terms of really spending quality time outdoors enjoying and learning about God’s creation.  (Sorry, Sweet Homeschool Mom, pointing at the Robin as you speed to tennis lessons is good and all, but not what we mean when we say, “Nature Study.”)

Like most things, if we don’t purpose in our hearts and lives to get outdoors, we may not do it.  We have to plan it into our week and our year.  When I initially read Charlotte Mason’s first volume which discusses the education of the younger child (age 5-9) I felt as though I ought to purchase a Yurt, live outdoors and only enter our home to use the facilities! 

Being outdoors is just so good for children.  In some ways it is their natural habitat if you will.  Miss Mason said,

Let them once get in touch with Nature and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life.  We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things ~ Vol 1, p. 61

Of course some climates are more conducive to time spent outdoors than others.  But, we can remember that Charlotte Mason herself (who spent a good 2-5 hours a day outdoors regardless of English weather) did not live in a completely sunny location.  Where our family lives, the summers are hot (hot! hot!) and the winters can be colder than is pleasant.  We have occasional dust storms, etc.  None of that is ideal.  But, we make the most of where we live.

We go to local parks.  We walk whatever paths we can.  We get out daily.  Every morning in the middle of our studies, we take a half-hour break and I send the boys outdoors.  We eat meals al fresco (that means outside in fancy language) when we can – and I am purposing to do more of that since a friend inspired me by sharing that she and her son eat breakfast and lunch outside every day.  In the afternoons after our quiet time, my boys run out into the neighborhood and play with their friends old-fashioned Mayberry style: outside, using their imaginations and enjoying one another.  But this is not nature study either.  This is time outdoors – good stuff, really good stuff, but not the essence of what I want to share here … As Charlotte Mason said, “Don’t just send them outdoors, take them outdoors.”  Our time in nature needs guidance. 

I am not the premier expert on Nature Study.  It is something I am growing into and constantly learning more about.  When I was a child my parents were in the Audubon Society and we went on hikes birdwatching all the time.  I have to admit I was a bit bored on these more times than I can count, but somehow my parents’ passion for birds and nature in general did pass on to me.  In addition, I was blessed to have a father who was a college professor, so he was off for at least two months through the summer.  We spent a bulk of that time loading up the Toyota station wagon and going around the United States camping.  I learned so much about nature by living in it those eight weeks a summer as a child.  Mostly I learned to love it. 

So, what I do with my boys now is to spend one day a week on an extended hike or walk wherein we take our pre-packed (yes, it is already set to go) bag of watercolors, colored pencils, notebooks, blanket, field guides and binoculars.  We walk to a place in nature and observe and draw or paint what we see.  We may collect samples or study something specific.  We observe.  I am training my children in the habit of attention.  Time in nature provides a great opportunity to heighten awareness and attention to detail of all sorts.  I sometimes encourage the process with little challenges, “Let’s see who can spot a bird we haven’t seen before,” or, “Let’s close our eyes and stand here and count how many different bird calls we can hear.”  Once we are settled on our blanket in the spot we will stay for a bit, we decide what we will draw or paint.  As we sit, we look up birds and plants and insects we see while we are out. 

Since we live in a medium sized city in a residential neighborhood, we don’t get the real unadulterated nature experience without going a little far from home (an hour at least), so once a month or a little less frequently we take a trip to a more remote location so that we can hike in the woods, explore tidepools or see animals in a wide open desert with no buildings or roads around. 

When the boys are young I use the One Small Square series by Donald Silver to introduce them to animals and their habitats – the sidebars in these books lead the children in beginning nature notebooking.  Later on, I start to use guided Nature Notebooks like the series by Jim Arnosky such as Shorewalker.  In addition, we keep a nature diary where we note what we see on any given day we are out, such as two egrets, a heron, a robin and some sparrows, a black beetle, an ant hill and a snail.  This type of noting gives us a simple tool for attending to the living world more closely.  As my older son has aged, I am leading him into more exact methods of journaling what he sees and how to sketch those sightings.  He is not fond of his own painting, so I have allowed him to sketch instead (so that his frustration doesn’t interfere with his experience).  This coming year my Charlotte Mason group will be going through The Living Page by Laurie Bestvater.  I am super-excited to learn more about the art and blessing of Nature Notebooking. 

Our family has also started the practice of keeping a “Book of Firsts” this year.  We make note when the first peach ripens, when the first flower comes on the mandarin tree, when the first leaf turns to a shade of brown or yellow and descends to the ground.  We note the first cricket we hear, the first butterfly we see .. and on it goes.  Next year we will return back to this book and note the firsts of that year and compare them to see how they are alike or different from the year prior.  In this way we are marking the seasons in the truest of ways while honing our attention to the nature nearest to us – our own back and front yards. 

If you aren’t knee deep in Nature Study at your home yet, I suggest this simple method for starting:

  • Block off daily times to be outdoors as well as one big chunk of time once a week for a longer time (2-3 hours).  Our family has had to play around with which day worked best for us, so don’t give up if things don’t just go perfectly the first few outings you try.  Keep at it.  Charlotte Mason included Nature Walks in her afternoon rhythm for students.  Since our family lives in the 21st Century, and the neighborhood kids come knocking around 2:30p or so daily, I put Nature Study into our Friday morning weekly.  
  • Pack what you need in advance (leave yourself no excuses not to do this): A blank notebook for each person coming on the walk, watercolor paints, colored pencils, paintbrushes, a cup for water, pencils, pens, field guides, binoculars and a blanket.  
  • Pick a spot close enough to your home to make it easy to get there.  If you can walk to this spot, all the better.  
  • Once you are settled, lead the way with your own journal.  If you don’t do this, your children will possibly take to the habit of journaling, but if you keep your own notebook, you will see them really try to do their own.  As with all things, our children copy our modeling exponentially more than they will merely do what we suggest or instruct.  

I would love to tell you what we do in our corner garden in our back yard as keeping a garden is a whole other aspect of nature study, but I’ll have to save that for a future post.  I would really love to hear what you do as a family to encourage a love and knowledge of nature.  

This post is part of the series I have been writing about how I organize our homeschool.  If you are interested in how we set up a six weeks on, one week off rotation, get the whole family synchronized in history and science and how we select curriculum, see the links for the other posts in this series on my Home Education Page 
The photo of our whole family on the trail was taken by our talented friend, Patrick Ang

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