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Nature Study Notes

by Stephanie Ward

Feathers, Sarah Ward, age 9

Can a snail plucked off the author's garbage can or a stroll through the park ignite a life-long love of science and nature? This article discusses the myriad benefits of nature study, along with several insights from Charlotte Mason, and offers ideas and resources for families wishing to help their kids explore the natural world.

My oldest sister-in-law, a successful microbiologist, is now a medical writer for one of the nation's top pharmaceutical firms. I once asked her what ignited her interest in science. She attributed it to her family's love of nature. The simple gifts of her parents' love of bird watching and walks in the woods with her brothers and uncles inspired an abiding love of biology. When she began college, she had little doubt as to her major. In an era when women were not encouraged to pursue scientific professions, she persevered and succeeded in an exciting and challenging field.

Awakening a love of nature does more than facilitate career possibilities. It offers knowledge and appreciation of science, which lays the foundation for learning biology, chemistry, geology, physics, and astronomy. It sparks an interest in the natural world, and teaches a child the scientific skills of careful observation and inquiry. It also provides many active, hands-on scientific learning experiences which will continue to blossom long after paper-and-pencil activities have been forgotten.

The scope of these experiences goes well beyond science. Nineteenth-century educator Charlotte Mason taught that not only is knowledge and appreciation of nature a fundamental part of being in the world, it can teach children the skills of observation and attention, which are essential to all aspects of learning and development.

"It would be well if we all persons in authority, parents and all who act for parents, could make up our minds that there is no sort of knowledge to be got in these early years so valuable to children as that which they get for themselves of the world they live in. Let them once get 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 ... Consider, too, what an unequalled mental training the child-naturalist is getting for any study or calling under the sun––the powers of attention, of discrimination, of patient pursuit, growing with his growth, what will they not fit him for?"
(Volume 1: Home Education, by Charlotte M. Mason, Vol 1, page 62)

Moth, Sarah Ward, age 9

In addition to developing abilities in science, attention, and careful study, exploring nature can nurture a child's social, emotional, and spiritual development. A child's concern over a grounded baby bird, which has not yet mastered the skill of flight, fosters empathy. Exploring nature nourishes us spiritually. It deepens our understanding of God and connects us to the world around us.

Nature study can be done in many ways. Nature walks in the woods, a park, near a river or stream, or in one's own backyard can provide many subjects for attentive observers. Perhaps the first goal of nature study should be simply to help children enjoy nature and develop attention to detail. Encourage them to look, listen, and touch things, describing what they see, hear and feel. What does the texture of the bark feel like? What is the shape and texture of the leaves? What does the bird's song sound like? Help him observe, first hand, the habits of various kinds of birds, insects, and other animals. Also, as Mason suggested, model for the child how to describe things in detail.

"At first the children will want a little help in the art of seeing. The mother will say, 'Look at the reflection of the trees! There might be a wood under the water. What do those standing up leaves remind you of?' And so on, until the children have noticed the salient points of the scene."
(Volume 1: Home Education, by Charlotte M. Mason, Vol 1, page 50)

Mason further encourages parents to help children develop their visual imaginations, so that, years hence, they will be able to "see" natural scenes from their childhood. Developing visual imagination skills enriches one's inner life and lays the foundation for creative and abstract thinking. Mason wrote:

So exceedingly delightful is this faculty of taking mental photographs, exact images, of the beauties of Nature ... bearing in mind, however, that they see the near and the minute, but can only be made with an effort to look at the wide and the distant. Get the children to look well at some patch of landscape, and then to shut their eyes and call up the picture before them, if any bit of it is blurred, they had better look again. When they have a perfect image before their eyes, let them say what they see. Thus: 'I see a pond; it is shallow on this side, but deep on the other; trees come to the waters edge on that side, and you can see their green leaves and branches so plainly in the water that you would think there was a wood underneath. Almost touching the trees in the water is a bit of blue sky with a soft white cloud; and when you look up you see that same little cloud, but with a great deal of sky instead of a patch, because there are no trees up there. There are lovely little water-lilies round the far edge of the pond, and two or three of the big round leaves are turned up like sails. Near where I am standing three cows have come to drink, and one has got far into the water, nearly up to her neck..."
(Volume 1: Home Education, by Charlotte M. Mason, Vol 1, page 49).

As children observe the natural world, many families encourage or require them to keep nature journals. My childrens' nature journals are simply sketch books in which they draw pictures and write notes. An animal print in the mud or snow, a plant, a bird, an insect, an ant hill, and innumerable other things can be noted, drawn, and described. Several excellent resources on nature journals are offered at the end of this article.

While exploring and journaling about nature, a parent can encourage the child's attention and curiosity, offer knowledge, and boost his skills in critical thinking and scientific inquiry by asking questions.

  • "Why do you think there are so many snails lying right out on the street on a wet morning like this?""What might have happened to them if they had stayed under the ground?"
  • "What do you think that woodpecker eats? Why do you think his beak is shaped like that? What might happen if he had a tiny beak like a sparrow?
  • "Why do you think the grass and other plants look so yellowish right here, while those over there are so nice and green?" "What makes plants green?"
  • "Why do you think this moth's wings are those colors?" "Is it easy or hard to see it when it's sitting among those leaves?" "If you were a hungry bird, would he be easy to spot?"
  • "How does that snake move so fast, when it has no legs?"
  • "How do you think that praying mantis' legs might help it move around and get away from critters that want to eat it?"

Praying Mantis, Sarah Ward, age 10

Appreciation and knowledge of the natural world can certainly be facilitated by nature walks. However, many families have spontaneous nature experiences at home.

Recently, I carried out the trash first thing in the morning, before awakening the kids. It had rained heavily the night before. A garden snail had found refuge on the side of the trash can. I very carefully removed it and brought it into the house, knowing my six-year-old, James, would be thrilled to have a chance to "study" it.

James studied the little creature for a while. We talked about its features a bit, and discussed why it had come out in the rain. James drew a picture of the snail in his "Science Notebook" (nature journal) and dictated a few lines, which I wrote under his drawing. I read a section on garden snails from Anna Comstock's Handbook of Nature Study to James and his sister, Sarah. We talked a bit about its special adaptations, and how they reflect the ways of nature and the intricacy of God's creative work. Later, we looked at the geometric design of a snail shell in the context of a math lesson. The children carefully released the snail before lunchtime. We are always careful not to unnecessarily injure a living thing, or keep it in captivity excessively long. I feel this is an important moral and environmental lesson in itself.

Snail, James Ward, age 6

When children do temporarily keep a live creature in captivity, it can be the subject of simple experiments. This provides an opportunity to directly teach the scientific process to children, and boost their critical thinking and problem solving skills, by walking them through the following steps:

  1. Posing a Question: "Which do you think an earthworm prefers, a wet place or a dry place?" "Which one of these turtles can move faster?"
  2. Making a Hypothesis (and offering reasons for his thinking): "I think the worms like wet places, because worms are kind of moist, and if they dry out they might die." "I think this turtle is faster than the other one, because his legs look longer."
  3. Methods: "Let's wet these two paper towels, place the worms in the middle, and see which way they go." "Let's have a turtle race!"
  4. Result: "What happened?"
  5. Conclusion: "Was our hypothesis correct? Why?"
If you would like more information on these kinds of experiments, I recommend Creepy Crawlies and the Scientific Method by Sally Kneidel.

Hands-on nature experiences can be paired with "living" nature books for children. These books must be enjoyable for the child and awaken his curiosity. They may also answer questions he developed while studying plants and animals. There are many, many wonderful books on science and nature for children. I recommend books by Gail Gibbons, Joanne Ryder, Bobbie Kalman, and others.

Along with "living" books, homemade calendars can be a wonderful teaching tool. Charlotte Mason, and Waldorf-inspired educators, suggest helping the child create a calendar on which he can note observations. This helps him become aware of the rhythm of the changing seasons. Mason wrote: "It is a capital plan for the children to keep a calendar––the first oak-leaf, the first tadpole, the first cowslip, the first catkin, the first ripe blackberries, where seen, and when. The next year they will know when and where to look out for their favourites, and will, every year, be in a condition to add new observations. Think of the zest and interest, the object, which such a practice will give to daily walks and little excursions."
(Volume 1: Home Education, by Charlotte M. Mason, Vol 1, page 55).

Another enjoyable activity is to create a "nature table." This can be filled with mementos of seasonal changes, such as fall leaves and berries. It can also house such treasures as a snake skin, a cicada's discarded exoskeleton, rocks, shells, and fossils.

Nature study, in as relaxed or as formal a manner as works for your family, can enhance your curriculum and provide a rich array of life lessons. This has the potential to offer gifts to your children that will have an impact for them throughout their lives.

Recommended Internet Resources on Nature Study and Nature Journals

Recommended Books on Nature Study and Nature Journals

Copyright 2004 Stephanie Marshall Ward

About the Author:

Stephanie Marshall Ward has been a journalist, a professional counselor working with children in agencies and public schools, a "reader advisor" for library patrons, and a daycare provider. She is a home educating mother of three children: Sarah Stephanie, James Ernest, and Patricia Elizabeth and editor of Growing Together Family Learning Newsletter.

Growing Together Family Learning Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 1, page 6

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