Nature Study- A Time for Wonder

My parents gave me two gifts for which I am deeply grateful. First, they provided me ample access to good books. Second, my mother sent the whole “kit and caboodle,” as she called us, outdoors for long periods of time. I and my four siblings were allowed to roam the woods and fields at will, often only checking back for dinner, then out again for a game of kick-the-can before bath and bed. It was a good way to grow up.

While good books are as available as ever to the enterprising parent….outdoor time is another matter. Family life has changed radically since I grew up and few children have the luxury of roaming without adult supervision.

Nature is good for children

This seems fundamental and hardly necessary to point out. Yet, in recent decades parents have little by little eliminated unstructured outdoor time for their children. They opt instead to carpool to team sports, martial arts classes or other pastimes that do not involve direct experience with nature.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, says that children spend approximately 15 minutes outdoors each week. Louv points to the rise in attention-deficit disorders and suggests that corresponding decrease in outdoor time may be part of the problem.  Why is it so important for children to be outdoors?

Children spend an average of 6.5 hours a day with television, computers and video games.  A child is 6 times more likely to play a video game than ride a bike.

Truly seeing

What is the cure for this epidemic? In a phrase: “Study nature, not books.” The noted naturalist, Louis Agassiz coined this phrase. He wanted children to spend time in nature actually seeing the things at which they looked. Charlotte Mason called this “discriminating observation” (Home Education, p. 49). It is the skill of seeing closely and recalling the details perfectly. What parent would not want such a skill for their child?

Truly seeing in Nature Study results in delightful, sometimes profound discoveries. These discoveries become a lasting part of the child’s makeup.

The goal of Nature Study is careful looking. Albert Einstein said, “All great science begins with a close observation of nature.” Nature Study is one of the keys to a living books education because it develops keen powers of observation. Charlotte Mason taught that time spent in the outdoors is a “balm and a blessing” for children, not only when they are young, but also when they are grown and must deal with the stresses and strains of adult life.

Nature Study also nourishes a capacity for wonder. Rachel Carson, the seminal naturalist who called the nation’s attention to the harm of chemicals to our natural world, said:

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder … he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in. 

What if I don’t know anything about Nature Study?

A homeschooling mom wrote me:

I realized a fear I have is teaching my children … about nature.  My fear is that I need to outsource this since I do not have a lot of information to teach the children in my brain already. What is your advice? 

Anxious feelings about teaching Nature Study or going outdoors to learn, is very common. In fact, (besides grammar) it’s the most reported fear of homeschooling moms who are learning to use the Charlotte Mason method. Nature Study is really simple. BUT, to say it’s really simple doesn’t help. Most moms don’t have a sense of what it is.

In my studies of the history of the Nature Study Movement in the United States I came across a turn-of-the-century nature study guide, Nature Study by Grades, by Horace Cummings (American Book Company, 1908).

Cumming’s book is very useful and can be easily found on Google books as a download. From it I gleaned four ideas which I have adapted. Applying them faithfully will ensure success with your children.

  1. Begin with what your child is already familiar.
    If a child is very young the world of grass or sand box is the place to start. What is in the grass? Or, under it? What creatures live because of the grass? What are their names and habits? If a somewhat older child already has spent time outdoors, still take the ordinary and learn from it. A child may know what bark is on a tree, but have he really looked and expressed to you the differences in bark? Done a rubbing for his nature journal? Identified the tree according to its bark? Peeled off a slightly older piece and seen the insects growing underneath?
  2. Give abundant observations, few inferences.
     In others words, model for your child how to look and express what you’re seeing by saying something like, “I see the tiny, thin anthers of the ant waving at us” or “I see the brown, rough bark grows up and down in ridges”. Not, “The ant is waving its anthers to sense you.” or “The bark grows in vertical ridges because of the type of capillary action of this tree.” The second type of response makes you the teacher rather than a fellow naturalist on a journey of discovery.
  3. Study a subject under natural conditions.
    If you have a topic you want to study, such as spiders, make sure the richly illustrated library books come out after you have observed the creature in its natural surroundings. The goal is close looking and keen observation. The revelation of a principle at work comes after many “looks”.
  4. Discovery of a principle is strengthened by oral expression.
    Narration, telling back, is the key to memory. When enough experience and impressions are expressed orally, connections are made. Allow your child plenty of time to talk about what he sees or hears or smells. Over time he will be able to discover the principles and that will bring him great joy.


Sheila Carroll

Living Books Curriculum Founder

For more on nature study and other tenants of homeschooling the Charlotte Mason way, download your free e-book “Teach Less while Your Child Learns More”.