Nature Study -- Charlotte Mason Style
Enjoy the Wonder of Nature with your Children
Charlotte Mason's educational philosohpy is a great fit for homeschool families who love great books, simple methods, and academic excellence. One component of a Charlotte Mason educationis the regular study of nature.
Nature Study has just two parts -- the Doing and the Documenting.
Doing -- the nature walk
Documenting -- the nature journal or notebook
Nature Study Basics - just two parts
Just two parts -- sounds easy! But to do Nature Study well, you will need to make a consistent effort to make time for it. According to Charlotte Mason, every child has an innate interest in nature, but it is the parents' responsibility to encourage it. Otherwise it will be lost as the child matures into adulthood.
Miss Mason called it an evil "that children get their knowledge of natural history, like all their knowledge, at second hand." Instead, she advised children learn of nature first hand with extended personal experiences.
She suggested time outdoors everyday, and during pleasant weather, from April to October, her recommendation is even four to six hours each day spent in the fresh air!
But for most CM homeschoolers, a weekly nature walk fits their schedule well. Whatever frequency you choose, remember Miss Mason's words, "Never be within doors when you can rightly be without."
Charlotte Mason's Thoughts - her original work online
I strongly suggest that you read Charlotte Mason's original words regarding daily walks outdoors, nature walks, and nature journals. The best place to start is with Home Education, Volume 1, Part II titled Out-Of-Door Life For The Children.
Although it may take a bit of time to get used to her archaic style, the effort is worth it!
exploring nature with your children
How do you conduct a nature walk? What are you supposed to do during the time outdoors?
What do the children do?
The children are to be "let alone, left to themselves a great deal to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens." Give them time and space to wonder, grow, watch, see, hear, and touch. During the nature walk, they may sketch and record their observations. In addition they may want to collect small natural treasures in a bag to take home for further study.
If they would like it, the children may take along magnifying glasses, binoculars, nets, and containers for viewing up close and catching small creatures. But don't encumber them with too many things. Let them be free to explore with open hands most of the time.
What does the parent do?
Miss Mason warned mothers of talking too much during the nature walk. She said that the less spoken the better. Although talk between mother and child is a precious thing, the goal of the nature study is to allow the child to converse directly with Mother Nature. So don't get in the way with too much active teaching. What is the mother to say during a nature walk? She can direct attention with a "Look at that!" She can name what is being viewed, "That's a poplar tree." She can make very brief descriptive comments to direct the children's attention, "It's just starting to bud. I see many small, bright green shoots." And probably most importantly, she should simply voice her admiration in a verbal prayer of praise directly to God, "Father, thank You for this lovely tree bursting forth with new life!"
Nature Study in Action
This video shows a casual nature study prompted by the discovery of many Japanese beetles on a plant. Notice how the mother asks leading questions but does not lecture. She also admires the beauty of the insects. Excellent example of the mom's role during the nature study! I hope that they went home and made some notes in their nature journal about these beetles. For more about nature object lessons, read this article from Simply Charlotte Mason.
Activities for the Nature Walk
sight-seeing and picture-painting
"The sense of beauty comes from early contact with nature." -- Charlotte Mason
Miss Mason recommended two activities during a nature walk
1. Sight-seeing or exploring expeditions
In this activity, you send the children off to a specified area with a task: "Go explore over there and come back when you can tell me all about it." When the children return, let them share verbal descriptions of everything they experienced.
2. Picture-painting or mental photographs
Picture painting is more stationary. You choose a scene to study and then sit and look at it for several minutes, taking in as much detail as possible. Then ask the children to close their eyes and recreate the scene with words. If they are not sure of something, they can open their eyes and look. This activity will develop both observation skills and narration (telling back) skills.
In the beginning, you, the mother, may want to model this picture painting. Show them how to do it step by step, maybe even thinking outloud as you survey the scene. Then close your eyes and paint a verbal picture, letting the children verify your description.
Both of these activities should be approached as if they are play. But in fact, a lot of learning is taking place!
For more simple ideas for nature walk activities, see these links:
Shining Dawn Books sells curriculum kits on a wide assortment of topics that will help get you started with nature study.
Remember, nature study doesn't have to be far from home. Your own backyard is a worthy subject of study. Common animals such as squirrels, insects, and backyard birds offer plenty of opportunities for learning natural history.
Nature Walks in Nasty Weather - shouldn't we just cancel it?
Charlotte Mason said that bad weather was no excuse for not having the daily outing and the weekly nature study. As long as the children are dressed adequately to protect them from the cold or rain, the nature study can still proceed in the same way as on clear, lovely days. Winter or wet days will each offer their own variety of nature to experience.
For many children, the opportunity to play outdoors in the rain is a great joy! Chasing toads and finding puddles are natural joys that can't be experienced on a sunny day. Of course, sketching may not be possible on a rainy day, but the documenting of the nature study can be done when you return home.
Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on DiscoverySchool.com
But I Live in the City! - There is no nature around me!
Granted, those of us who do not live in rural settings do have to work a bit harder for our nature walks, but there really is nature all around us regardless of where we live. We simply have to be more dilligent and creative to find it! Ants, pigeons, sparrows, windowsill gardens are all forms of nature to be found even in the busiest of cities.
Miss Mason said the time in nature is so important for children, that a mother should do whatever it takes to make that opportunity happen for them. She suggests taking a picnic to a more rustic location outside of your city to enjoy a day outdoors. Yes, it's a lot of trouble, but it's worth it!
Take full advantage of your time outdoors by bringing some live nature home to observe, for example tadpoles, caterpillars, or ants. Then record your observations in the nature journal. Charlotte Mason says that this type of direct observation and recording is more valuable for a child's education than reading an entire natural history text to him! Why? Because the knowledge is gained first hand.
This article Natural Nature Learning has some great suggestions for those of us who do not live in a rural setting but still want to do regular nature walks.
If you're really desparate, bring nature inside to you! The University of New Hampshire offers this great PDF all about plants you can grow from things you probably already have in your kitchen.
And don't forget that as a city dweller, you have the advantages of access to natural history museums, planetariums, zoos, and botanical gardens. Take advantage of those resources and consider them part of your nature study.
Nature in the Neighborhood
This book focuses on plants and animals in a single neighborhood in an unnamed North American city, beginning in spring as the snow melts and following them through the seasons.
Field Guides Online
- What Tree Is It?
This site is terribly fun and useful! Bring home a leaf from your nature walk, go to this site, and answer the questions one by one as you look at your leaf. This program will help you identify it!
- Bug Identification
This is similar to the tree site above. You are asked a sequence of questions in order to determine what kind of insect you have found. A great resource!
By choosing attibutes of the bird, this program will help you identify its species.
- Wildflower Identification
This is set up like a quiz -- you check the answer that matches your flower and presto, your flower is identified!
Handbook of Nature Study
Charlotte Mason said of field guides, "The mother cannot devote herself too much to this kind of reading, not only that she may read tit-bits to her children about matters they have come across, but that she may be able to answer their queries and direct their observations."
Charlotte Mason recommended this classic volume as a nature study resource. Because this book is in the public domain, it is also available as a free online text. For more information about this foundational volume, see this blog of the same name Handbook of Nature Study.
Other Books for Nature Study
These books will help you lead your children to know more about the natural world!
This author has coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder and then explains how and why we must overcome it. Read my own review of this incredible book.This book is a MUST-read for anyone contemplating nature study. After you read it, you will be convinced of the necessity of time outdoors.
This easy to read book offers simple ideas for guiding your children to explore nature.
More Field Guides
According to Miss Mason, both mother and child should be able to identify crops growing in their area, common plants, wildflowers, trees (from bark and leaves), insects, and other animals. To that, we will undoubtedly need to study and have reference books on hand.
This series of Take-Along Guides is particularly for the younger crowd and includes other books on Insects, Trees, Frogs, Flowers, Rodents, Animal Tracks, Seeds, and Reptiles.
The Nature Journal - documenting your nature studies
Some people call them notebooks; others call them journals. Some describe them with the word field and others use the word nature. Regardless of whether you call it a field journal or a nature notebook, the idea is the same -- a place to document your nature walks.
The nature journal should be taken outdoors with you on the nature walk so that you can make field sketches on the spot. Also write descriptions of what you see, hear, and feel to supplement the drawings. Of course, you'll want to document basic information such as date, time, weather conditions, and location. CM suggested using calendars to mark the "firsts:" the first tadpole, the first ripe blackberries, etc. This calendar could be part of the nature journal. Other ideas for nature journals include poetry (either self-composed or copied), leaf or bark rubbings, photographs, hand drawn maps, and even pamphlets found at botanical gardens or museums.
Mom, you can have your own nature journal too! What a great way to model for your children what you are expecting of them.
The nature journal's depth should reflect the age of the child. (The following are general guidelines; You know your child best; tailor your requirements accordingly.)
Young children (5-7) draw what they see; you can write what they narrate orally for descriptions
Middle children (8-10) draw what they see, label their drawings and write their own descriptions. (The example to the left was done by my daughter at age 8.)
Older children (11 and up) the above tasks are done in more detail and with more skill; in addition, they look up and document scientific information about the plant or creature and write the Latin name.
The nature notebook can be any format your child prefers. Some like to use an unlined, bound blank book. Others prefer loose leaf sheets on a clip-board. Pencils, pens, colored pencils, markers, and watercolors are all possible media. Some nature explorers even use nature itself as a paint - crushed berries, leaves, or even soil can give authentic color to your sketches!
Free Printables for a Nature Journal
Technically, all you need for a nature journal is blank paper! But many people like a bit more structure as they begin to incorporate nature journaling into their homeschool routine. The Internet has many options for free nature journal pages. Browse these below.
- Nature Journal Printable Pages
Includes printables for nature walks (4 versions), a bird feeder journal page, sky watching, and weather.
- Nature Journal Pages
Dani shares her beautiful journal pages at Artful Thoughts. These are lovely and amazingly, free!
- Sierra Club
Some background about nature journals and a printable PDF template.
- Homeschool Share's Nature Journal Resources
Links to several printables -- for preschoolers, bug page, plant identification labels, leaf identification, winter scavenger hunt, and more.
- Notebooking Nook Science Freebies
Notebooking pages with floral, bird, swan, and owl themes as well as a set of nature journal pages.
- Homeschool With Index Cards Notebooking Forms
Free PDF noteboking pages include Bird Record, several types of Animal Forms, and a Plant Fact Form.
- Garden Shop Lined Paper
This manuscript lined paper has a potted plant motif on the side.
- Meddybemps Nature Notebook
Printable notebooking pages for your nature journal: plants, animal, a cover page, a list page, and an "other" page.
- Feeder Birds Coloring Book
This amazing, free PDF coloring book is from Cornell University.
Considering God's Creation - Excellent Science Curritulum That Doubles for Nature Study
I'm a fan of this science curriculum because of the wonderful science detective pages and its emphasis on nature.
Read reviews of this curriculum by homeschool moms who've used it!
This curriculum includes many reproducible sheets that can be used during or after a nature walk to record observations. Then you can put these sheets directly into your nature notebook/journal! Read my review of this curriculum at The Curriculum Choice.
CBD sells Considering God's Creation. (The 2 book set linked here includes a student's book and a teacher's manual with an audio CD.)
To Help You Make Nature Journals
A review of this book by a homeschooling mother.
catalog your treasures from your nature walks
Nature-related collections have more than just sentimental value! Have your children organize and label their collections for real scientific learning!
Ideas for collections:
- bark rubbings
- insects (or parts of)
- snake skins
- egg shells
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