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If you had asked me, “Why do nature study?” when my children were young, I would have replied, “To get them outside and burn up some of that energy” (that we all wish we could tap into now at our ages).
If you had asked the same question when they got a little older, I would have answered, “To increase their skills of observation . . . and the fresh air doesn’t hurt either.”
A year or two after that, my answer would have been, “To cultivate a love for God as creator.”
Those are all great reasons to do nature study, and there are many more that Charlotte Mason talked about.
If you are familiar with Charlotte’s methods, you probably know that she recommended getting outside and looking closely and carefully at nature at least one half-day every week for school children of all ages.
Yet for many of us, that weekly outing often gets pushed aside. Perhaps we don’t realize its value. It’s easy to look on nature study time as a glorified recess, but nature study is so much more than that!
Over the next few weeks we’re going to discuss nature study and the important place it has in a Charlotte Mason education. Let’s start our discussion by taking a look at eight ways nature study helps our children to grow; in other words, eight compelling reasons why nature study is worth taking the time to do.
Reason #1: Nature study provides the foundation for formal science studies.
Your children will find it much easier to learn science in formal lessons with books if they have already made a personal connection with the plant or animal or weather or whatever they are studying. If they have the background of nature study, the book studies put them in a position of simply discovering more about something that is already an acquaintance.
And we, as parents, play a vital role in modeling a lifelong eagerness to keep learning as well as a habit of interest in nature around us and joyful observation of God’s creation.
The child who sees his mother with reverent touch lift an early snowdrop to her lips, learns a higher lesson than the ‘print-books’ can teach. Years hence, when the children are old enough to understand that science itself is in a sense sacred and demands some sacrifices, all the ‘common information’ they have been gathering until then, and the habits of observation they have acquired, will form a capital groundwork for a scientific education. In the meantime, let them consider the lilies of the field and the fowls of the air” (Home Education, p. 63).
Through nature study, the child is laying in a store, as it were, of images and ideas to access and make use of in his formal science lessons. There is great value in this practice. Even for young children Charlotte believed,
“There is no part of a child’s education more important than that he should lay, by his own observation, a wide basis of facts towards scientific knowledge in the future” (Home Education, p. 264).
Time in nature does that.
Reason #2: Nature study makes science interesting.
Charlotte lamented, “For the most part science as she is taught leaves us cold” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 318). Perhaps you struggled with science class as I did. The textbooks were filled with facts and diagrams and tidbits of information about things that I didn’t really care about. I had no personal relation with those things, even though they were all around me. I had never been encouraged or trained to notice them and observe them for myself.
But a child who has been encouraged in nature study enjoys an advantage.
“With this sort of appreciative knowledge for things to begin with, the superstructure of exact knowledge, living science, no mere affair of text-books and examinations, is easily raised, because a natural desire is implanted” (School Education, p. 78).
Not only is he raising a structure upon a firm foundation, but that natural desire within him carries him along and keeps his studies interesting.
If you have a child who isn’t interested in science, nature study can help reignite his curiosity.
Reason #3: Nature study increases your child’s capacity to understand the unknown.
Ever heard of a tapir? It looks sort of like a cross between a pig, a donkey, and a rhinoceros.
How about a tenrec? A tenrec resembles a mixture of a shrew, an opossum, and even an otter.
You see, often, when learning about something new, we compare it to something we have already seen and know about. The images and behaviors of the things we know help us begin to grasp a new concept.
Charlotte Mason knew that regular time in nature to observe for himself would help a child build up that important mental storehouse of images and experiences. Such a storehouse will help that child springboard into learning about things he has never seen too.
“By-and-by he will have to conceive of things he has never seen: how can he do it except by comparison with things he has seen and knows?” (Home Education, p. 66).
And by the way, seeing a picture or even a movie of something is not the same as observing it in person. I like the example Susan Schaeffer Macaulay gives in her excellent book, For the Children’s Sake:
“TV has often given children and adults the false illusion that they have really seen something because they have seen it on the box. Take the ocean. A child may watch a program on tides and waves. But his true scientific interest and understanding will not be like that of the child who has explored and lived on a beach for a couple of weeks” (For the Children’s Sake, p. 135).
Of course, we can’t always get outside, nor can we all travel the world to give our children firsthand contact with everything in God’s creation; but whenever possible, personal experience with nature is best.
Reason #4: Nature study cultivates a love of investigation.
Children love to find out what things look like on the inside and how things work. From the time they become mobile, they thoroughly investigate whatever captures their interest.
And Charlotte encouraged mothers to “infuse into” their children, “or rather, to cherish in them, the love of investigation” (Home Education, p. 71).
Investigation plays a major role in scientific thinking, and nature study is a great way to encourage that love of searching for answers. In nature study, the children can ask their own questions about what they see and then start on a quest for the answers to those questions. The parent-teacher may provide the answer or may simply point them in the right direction and challenge them to watch patiently and carefully for the answer to appear.
If you have a child who loves to dismantle the kitchen appliances just to see how they work, you can encourage him to carry that same inquisitive nature outdoors. Help him understand that we ask the same kinds of questions about things in nature that we ask about machines: How does the bird build her nest? How does she feed her babies? How does a seed grow? Why does a plant grow toward the window? Whether he is investigating an empty nest, a trail of animal tracks, or the location of the moon, his natural instinct to wonder and seek to understand can find a satisfying adventure in nature study.
Reason #5: Nature study gives your child a sense of ownership and stewardship of the earth.
It’s hard to care about something that you have no relationship with.
We can tell our children that they need to take care of the earth, to be good stewards of it. But until they have a personal connection to God’s creation around them, that admonition won’t hold much weight. It will be just so many words until their emotions, interest, and personality are involved.
It is the personal aspect that spurs us to overlook minor inconveniences in any relationship. If you are meeting a friend for lunch and have to wait a few minutes because she got stuck in traffic, you don’t focus on the delay, you focus on the friend. Waiting a few minutes is worth the time you will spend with her when she arrives.
And with nature around us, there will be minor inconveniences to deal with. We may experience insect bites, muddy shoes, and uncomfortable temperatures. Those who have no personal relationship with God’s creation will focus on those inconveniences and step back. But those who have a firsthand connection with a special plant or bird or animal won’t be deterred by minor inconveniences; they will focus on the joy of those acquaintances and venture out with anticipation.
Charlotte described the duty and joy of stewardship like this:
“Here is a duty that lies upon us all; for we all enter on the inheritance of the heavens and the earth, the flowers of the field and the birds of the air. These are things to which we have right, no one can take them from us; but, until we get as much as a nodding and naming acquaintance with the things of Nature, they are a cause rather of irritation and depression than of joy” (Ourselves, Book 2, p. 97).
Personal relations with nature foster a desire to care for God’s creation.
Reason #6: Nature study prepares your child’s heart to worship God.
We can tell our children that “the heavens declare the glory of God” until we’re blue in the face, but it won’t have the same effect as spreading a blanket on the grass under the stars on a clear, summer night and encouraging the children to look at that vast expanse for themselves.
“From the flower in the crannied wall to the glorious firmament on high, all the things of Nature proclaim without ceasing, ‘Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty’ ” (Ourselves, Book 2, p. 100).
One of the most powerful revelations of God’s power and glory is His creation. Nature study gives us the opportunity to observe His handiwork up close and cultivate a sense of awe for the Creator.
In the chief duty of man, his duty towards God, Nature is an exquisite instructor” (Ourselves, Book 2, p. 99).
Reason #7: Nature study enriches your child’s life.
We want our children to have full, interesting, healthy lives. A habit of time outside in nature can contribute to that goal in many ways.
Time in nature is a wholesome interest. There are many hobbies and interests that can have a negative effect on our children; we want them to avoid those pitfalls. But if the children have no hobbies, it’s easy for a less-than-desirable one to slip into that void. Nature study can fill that void and give them a fulfilling, lifelong interest. And if we start the habit when they are small, they will never remember a time when they weren’t interested in nature. It will become a wholesome, integrated part of their lives.
As Charlotte put it,
“A love of Nature, implanted so early that it will seem to them hereafter to have been born in them, will enrich their lives with pure interests, absorbing pursuits, health, and good humour” (Home Education, p. 71).
Did you notice the other advantages she listed? A habit of time outdoors also offers a place for your children to be mentally refreshed, emotionally rejuvenated, and physically strengthened. How did Charlotte know? She spent time outside every day, even in the midst of a high-pressure job, busy schedule, and physical pain. She knew firsthand how nature study can enrich a person’s life, and she wanted that for the children too.
Reason #8: Nature study increases your child’s intellect and character.
Even if your student doesn’t enter a scientific career, his time in nature study will help prepare him for whatever field he pursues. Close, personal observation of nature gives regular opportunity to grow in the habit of attention. His powers of differentiating—looking for similarities and differences on all levels—will be cultivated. And he will learn important lessons in patience and delayed gratification as he watches for changes over long periods of time. All of those habits are useful in work of whatever kind.
“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?” (Home Education, p. 61).
I love that phrase, “growing with his growth.” Little by little, usually down deep where it can’t be seen, growth is taking place in the child. As he grows as a person, those habits that form character are growing too.
Nature study provides ample encouragement for good growth.
What motivates you?
In the weeks ahead we’ll look at the practical how-to’s of nature study. But now it’s your turn. What is the best motivation for pushing you out the door and into the great wide world of nature every week? Maybe it’s one of the reasons listed here or maybe you’re motivated by something else entirely. Leave a comment and share your reason. It may be just what someone else needs to hear.
More of Charlotte’s Thoughts on Nature Study
Hours in the Out-of-Doors is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to lead her students in nature study with confidence. This handbook explains all about nature study in Charlotte’s own words. Be inspired and encouraged as you make nature study a beloved habit.