Am I Doing Enough Nature Study?

Karen Smith has been so good about sharing her experiences and great ideas with us in this Nature Study Q&A Series, and I’m sure she’ll have some more good ideas for us today. Let’s dive into the question.

Sonya: Karen, this is our last post on Nature Study Q&A, and it’s a really good question that basically centers around, “Am I doing enough?” So let me read it to you, so you get all the details.

Question: “I’ve always wanted to ‘do’ nature study, but every time I try to formally add it to our schedule, it flops. There are times where it happens naturally, such as when we collect monarch eggs in the spring. These are times we enjoy, and they don’t feel forced at all. We’ve learned so much about monarchs by observing them year after year. We also notice when certain trees around our home bloom, when specific insects emerge for the year, etc. but I really want to start recording what we learn. Is this enough? Or should I make a greater effort to have my children (and maybe myself!) record our observations? How should I do this without making it feel like a chore for them?”

So, is this mama doing enough?

Karen: She’s doing plenty.

Sonya: Talk about that. What do you mean?

Karen: Well, her children are informally and naturally connecting with nature, and that is one of the hardest things to achieve in our children with nature study—that love for being out in nature.

Sonya: That’s true. I mean, you could schedule it and drag them out there kicking and screaming every week, and that’s not going to do nearly as much as what this mama is enjoying with her children.

Karen: Correct. Her children are doing it naturally, and so that puts them way ahead of other children, who aren’t enjoying nature study at this time. Enjoying being out in nature is a huge step in nature study. If her children are doing regular, informal, natural nature study, there may not be any need to make a scheduled time. It’s natural for them; they’re making the connections.

Enjoying being out in nature is a huge step in nature study.

Sonya: Now you said if they’re doing, you used three adjectives, I want to make sure we got those. If they’re doing…

Karen: Regular.

Sonya: I think that’s very important.

Karen: Yes, it’s not just every now and then, and it doesn’t have to be every day, or every week, but regularly. It could be that twice a month there are opportunities. But they’re naturally drawn to it; that’s the key.

Sonya: The frequency is going to change depending on the season, potentially, according to where you live. Okay, so, regular. What was the second adjective?

Karen: Informal. Meaning it wasn’t scheduled for them to go out and look at something.

Sonya: It was just, “Look at these monarch eggs, look at these caterpillars.” Okay. And what was the third adjective?

Karen: Natural. Naturally. So they seem to be doing that.

Sonya: It’s just a part of their lives, really, and that’s what we wanted; that’s the goal. All right, good.

Karen: So that’s good. Now, if you feel a need to schedule, there may be some reasons for doing that. Maybe she has one or more children that do need to have nature study scheduled. Maybe some are naturally drawn to it, and they do it whether it’s scheduled or not, but there’s another child who needs it on the schedule. It’s okay to do that.

Sometimes we are drawn to the same things over and over again. So you might have a child who’s only interested in watching the insects, or one who is enjoying just the flowers that are planted, and that’s the only thing that they look at. You might want to schedule it so that you broaden what they are looking at. There are so many nature study topics out there, so make sure that they are getting more than just a few of them.

There are so many nature study topics out there, so make sure that your children are getting more than just a few of them.

Sonya: Wide variety is good, and that might be a good reason to schedule in addition to the regular informal, natural study they’re doing. You might want to schedule something to branch out. I like that idea.

Karen: Give them a little nudge into an area they might not have thought of. Now, you don’t always have to record what you have seen in nature—or heard, or touched, or experienced in any way. I was never taught to do that. Most of my nature knowledge has not been recorded in a book.

Sonya: Wow. That’s something, because you have so much knowledge, and you’ve been doing this for so many years, but you don’t have like 25 nature notebooks.

Karen: No, I do not. Two reasons. First, I was taught to take the time to make the connections, and those connections stay with you, and second, I don’t like to journal.

Sonya: So it was more of a hindrance than a help to you if you had to record. But when you say make a connection, explain what you mean. A mental connection? Or an emotional connection with this thing? What do you mean by connection?

Karen: Either of those, or both. Usually it’s something that we observe that we hadn’t noticed before, and, for me, that gets filed away with the other information that I know. It’s hard to explain how that happens, but children who are naturally drawn to nature don’t have a problem with making those connections on their own.

Sonya: It sounds like what we encourage our children to do, and what Charlotte encouraged us to do, is around the fact that education is the science of relations. You’re making a personal relation with this thing. It’s not just, “Oh I know the name of that,” but “It’s like a part of me now. It’s my own possession now.”

Karen: And that can be done in different ways. Maybe it’s a mental one, maybe it’s emotional, maybe it’s both. Maybe you’re just very interested in it, and you had questions when you started observing it, so all of those things can come together for anybody.

Sonya: So they may be making connections and forming relations, even if they aren’t recording them.

Karen: Yes. Now, there are ways that you can enjoy capturing those connections in a tangible way. As an adult, I started keeping a Calendar of Firsts, and I really enjoy that.

Sonya: Now explain what that is for people who don’t know.

Karen: A Calendar of Firsts is when you record the first time that you see something in a particular year. Let me give you an example: the first time that we pick asparagus in our garden. What day did that happen this year? I will write that on the calendar. What was the first day that we had a frost in the fall? I’ll write that on the calendar. It’s things like that. When did the hummingbirds return? It’s those types of things. Keep the ones that interest you. What interests me—picking asparagus, when the hummingbirds return—might not be things that you are watching. But I get a wall calendar—I like to have the picture on my wall—and I record those on that calendar.

Sonya: So just in that little square.

Karen: In the little square.

Sonya: This isn’t an elaborate thing.

Karen: Oh no. All I will write is “first asparagus 2023” when we pick it this spring and that’s it. When I get a new calendar for the next year, I take my old calendar and I transfer all of those dates. I pencil them in.

Sonya: From previous years.

Karen: New ones are in ink, previous years are in pencil. So I keep a record from year to year, and I transfer them to the new calendar. So asparagus, we might have picked, I’m just going to pull some dates, May 5th in 2019. And then in 2020, we picked it on May 7th. When are we going to pick it this year? Well, that will go on the calendar in ink. The others are in pencil, so as you keep this Calendar of Firsts, year after year after year, and you transfer those dates, you can see when these things are going to start to happen, and you can look for them.

I have a pretty good idea now when hummingbirds are going to return to my area, when we’re going to pick that first asparagus, when we’re going to have our first frost or our first snowfall, all those types of things, because I’ve kept a record over the years and it takes very little of my time to write that on the calendar.

I have a good idea now when hummingbirds are going to return to my area, when we’re going to have our first frost, all those types of things, because I’ve kept a record over the years.

Sonya: When you first started talking about how every year you transfer all the previous years onto the new one, my efficiency side went, “Oh, isn’t there a more efficient way to do that so I don’t have to re-copy it every year?” but the more I listen to you describe it, the more it’s like “No, there’s a purpose in the recopying.” It makes you look for relations and notice more closely when those events are happening. That’s a brilliant idea. I love that.

Karen: It’s very simple and it’s a way to make a connection. Now, there are creative ways that you can record things. There is the standard. Let your children pick out a sketchbook or a blank journal, and allow them to record in it like you would in a regular nature journal. If they pick it out, maybe they will record in it, but there are other ways.

Some children enjoy making videos of what they’re seeing. The monarch butterflies, the eggs to butterfly that they have observed year after year, have you tried filming those parts?

Sonya: That would be interesting. Especially if you could end up with a time lapse of your own making.

Karen: Yes, so there’s that. They can take photos. Maybe a child likes to scrapbook; they could scrapbook about the life cycle of the butterfly or a favorite tree in the different seasons. There are many different ideas of how you can be creative in capturing those experiences in a more tangible way, rather than just in your head.

Sonya: We’ve talked about the butterflies throughout this conversation, but I know we did a previous post with some other nature study project ideas.

Karen: We did do a post on a review of a naturalist’s notebook. That has good information on nature study, some good tips, and also has a Calendar of Firsts in it. And that’s a multi-year calendar. 

Sonya: I believe it’s five years. Nice, so that’s a good one as well. Great. Any other ideas for this parent? And for other parents who are wondering if they’re doing enough?

Karen: Enjoy watching your children in nature and the connections that they’re making, and continue encouraging them to make those natural connections.

Sonya: Thank you. That wraps up our series on Nature Study Q&A. I hope it’s been as helpful and encouraging to you as it has been to me.

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We hope you’ve enjoyed this Nature Study Q&A series over the past several weeks. Stay encouraged by downloading this free phone background featuring the lovely art of Richele Baburina and a beautiful reminder from Charlotte Mason.