Observing tadpoles

(Editor’s Note: I’ve learned so much about nature from my friend and coworker, Karen Smith, over the years! She is my nature go-to person. I know you will enjoy this practical and encouraging reminder from her on an important basic principle of nature study.)

What is nature study? Is it just having the kids draw what they see when we are outside?

I don’t have time to take my kids on a nature walk.

I live in the city and there just isn’t much nature to see.

These are some of the questions and comments I hear from moms trying to use the Charlotte Mason method. They know nature study is important but they are at a loss to know how to begin, what it really means, and what it looks like.

So, what is nature study? A basic definition is “observing nature.” Many moms interpret this to mean taking the kids outside once a week and asking them to draw what they see. That is one way of accomplishing nature study, but you will not get much out of it. There is no focus, no goal of observation.

A more in-depth definition is “observing nature in such a way as to learn the habits of what is being studied.” In other words, get to know the How, What, Why, and When of the things in nature through careful, purposeful observation.

“Children should be encouraged to watch, patiently and quietly, until they learn something of the habits and history of bee, ant, wasp, spider, hairy caterpillar, dragon-fly, and whatever of larger growth comes in their way” (Vol. 1, p. 57).

“He must live hours daily in the open air, and, as far as possible, in the country; must look and touch and listen; must be quick to note, consciously, every peculiarity of habit or structure, in beast, bird, or insect; the manner of growth and fructification of every plant” (Vol. 1, p. 264).

Have a purpose in mind when taking the children out of doors. It does not matter where you are doing nature study—in your backyard, at a nearby park, or on a special trip. What matters is having a focus of what to observe while you are out. Make it a habit to choose one thing to observe each time you go out. This week observe some flowers, next week observe a tree, the next week observe worms.

As you revisit your selected friends over time, observing them in various seasons of the year and noticing their changing appearances, you will form a relation with them. Just as a person-to-person relationship is deepened over time and shared experiences, so it is in nature study. But if you leave those relationships up to chance meetings, they won’t deepen as quickly or grow very deep. Just as you would set up regular lunch dates to develop a relationship with a friend, you can set up regular nature study times to check in with a particular nature friend and spend some time with it. Look closely and carefully and record your observations over time.

“Let each of us undertake the patient, unflagging, day-by-day observation of the behaviour of sparrow, spider, teazel, of clouds or winds, recording what we ourselves have seen, correcting our records as we learn to be more accurate, and being very chary of conclusions. All we find out may be old knowledge, and is most likely already recorded in books; but, for us, it is new, our own discovery, our personal knowledge, a little bit of the world’s real work which we have attempted and done. However little work we do in this kind, we gain by it some of the power to appreciate, not merely beauty, but fitness, adaptation, processes. Reverence and awe grow upon us, and we are brought into truer relation with the Almighty Worker” (Vol. 4, Book 2, pp. 101, 102).

This does not mean that spontaneous observation should not occur. If you see something unexpected, by all means, observe it. You never know when, or if, you’ll have the opportunity of observing it again. Observe it closely. Notice as many details as you possibly can. Learn all you can in the time you have it near.

But for all those other times when you may not see something unusual, have a purpose in mind when you head out the door. Which friend will you visit today? What new habits might you learn about it through watching closely and carefully?

Revisit your friends over time. On purpose. That’s how relationships grow.

One comment

  1. The comparison of nature study to regularly meeting a “friend” for lunch to gain deeper understanding and friendship spoke straight to my heart! I had been trying to secretly fill the bucket of knowledge through nature study (and that is only when it actually happened). I missed the special treat of meeting an old friend because there is so much more to friendship than knowledge! Thank you!

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