Help Your Child Learn to Observe More Closely

Has it ever happened to you that you ask your child, “What did you see outside today?” and that child says, “A bird,” and you try to get more information, but the child just says, “Well, I think it was red, or I think it was … it might have had some blue,” and that is about all you get? How do we train our children so they can look more closely and get in touch with nature more precisely? Charlotte Mason had some very simple exercises that she did with children to equip and prepare them for looking closely during nature study. We want to share those with you today, and here to help me with that is my friend and coworker Karen Smith.

Karen: It’s good to be back.

Sonya: We want to talk today about object lessons. I’ve learned a lot about them from you, and I’m eager to share it with everybody else too. So let’s start out with, “What are object lessons?”

Karen: Object lessons were exercises or activities that Charlotte Mason used with her students to help them gain the habit of using their senses, as many as possible, when examining an object. They also made comparisons with other objects, so they would have those relative scales when they were comparing other new objects.

Object lessons were exercises or activities that Charlotte Mason used with her students to help them gain the habit of using their senses, as many as possible, when examining an object.

Sonya: So give me an example of what you mean by comparison.

Karen: Let’s say you have a pen. Is the pen light or is it heavy? You can’t really tell if it’s light or heavy unless you compare it to something else.

Sonya: That’s true. Compared to a brick, it’s light.

Karen: Yes, but compared to a piece of paper, it’s heavy.

Sonya: It’s heavier, yes. So, do we do this with nature objects or just like you said, a pen, a piece of paper, a piece of bread? Where do we do these types of things?

Karen: We do it with common everyday objects.

Sonya: Around the house?

Karen: Around the house. And Charlotte Mason said to do them every day.

Sonya: Is this for all ages of children?

Karen: All ages.

Sonya: Wow. So when you say do them every day, is this drilling five times a day with 20 different objects? I assume not, because Charlotte wasn’t like that.

Karen: Charlotte did two different types. One was casual, just as you came across something. Maybe at the dinner table, your child noticed that bread was absorbent. So he could compare that to other things. She gives the example of the mother saying, “Let’s set a piece of bread aside so that when we are finished with the meal, we can go and test how absorbent it is against other objects, like maybe a sponge.” So the child would have the opportunity to give that comparative quality, but also would be observing the bread.

Sonya: Now, I don’t know about your children, but mine probably would not have used the term absorbent.

Karen: Mine might have, depending on the age.

Sonya: How do you get them to use those types of terms?

Karen: You give them to them when they need them—maybe it’s when they are in the course of that casual object lesson where they are observing something and they can’t quite think of a name. But then there is the direct object lessons that Charlotte Mason used to do also, where you had a group of children who had to examine an object with one sense, and they could give one fact about it. They passed that object around to every child who then had to give a different fact than what had already been stated. So you can see that if you were not one of the first children to give a fact about that object, that you’re going to be reaching for some other way to describe that object. It was at that time that the teacher could give them a word.

Sonya: So they might try to describe it as best they can, but then the teacher would supply, or the parent would supply the term for what they’re trying to describe.

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: It seems like that would really stick in the child’s head then.

Karen: Yes, because he needed it then.

Sonya: They’re searching for something and suddenly it’s given to them. It’s like, “Oh, that’s it.”

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: So let me get this straight. In those sensory games, those set object lessons, you would have, let’s say a flower. You would pass it around to each person in the group and he would just say anything? Or you limit it to one sense?

Karen: You limit it to one sense each time around.

Sonya: Okay, so the first time around, we’re all going to say something about how the flower feels and try to describe it. Can we describe it with more than one word or are we trying to just do one word?

Karen: In Charlotte Mason’s writings about it, she says “one fact.” So I’m not sure if they could give one word or if it could be a phrase.

Sonya: That makes sense because you don’t want to frustrate the children. You want them to tell what they know, what they observe.

Karen: But they were limited. They couldn’t just tell all that they discovered about it.

Sonya: Only one thing.

Karen: Just one thing.

Sonya: That way everybody has a chance to talk about how it feels. Then you’ll go around again with the same object and talk about . . .

Karen: How it smells or maybe how it looks. Every time you go around, you use a different sense and use as many of the senses as possible for that given object.

Sonya: Safely. We’re not going to eat the flower.

Karen: Unless it’s an edible one, but normally, no.

Sonya: So any of the five senses or as many as possible of the five senses, one each time around.

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: That is so simple, but so brilliant. It makes you look so closely at the object.

Karen: And all parts of that object. When you say, “Look at the flower,” most people will look at the actual bloom of the flower, but the flower is more than just the bloom.

Sonya: As you said, usually we say “Look at the flower.” We don’t usually include the other senses. But nature study is so much about all the senses.

Karen: Yes, yes it is.

Sonya: I know in a recent workshop that you gave on object lessons, you shared many different characteristics that we can look for as we are comparing, both in those casual object lessons and as we are doing those set sensory games like we talked about. You say we can look for the color of something. Now are these—the color, the heat, the hardness—are these all comparison?

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: Okay, so these are back to the casual comparing relative scale: color, heat, hardness, texture, size, weight, length, odor, taste, and sound. So many things that you don’t think about sometimes, but they’re not hard.

Karen: Right, and it’s not limited to just those that you listed. Anything you can think of to compare it.

Sonya: We’ve talked about bread, we’ve talked about a flower. Obviously, you can’t pass around a bird unless it’s in a cage. Give us some other objects to help get our wheels turning here. It might be early in the morning, and we haven’t had our coffee yet. We just need a little bump. What other objects can you mention?

Karen: A sponge, a piece of charcoal, a picture frame, a bowl, a clock face—really anything, any common object that falls naturally under the child’s observation. It could be a salt shaker at your dinner table or maybe a napkin.

Sonya: So these object lessons and the sensory games do not have to happen with a nature object itself.

Karen: No, in fact, many times they did not.

Sonya: So how does looking at a salt shaker help equip a child for nature study?

Karen: It helps give the child the habit of using as many senses as possible to observe that object and also comparing that object with other things that the child knows. So when you take that out into nature, all of a sudden, the child is using those habits as he is observing nature.

Sonya: That makes sense because you said this is a little daily exercise you can do. So you are setting up a habit of using all those senses and comparing. I remember in our workshop you shared an amazing quote about a child doing that very thing. Can you share that with our listeners today?

Karen: Charlotte Mason wrote, “A boy who is observing a beetle does not consciously apply his several senses to the beetle, but lets the beetle take the initiative, which the boy reverently follows: but the boy who is in the habit of sensory daily gymnastics will learn a great deal more about the beetle than he who is not so trained” (Parents and Children, p. 189). Those “daily sensory gymnastics” were the object lessons; that’s what she called them.

Sonya: Yes, sensory exercises, gymnastics.

Karen: Yes, of the brain.

Sonya: And that term gymnastics got me thinking, when we are sequencing our lessons and we’re looking for little things to break up the heavier lessons—when you think gymnastics, you think movement. This might not necessarily be physical movement, but it is a totally different part of the brain.

Karen: Yes, it’s kind of a mental movement.

Sonya: So you could tuck this little object lesson in between any of your other lessons, as well as at the dinner table or anytime.

Karen: Anytime, yes.

Sonya: That’s a great idea. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about object lessons and I hope you try them out. Try one today, if you can, and just see how it will help your child start to develop a habit of looking more closely at the things around him.