How to Balance Science Lessons with Nature Study

Today we’re continuing our series on Nature Study Q&A. Last week, Karen talked to us about nature study ideas for preschool; she shared some great ideas, and I’m excited to hear her thoughts today. We’re going to be talking about the balance between nature study and science lessons. So let’s dive in.

Sonya: Karen, thanks for coming along for more Nature Study Q&A. Today, we have some great questions all about the balance between nature study and elementary science lessons. This could go throughout all the grades, but the questions we got were mainly for elementary. Okay, let me give you some samples of these questions. One parent said, 

Question: I feel pressured for my seven-year-old daughter to know more science than just nature study. How can I include other science topics like space, earth, weather, or technology? 

Another mom said, 

Question: What are the goals to accomplish during an outing? 

And someone else said, 

Question: Should our weekly nature hike go along with our science studies or just go its spontaneous way? 

And one more, just because you don’t have enough questions already. These are all kind of connected though. 

Question: If each child is interested in a different type of nature study, should I be getting them books to read or what? 

All right, so what’s the relationship or the balance between nature study and elementary science lessons?

Karen: Your nature study should be coupled with science lessons. We recommend for grades one through three to do formal science lessons twice a week and for grades four through six, three times a week. That way the children are getting a foundation. Nature study piques the interest for the books that you can get. And reading the books piques the interest for being out in nature.

Nature study piques the interest for the books that you can get. And reading the books piques the interest for being out in nature.

Sonya: So it’s like a continuous cycle? They’re reading these nature books, and the books are what they’re doing during their science lessons, and that motivates them to want to learn more outside?

Karen: Yes, it gets them excited. “Can I find this where I live?”

Sonya: And then once they’re outside, they see those things but they see other things too. It’s like, “Oh, I want to learn about that.”

Karen: So we go back to the books to learn more.

Sonya: Okay, so it’s continuous. Now you said for first through third grade we recommend formal science lessons twice a week. For fourth through sixth grade, it’s three times a week. Does that include the nature study, or is nature study another day of the week?

Karen: Nature study is another day of the week. So for first through third, you’ll spend three days out of the week on science-related things: formal lessons and nature study.

Sonya: Science lessons on two days and nature study the third day, okay.

Karen: Grades four through six would be four days: three days for formal lessons and one day for nature study.

Sonya: Okay, got it. Now, I know you have written some wonderful formal science lessons for those grades. I just happen to have them with me, brought them along. You’ve got Discovering What God Has Made, that’s for grades one through three, and then Exploring What God Has Made for grades four through six, so this one would be three days a week.

Karen: Both of those are based on the days of creation, so the science topics are following the days of creation.

Sonya: So these include things for like the one parent was asking, “I want to talk to my child about weather.” These would include stuff like that. And then you also have Pond and Stream Companion and Outdoor Secrets Companion. And Learning About Birds is not yours. It’s mine. But it is still an elementary science course, and these are for the elementary grades as well. These are all available on our website, but that’s what you would be doing either two days a week or three days a week. And some of those have nature study ideas in them. Right?

Karen: They do. And those nature-study ideas in those books all relate to what the children are reading. Now, your nature study that you would do outside of those can be about anything. It can be something that you choose to focus on for a short period of time, such as “Today we’re going to go out and look at the flowers that are blooming, and next week maybe we’ll look at the insects,” or it can be more long-term. “We want to learn all the trees in our yard,” or “our neighborhood.” That might take you several weeks. Sometimes you could follow your child’s lead. “What are you interested in today?” “What should we go look at?” It could be that sort of thing.

Sonya: My youngest is so intrigued by birds these days. She has a bird clock. And she’ll tell you at each hour which bird it is. The other day we were sitting just at the lunch table, and I have a big picture window there looking out on the woods in the back. Just at the time we were sitting there, a cardinal landed on the deck railing. Then an eastern bluebird landed on the bird feeder, and a robin landed on a tree in the back. She spotted each of those and was just watching them the whole time. It was so fun to see her interest blooming with that interaction, if you will.

Karen: And that’s a good thing she has an interest in that now. So you can capitalize on that for your nature study and learn what you can about the birds when you’re out in nature. Listen to see if you can hear different birds, and keep your eyes open both on the ground and in the trees to find out which birds you can spot. Those are good things. Follow your child’s lead. But if your child always tends towards the same things, feel free to nudge that child into something that he may not have discovered yet. Because we all need to be exposed to more things than what we tend towards.

Sonya: That’s true.

Karen: And our children are still learning, and they don’t quite know what they might be interested in, until maybe you’ve nudged them in a direction

Sonya: They don’t know what they don’t know yet. There might be a whole new world out there they’ve never even thought about before. I love that idea.

Karen: If you want to do a more systematic approach to nature study, because you really don’t know where to start, we have a resource that can help you.

Sonya: I just happened to have brought that along too.

Karen: Our Journaling a Year in Nature will give you topics throughout the seasons that you can focus on when you go out. There are prompts for each topic to give you an idea of what to look for in each nature topic.

Sonya: I love that resource because I remember, when you made it, we sat down and I was like, “Okay, what kinds of things can we look for in autumn?” We can look at trees, but what are we looking for in a tree in autumn? I don’t know what kind of questions to ask in autumn versus in spring about trees. So it was just brain-dump time. Tell me what to look for. We put it all in there. And you’ll be visiting trees every season with different questions.

Karen: Yes, so you can see how they change.

Sonya: I just love how it follows through the year and gives you those prompts. One for each week. So you might do trees one week.

Karen: You might do insects.

Sonya: I know there are bushes and shrubs.

Karen: There are mammals; there is weather. There’s “go to a different location.”

Sonya: Yes, lots of different ideas. But it’s tracking it through the year; that is such a great resource. Thanks for writing that, by the way. That’s so helpful. So what about the mom who asked about goals? What are the goals that we’re trying to accomplish here?

Karen: Our goals, particularly for grades one through six, are that we want to increase those observation skills. I don’t know if you have ever looked at our oldest granddaughter’s nature journal.

Sonya: I have.

Karen: But from the time when she was little until now, which she’s still young, but her observation skills increased greatly over about three or four years, and it was all just from being out in nature.

Sonya: It was natural, organic.

Karen: She was being taught to notice things. Not in a very formal way, but just, “Why don’t you look at this?”

Sonya: Because her mother would look at something and comment, not like “You should see this,” necessarily, but it was like, “Oh, and look at that,” because it interested her mother. It modeled it, and it also showed her what else she could be looking for.

Karen: And those observation skills are useful not just for nature study, but they’re useful in other areas of our lives. How many times do we need to observe what’s going on around us? A lot. So increase those observation skills. You want your children to enjoy being out in nature. Nature is such a good place to go to refresh ourselves, to clear our minds, and really just to enjoy the beauty that God has made for us.

Sonya: I like how Charlotte said that we go into nature to get life in perspective.

Karen: That’s a good way to put it. It really does help you with that. One of the other goals is that we are laying a foundation for those science courses that are going to come later in your child’s life.

Sonya: I thought about that fleetingly when you mentioned increasing their observation skills; that that’s going to play a big role in future science lessons specifically as well as other areas of life.

Karen: In the experiments that they might do, they will be able to closely observe those and learn from those. But for all the different topics that you can cover in those elementary years, you don’t have to go in depth. You’re making hooks to hang things on. So when they get to those biology and chemistry and earth science courses, they already have a foundation to build on. It’s not foreign to them when they get to those courses.

Sonya: And they have a personal relation with it. So it’s not just, “Something I read in a book.” It is, “Something I’ve observed personally.”

Karen: They bring those connections to the formal science lessons with them. And then the most important thing about nature study is gaining that appreciation for God’s creation. It really goes beyond just observing the beauty. The more you study nature, the more you learn about God. If you think about it, if you’ve ever seen a waterfall or larger waves at a beach, you’re seeing just a small portion of God’s power. If you see those, and you stand in awe at the power of those, that’s only a small taste of the power our God has. That’s just one example. But there are many things like that in nature that remind us of who our God is: His character and His abilities.

If you think about it, if you’ve ever seen a waterfall or larger waves at a beach, you’re seeing just a small portion of God’s power.

Sonya: Charlotte talked about that a lot—how even the flower in the, I think she said cranny, nook, speaks of God’s glory that it all points back to the Creator. That should be our main reason for getting our children out into nature. There are many other reasons as well that you mentioned, but that’s the main one. Thanks for helping us figure out that balance between nature study and science lessons. I see this over and over in Charlotte Mason’s approach and her methods; she’s got such a great balance there.

Karen: Yes, yes.

Sonya: It’s excellent balance between the formal, structured lessons and the personal discovery—gently guided, nudged as you said, as needed. But that’s just such a great balance for educating our children. I’m going to give you more questions next time, so get ready. Thanks for joining us.