How to Do Nature Study with Preschoolers

We’re having a great time answering your questions about nature study. This week we’re going to talk about preschool. What does nature study look like in the preschool years? And as always, we’re going to bring our nature study go-to person, Karen Smith, in on this discussion. So let’s get started.

Sonya: Today, the question is all about preschool. And here is the question as it was submitted. So let me read that for you. 

Question: What does nature or outdoor time look like in the early years before formal lessons begin at age six or seven, and specifically for children two and under? I’ve read Home Education, so I know what Charlotte says, but I’m wondering if SCM has any specific details or suggestions for families who come to Charlotte Mason very early.

So, preschool years. What’s that look like?

Karen: Lots of outside time. Children love being outside. I know it’s hard for moms sometimes because there’s so much to do inside.

Sonya: Yeah, I have got laundry; I’ve got to get all this stuff done.

Karen: And the children are still young enough that you can’t send them out on their own. They need supervision. So you need to be purposeful in making some time to be outside, and your child can be outside exploring nature even in just in his own backyard or front yard. Or, you could take him to a park. But that downtime is good for mom too.

Sonya: That’s true. I can still remember the times when I had preschoolers, I would be sitting at the park, watching them play or interacting with them. Often we would be there together with our preschoolers.

Karen: Yes. I remember that. We would take a picnic lunch.

Sonya: Yes. And we’d spend all morning then, then have lunch, and then go home and put them in bed. It was lots of time outside. That’s so important.

Karen: I remember just being at home and taking a lawn chair and sitting on the deck. We followed the shade. So in the morning they would go out front so I could sit in the shade, and in the afternoons they would go out back, and I could sit there and watch them and interact with them from my chair. I could also observe some of the things with them too. So they had plenty of time to get out there, run around, and experience being in nature, out in the the fresh air surrounded by our grass, the few trees we have, and any flowers we might have had planted. Those sorts of things. There are always insects buzzing around and birds and squirrels going through the yard. Children notice all of those things.

Sonya: And it’s funny because when you talk about going outside, I’m thinking, “Okay, the yard. Yeah, grass. Yeah, squirrels. Yeah, insects. Yeah, trees.” It’s like, “I’ve been seeing them for 50 plus years. What’s the big deal?”

Karen: Well, they’re all new to your child.

Sonya: Exactly, that’s what Charlotte says.

Karen: The child hasn’t experienced all of those things—the feel of grass on his bare feet, or even just different blades of grass and how they grow. There are different types of grass, and many of us have more than one kind of grass growing in our lawns and weeds and all sorts of things. Those are all new to your child.

A young child hasn’t experienced what we think is basic—the feel of grass on his bare feet, or even just different blades of grass and how they grow. Those are all new to your child.

Sonya: And it’s not like they’re going to go out there and just sit in one place and stare at the grass. Some of them might for a little time. But nature study in those early years is combined with the physical action and learning about gravity.

Karen: Yes, I was just thinking about falling down.

Sonya: It’s climbing and getting their muscles. It’s learning about how their bodies work too. It’s all combined.

Karen: Yes, and giving children plenty of time to explore and experience those things is what preschool nature study is all about. Everything is new to them. They don’t have the experiences that you have. They’re forming those now in those early years.

Sonya: And it’s going to take a lot of time, because you can’t dictate when a squirrel is going to show up. You can’t dictate, “We have an appointment, we’re going to be out there for these 15 minutes, and the robin will appear during those 15 minutes.” You can’t do that.

Karen: No, they don’t do that. You could go out and say, “Well, the flowers are blooming.” They’re not going to run away. So you do have that. But there are so many things in nature, like the wind. They might feel the wind through their hair or just on their faces. Sometimes you get those really strong winds, and you have to walk against those. What does that feel like when you’re walking into the wind? What about when you’re walking the same direction the wind is blowing? It’s two different feelings. Your children are experiencing that, and they’re learning about that. Now you may think, “Oh, wind, I’ve got to walk against it or it’s going to mess up my hair,” but your children aren’t thinking about that.

Sonya: And they need to experience those things.

Karen: Give them plenty of time to observe and experience and just to grow in those connections that they are making.

Sonya: As Charlotte said, never be within indoors when you can rightly be without.

Karen: Yes. And she lived where it rained a lot.

Sonya: And it wasn’t very warm. The weather was not very cooperative in England. Good point.

Karen: Here’s one of the things that you can do that can make nature study a little bit more formal in those early years, keeping in mind that we don’t want “lessons” for the children for those preschool years. But if you find something that is interesting to you, or you think might interest your child, feel free to draw your child’s attention to that. “Look at this acorn. I like the way the cap is on it. What do you like about it?”

Sonya: Boom, that’s it. So you snuck a little tiny bit of vocabulary in there. That it’s a cap. That’s just what you call it. Which is what you would do if you were talking about any other thing. Like with a dog . . .

Karen: Right, he has a tail. He has ears.

Sonya: Yes, and an acorn has a cap. So like you said, it’s not a formal thing, but you can call things by their rightful names. And you only said one sentence about it.

Karen: I said what I observed about it, and then I invited the child to tell me what he observes about it.

Sonya: And maybe he will, and maybe he won’t.

Karen: He might say the same thing that you just said, and that’s okay because remember, it’s still new to him and he’s making those connections. Whether you see the evidence of that or not, he’s internalizing that information.

Sonya: It could be that he’s not really interested in the acorn right now because he just noticed something else. It could be something like a ladybug on the grass down here.

Karen: That’s fine too. Let him go with the ladybug. The acorns will be there waiting for him when he’s ready for them.

Sonya: So it’s just gently mentioning what draws your attention, and inviting the child. I like that term, inviting. We’re not requiring.

Karen: Oh no. It’s not, “Now you must give me an observation.” We’re just inviting it.

Sonya: And what does that do? It helps them grow in their observation skills.

Karen: Yes, it helps them to notice things. It helps them to think about things in different ways too. Oh yeah, it’s an acorn.

Sonya: But it has parts to it.

Karen: Maybe you’re dealing with a five-year-old. “I’ve seen that before, mom.” But if you can draw the attention with, “What do you notice about it?” Now he has to look more closely.

Sonya: So it’s almost like what Charlotte was talking about—the mental gymnastics that you can do with different pieces of nature. You can just point out one other thing. Like, let’s look at the texture this time. Look at the color this time. There are different aspects that you could draw out of the same object over different days.

Karen: You can even ask your child, “What does this remind you of?” And it might be something that is not nature-related. And that’s okay because they’re making that connection. “When I see this certain thing, it reminds me of this. And I know that I can name that thing because it reminds me of this other thing. And I’ve made that connection between those. That’s how I remember.”

You can ask your child, “What does this remind you of?” And it might be something that is not nature-related. And that’s okay because they’re making that connection.

Sonya: You’re teaching them how to make those associations for themselves. It might be totally different for you.

Karen: Yes, because we’re all individuals.

Sonya: Yes, but as you said, this is not structured. We mustn’t do this all the time until the child grows weary of it.

Karen: No, we go back to giving your child plenty of time to explore and experience on his own. You can draw gently his attention to things that you think he might be interested in or things that are new to you. But don’t make it a big lesson. Just very gently do these things.

Sonya: Now for the older kids, we have nature notebooks where they can record their observations. I’d like you to talk a little bit about what SCM has created to encourage younger ones, so that they feel like they have something special like their older siblings, but that doesn’t require as much as a nature notebook. I’ll grab it. You tell about it.

Karen: Okay, so we have a preschool subscription kit; it comes out every month. One of the elements in that is a Nature Hunt Notebook. Now the child gets this notebook in his welcome kit, and then every month he gets two nature stickers.

Sonya: I’ve got three here for an example. A tree, a squirrel, and a fish.

Karen: Yes, so he will get two every month. The idea is that you can help your child, when your child’s outside, to look for those things on the stickers. When he finds them, he can put them in his notebook wherever he wants to. If he wants to tell you something about it or try and draw a picture, that’s fine. You can write down what he says and record it in that notebook. It’s just a way for him to have a connection with nature and to give you, as the mom, something to look for if you really don’t know what to do when your child’s in nature. It gives you a starting point.

Sonya: Yes, and I like that the inside of this book is completely blank. Which is, as you said, so they can put their stickers anywhere they want to and they don’t have to tell you anything extra. As children get older, we’ve seen this with our grandkids, and they are used to looking for these two nature things every month, they start noticing other things as well.

Karen: And they notice more things about what they’re looking for.

Sonya: Yes, and then mom writes down what they want to say about where they discovered things, what happened when they discovered them, what they noticed about it, and all of that. But they don’t have to do that if they don’t want to. Another thing I love about this idea is they get two stickers and maybe one of those stickers, they’re not going to see that month, like a rainbow. I think one of the stickers is a rainbow. They might not see it that month, but you know how kids will remember things that are important to them. And this will help teach them patience and delayed gratification in a very gentle way.

Karen: And it teaches that each time we go out into nature we don’t always see what we were hoping to see.

Sonya: Yes, and that’s an important lesson for all of us to learn. Then, when they do see it, the joy is just multiplied.

Karen: And sometimes the connection is better because they’ve been waiting to see it. So when they do, it makes an impression on them.

Sonya: Yes. We call it the Our Preschool Life Nature Hunt because they’re hunting for these things in nature. It helps the children open their eyes and notice what’s around them. They do that anyway, but we don’t always make that connection. It’s a good thing for parents and for the kids. So that’s Our Preschool Life. You can check it out if you’d like to learn more.

Anything else you want to say to encourage parents in those early years with the little ones? I noticed a lot of what you said had the word “time” in it.

Karen: Yes, really relax. Your child has a lifetime to learn. Your child does not have to learn everything in those preschool years. Give him that growing time. Let him experience, let him make his own connections. There’s plenty of time for formal lessons.

Sonya: That’s a good word. And when you said they make their own connections, that’s going to vary even between siblings. I mean, you had four children in five years, so you had a lot of preschoolers altogether, and I bet they each noticed something different.

Karen: Yes, and some were more interested than others.

Sonya: Even in that younger age. So you’re going to see the child’s personality coming through as well.

Karen: Yes, very much so.

Sonya: That’s great. Thanks so much.

One comment

  1. Nature study with preschoolers is an excellent way to encourage their curiosity and creativity. The tips provided in this article are easy to follow and implement, making it an enjoyable experience for both the parent and the child. By incorporating nature into a child’s education, they learn to appreciate the world around them and develop a deeper understanding of their environment.

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