Usually when people describe the Charlotte Mason approach, the one thing they almost always mention is nature study. Time in nature is an integral part of the Charlotte Mason Method. So let’s walk through how to do a nature study.
What You Will Need
You will need a blank sketchbook for each person and something to write or draw with. That could be a regular pencil, colored pencils, or watercolor paints. It’s up to you. Then, you will find it helpful to have a few field guides, either in book form or as apps on your phone. That’s it: a sketchbook, a pencil or paints, and a couple of field guides. Oh, and you’ll need nature. The good news is that nature is all around us, no matter if we live in the country, in the mountains, on the beach, in the middle of a city, or in the desert. You have nature.
Doing a nature study involves four steps.
Step 1: Determine your focus.
Choose a nature friend or a component of nature to be the focus of your study. It could be something you’ve noticed on casual nature walks and you want to go look at it more closely and carefully. It could be something you’ve studied before and you want to revisit that old friend and see what is happening in its world now. Just decide which nature object you are going to study.
Step 2: Go there.
Go to the location of the nature friend you will be studying. A lot of studies can be done in your own yard. Some might be at a local park. Others might be part of a field trip that takes half a day. When you have below-zero temperatures in the middle of winter, you might go to your living room and study your pet cat. The locations can vary; the key is to be intentional about going.
Step 3: Look closely and carefully.
Take your time. Watch, listen, and be patient. If you don’t know the nature friend’s name, see if your field guides can help you identify it. But remember, learning a friend’s name is only the beginning. To build a relationship, you need to spend time together and share experiences together. So see what you can discover about that nature friend’s habits: How does it behave in different situations? What are its preferences? If you’ve studied that friend before, what differences do you notice now compared with the last time you saw it; has it changed in any way? How does it interact with other nature friends? Use as many senses as you safely can to observe, to study, that friend.
If you’re not sure what kinds of things to look for, Journaling a Year in Nature can help. It provides simple nature study prompts for thirteen different nature friends every season of the year. For each nature friend, it gives you ideas of what to look for during that particular season. And there is plenty of room built into this journal for step 4 . . .
Step 4: Record your observations.
You can write or draw or paint or do all three. It’s up to you. Your nature notebook should be a reflection of your own personality. But it should be a place where you record what you found out, what you observed, during this nature study session. Always date your entries, by the way. Feel free to jot down questions you have about what you observed too. Your nature journal should be a personal record of your growing relationship with God’s creation around you.
Charlotte Mason scheduled nature study once a week for her students. Now, she encouraged more frequent casual nature walks, but that focused nature study was scheduled once a week. You pick the day and time that will work best for your family as you go through the seasons.
Level Up or Down
Just as with all of Charlotte’s methods, you can level nature study up or down to fit each child best.
One way to level down is to just do casual nature walks without the journaling component. Of course, you can stop and look more closely at some nature friend of interest along the way, and you will get to know some of those friends’ habits over time. But if holding a pencil or a paintbrush is difficult for your student, don’t make the nature notebook an obstacle or a hindrance to enjoying time in nature.
Another possible option might be to let that child take digital pictures of nature friends. There is a huge advantage to drawing or painting an object in nature, because that practice slows you down and compels you to look more closely. But if that motor skill of writing or drawing or painting gets in the way of your child’s enjoying nature, you can set it aside and simply encourage close observation and discuss what your child observes.
There are many ways to level nature study up. One way is to keep a master list of birds and a master list of flowers that you have personally seen over the years. Jot down where and when you saw each one.
You can also add poetry and Scripture and other related quotations to your nature journal. They might be seasonal or related to a specific nature friend. You and your children will find many ways to personalize your nature notebooks.
Another way to level up is to do nature object lessons. In a nature object lesson, you provide open-ended questions that guide your child to look even more closely at the nature friend. It’s kind of like shining a spotlight on different aspects of that nature object and encouraging your student to focus more deeply on that aspect and see what else he can observe.
You can do nature projects—bringing nature into your home for a while for closer observation. So you might watch a caterpillar turn into a butterfly or observe tadpoles as they turn into frogs. Those types of nature projects can provide lots of opportunities to study and record personal observations and develop a relation with that nature friend.
The main thing is to encourage a habit of time in nature and a personal relation with God’s creation around you. Show your child by example that nature study is a lifelong hobby. There is always something more to learn. Some people spend their whole lives studying just one plant or just one animal, and yet they will be the first to say that they haven’t learned everything about it. The key is to slow down, to breathe, to look and listen, to linger and observe.
So get outside. You never know where time in nature might lead.