How to Encourage Interest in Nature Study

Today we’re starting on a new series, Nature Study Q&A. We have received a lot of questions about nature study, and we’re going to be bringing in my go-to person for nature study, Karen Smith, and asking her these questions that have been submitted, getting great ideas, and hearing about her experiences in nature all through this series. So let’s get ready to dive into the first question.

Sonya: Karen, you’re my go-to nature study person so we’ve got a lot of great questions in this series. Let’s start with the first one. I’m going to just give you a couple of them here. They’re short ones, so don’t panic. Then we’ll have a related one later. All right, here we go. 

Question: I would love for my kids to get engaged in nature, but it seems not attractive to them. 

And someone else wrote, 

Question: How can I keep my boys interested in nature study when they hit the teen years? 

You know all about that. You’ve got three boys. So, let’s talk about how to get our kids interested in nature study. What are some tips you can give us?

Karen:  It can be a hard thing to get someone interested in something that he doesn’t seem to have an interest in. Nature study is one of those things. First, be careful that your own disinterest in nature is not coloring your child’s perception of it. If you have no interest in nature, don’t expect your child to be interested. You can cultivate curiosity within your own life for things of nature. Wonder about things when you are outside. Notice them. Voice your observations so your children hear those. “I wonder why that tree is growing in that way.” You don’t have to find the answers, but just have that curiosity. Curiosity is contagious, isn’t it?

Curiosity is contagious.

Sonya: Yeah, that’s a good point.

Karen: If someone is curious about something, pretty soon other people want to know, “What are you looking at?” That is very useful in getting your children to cultivate that curiosity in themselves, if you are modeling that for them.

Sonya: What I’m hearing, maybe I’m reading between the lines here, but this type of curiosity is important for the parent during a scheduled nature study time, but it should also become a way of life, and that means slowing down.

Karen: Yes. So often we are so busy, particularly as moms, we have laundry to do, we have food to prepare for meals, we have baby diapers to change . . . 

Sonya: We take the kids to all these activities.

Karen: We have all these things to do and we get caught up in the busyness of life and we don’t notice what’s going on around us. Taking that time for nature study is a great. The time when you’re out on your nature walk is a great time to slow down and notice what’s around you. It’s refreshing when you do that.

Sonya: And it will rub off on your kids, it sounds like.

Karen: Yes. Another thing you can do is ask your child what interests him. Don’t assume that your love for bird watching is the same for your child.

Sonya: That’s true. He might not show an interest in bird watching, but he might be very interested in rocks.

Karen: Yes, exactly. Or the weather or something else that you are not interested in.

Sonya: Raccoons. Ostriches.

Karen: So ask your child, “What are you interested in?” If he doesn’t know, just pick something and see if that is something that works. There are so many different nature topics, it would be hard to run out. So try something, and expose your children to more than just one or two.

Sonya: That is where the science lessons come in. The courses that you have written, many of them cover a wide variety of nature topics, so you could introduce the topics through these courses, and then if your child is like, “Oh, that’s interesting,” then it becomes, “Okay, let’s go explore that one a little more in nature study.”

Karen: Sometimes our children really don’t want to do nature study, so then it’s time to get tricky.

Sonya: Intriguing. Tell me more.

Karen: I have personal experience with this.

Sonya: I’m not going to ask which kid. (laughs)

Karen: One of my children would grumble and complain while we’re doing nature study, and he would make it miserable for everybody else. The other children loved it, but he did not. So I backed off for him. Because I love to watch birds, I made sure that my bird feeders were in view of the window where he would do his work. I just let his natural curiosity take over. He would notice the birds; he would notice some of the animals that come and other things, and I just let him do it. He does enjoy nature now as an adult. So it’s fun when he sends me a picture of something that he’s seen at his home where he lives now, and he’ll say, “Look what came to our yard.” And he’s excited about it. So don’t give up hope. It’s there. It might not just be as exuberant as another child’s or your own love of nature.

Sonya: It might look different, that’s true. And I’m assuming, as a good mom, you don’t say “I told you so.” I mean now, as an adult, or maybe just once in a while?

Karen: Maybe in teasing. We have that relationship, so, it’s good.

Sonya: So now, was that child a teen when this happened? Because there was a question in here about teens.

Karen: He was approaching the teens and then it continued through his teenager years.

Sonya: All right. So what are some other ideas for teenagers then?

Karen: Allow them to make their own connections. That’s very important. We are all going to make our own connections with whatever we are educating ourselves with, whether it’s out in nature, a literature book, or a history time period. We could read the same book, but we’re not going to come away from it with the same connections.

Allow your children to make their own connections. We are all going to make our own connections with whatever we are educating ourselves with, whether it’s out in nature, a literature book, or a history time period. We could read the same book, but we’re not going to come away from it with the same connections.

Sonya: Yes. We can listen to the same piece of music, look at the same piece of art, hear the same poem. Absolutely.

Karen: The same is true about nature. We could see the same butterfly and both come away with something different about it. Again, expose them to a wide variety. There’s more to nature study than plants, animals, and birds. Find those other things that they might be interested in. And even if they’re not, give them a chance to try them all. Remember that we are all unique individuals. What you like may not be what your child likes.

Sonya: And we have to allow that, especially in a Charlotte Mason approach; the child is a person. Let that particular, unique person grow in that unique way.

Karen: Yes. Allow him the freedom to make his own connections in his own way. Don’t force him to conform to your ideas of how it should be or what it should look like.

Sonya: So it sounds like we’re continuing to present the opportunity to connect with nature. We continue to present those opportunities. We model our own enjoyment of and interest in nature, but we don’t force, we don’t pressure, we don’t push.

Karen: Right. We do have our schedule. This is nature study time.

Sonya: And you will participate.

Karen: You will participate. But what goes in that nature journal, how he records it, that’s your child’s connection to the world of nature, not yours. So it’s his own.

Sonya: So you can say, “I want you to put something in your nature journal.” It has to be some kind of connection, but we’re not going to make a stipulation of what it has to look like or what it has to read like.

Karen: Yes. Also, remember that nature study might look a bit different in those teen years than it did when your child was young.

Sonya: How’s that?

Karen: Well, younger children have more time, for one thing.

Sonya: That’s true. Their school lessons don’t take as long.

Karen: And everything is new to them, so there’s that natural curiosity of the world around them already. A teenager has had more experiences. A teenager might want to focus on those areas that most interest him instead of the general “Let’s hit everything.” Allow him that freedom to do that. Teens have so many more demands on their time than a young child does. So keep that in mind.

Sonya: That’s a good point. So “Come on nature study with us, but you don’t have to learn about the monarch butterfly again.”

Karen: Yes. Children who grow up enjoying being in nature generally continue enjoying being in nature for their whole lives.

Sonya: It’s not, “Let’s drag the child kicking and screaming. Any child dragged kicking and screaming on nature walks every week is going to grow up to enjoy nature.” That’s not what we’re saying.

Karen: Correct. If your children enjoy being in nature, they will enjoy it as adults as well.

Sonya: So our big challenge is to make it as enjoyable as possible. Okay, while we’re talking about making their own connections and what they put in their notebook, there’s a related question about the nature journal. Let me read that for you. 

Question: My question is, how can I encourage the slightly older kiddo who does not feel he is able to draw, does not want to try, seemingly because he thinks he will be bad at it, and is overly critical of his own efforts? Even while he is being supportive of their younger siblings? How can I encourage or support this child and help him try this out?”

Karen: First, I’m going to say it again, the journal is your child’s own. What goes in it, and how it goes in, is your child’s decision. So remember that. That is important.

Sonya: So if the child doesn’t want to show you? I mean, you need to see that he put something in there, but it doesn’t have to be more than just “See, that’s it.”

Karen: Right. But don’t critique it. Don’t grade it. You can say something nice about it, that’s fine.

Sonya: If they’ll show it to you that long.

Karen: If they’ll show it to you that long. But it is your child’s thing. It’s very personal. I mean, how many people go around showing you what they’ve written in their diaries, if they keep one?

Sonya: Not until they’re dead and gone and it gets published in a book.

Karen: So this is not quite the level of a diary, but. . .

Sonya: Yeah. It is still personal.

Karen: It’s very personal. Let him make his own connections. It’s okay to share your connections with your child, but don’t insist that your connections be his connections. We’re all different.

Sonya: Yes. Let him notice something else about it, and if that’s where his observation is drawn, let him go there.

Karen: Allow your child’s personality to shine through. You might like to draw in your nature journal, but your child might not like to do that. Your child may want to just jot down some notes. There are many ways that we can record what we have connected with in nature. He can sketch; it does not have to be a detailed drawing. Sometimes it can be just a sketch. Maybe your child enjoys painting with watercolors. I don’t, but maybe your child does.

Sonya: Well, and we did a talk with Richele recently. We did a blog post and a podcast episode where the two of us talked about how our nature notebooks are not artistic, beautiful drawings and paintings. And then we talked about how Richele’s is and how she got to that point and ways that we can take steps toward improving that. But, it’s not during the nature notebook time, there’s the clue. You practice at a different time, but you can take a look at those posts as well.

Karen: Yes. Maybe your child enjoys drawing in detail. Give him that time to do that.

Sonya: Oh, yeah, without rushing him on past.

Karen: You can always take a picture, but make sure the child doesn’t just snap any old picture for the notebook. Have him look for interesting angles to take a picture of something. How can he make it interesting? Let him study the specimen before he takes the picture to determine that.

Sonya: What would be the best angles? Or, he could take two or three photos to show two or three aspects of that specimen.

Karen: Yes. So maybe it’s a mushroom. Maybe he gets a picture of the cap. Maybe he gets a picture of the gills underneath or the whole thing—the stem, the gills, and the cap.

Sonya: Or, it could be a relation to size, to what’s beside it or any or all of those things. So we’re slowing him down to observe, even if he’s “just snapping a picture.”

Karen: Some children enjoy making videos. Let him make a video of him outing. That’s still a record of what he’s seen.

Sonya: Yeah, we did that last summer when we had all of these big spider webs on our front porch. We would sit out there every day and just watch the spiders. They were fascinating. We would take videos; we would see them spinning their webs, and we’d take videos of them spinning their webs. As we were taking the video, we were observing, at least I was, it was like, “Oh, which leg is he using?” And “How is he doing that?” And “Oh, he got to this end and now he’s coming back. Oh, he is using a different leg this time.” So it caused observation.

Karen: Yes. It did. And in my family, we’ve done videos of egg-to-butterfly for monarchs and other time-lapse videos.

Sonya: Didn’t you do a time lapse once of eggs getting hatched in a nest? It was a long time ago. I think Doug set up a cam.

Karen: Yeah, we’ve done things like that too. That one was outside our bedroom window. We hung the camera up above it so we could observe the bird, the eggs, the hatching, the parents feeding the birds, and when they fledged, yes. So there are many things you can do. Maybe your child wants to do a time lapse of the clouds moving in for a storm or something like that. There are all sorts of things that he can do.

Sonya: So the main focus is what can you observe, not necessarily the medium you use. That’s secondary to the goal of observing.

Karen: Correct. Some children enjoy making impressions of things. Maybe it’s a leaf rubbing or a bark rubbing so they have a record of the texture of something or the shape. Maybe they want to press flowers or some other plants so they have that record too. So there are many different ways that your child can record things that reflects his personality.

Sonya: And it sounds like as the child gets older, he might then have the skill and the dexterity and the means of doing any or all of these, branching out.

Karen: Or anything that he might think of that we haven’t even mentioned. There are so many different ways that could be done.

Sonya: Yes. That’s great. Thanks very much, Karen. I’m looking forward to a bunch of other questions coming your way, so get ready.