How Can I Get Started with Nature Study?

It seems like many Charlotte Mason home educators fall into one of two categories when we’re talking about nature study. Some of them fall into the category of, “I don’t know how to do this. How do I do it? I don’t know very much about nature myself.” And others might fall in the other category of, “I love nature so much, it’s such a passion. How do I not overwhelm my child?” And some of us are in the middle between the two. Today we want to talk about answers and ideas to help with all of that. As always, we’re going to Karen Smith, my go-to nature study person. If you haven’t seen the previous posts in this series, you can check them out here.

Sonya: Thank you, Karen. We have quite the collection of questions for today that we’re going to fire at you, and I’m sure you’ll have some great ideas. So let me give you a taste of the questions we’ve received that we want you to address today. The questions are about knowing too much, knowing too little, and supporting a love of nature. Basically, they are all “Help!” Here are the questions. 

Question: How do we organize ourselves as moms to make sure nature study happens in our school weeks? 

Question: How do we deal with the pressure to teach this subject well while knowing very little ourselves, and trying to just keep up with daily life demands?

Then another parent asked, 

Question: What’s the balance between mother leading and teaching during nature study and allowing the child to discover on their own? 


Question: What are some great resources for supporting nature studies through the years? I have young children and would love for all of them to develop a love for learning about God’s creation.

I think that’s the motivation for a lot of moms with nature study, at least I hope so. We want our children to love God’s creation and really be interested in it. So where do we start? Scheduling? Not knowing enough? Knowing too much?

Karen: Let’s start with scheduling.

Sonya: Okay. Scheduling. What that look like?

Karen: You should treat nature study like any of the other school subjects that you teach your children.

Sonya: So it’s not just, “Uh, it might happen if I think of it and get to it.”

Karen: Yes. Put it on your schedule and stick to it. Yes, there will be times when you plan on going out and the weather is not cooperating. That’s okay. Make sure you do it the next week. It’s not something to panic about. “Oh, we didn’t get nature study done this week.” Just make sure you stick to your schedule as much as the weather will allow. But you wouldn’t skip math because you don’t know anything about it. You still do math.

Sonya: Yes. You find the resources to help you do it. Even if you don’t know it very well yourself.

Karen: Nature study is the same. If you are not already in the habit of doing it, then you need to make sure that it’s on your schedule and do it. Just like you would any other school subject.

Sonya: So it’s about being faithful.

Karen: Make the time for it.

Sonya: Be faithful to show up. It’s so easy, when you get to that point on your schedule, as you said, to make an excuse.

Karen: “Oh, we’re done for the day. The kids are off running and playing. I don’t want to have them do one more thing.” Or, “It’s too much effort.”

Sonya: Or, when you said the weather’s not cooperating, some of us have a very small window of what cooperative weather looks like.

Karen: “It’s too hot. It’s one degree above what I like.” Or “It’s one degree below what I like.” Or “It’s kind of misty out. It might rain and I might get caught in the rain.” Go out in the rain. If it’s not thundering and lightning where it’s dangerous to be out there, your children will love being out in that rain.

Go out in the rain. If it’s not thundering and lightning where it’s dangerous to be out there, your children will love it.

Sonya: As long as they’re dressed appropriately. That’s the huge thing.

Karen: Even if they’re not, they can change in to dry clothes when they come in.

Sonya: Rub them down, then get them in a tub. That’s right.

Karen: That’s an experience of nature for them—being in the rain. You may look at it and go, “Ooh, rain.” But your children haven’t experienced being in rain yet. Give them that pleasant experience of being in the rain.

Sonya: Instead of rushing to get somewhere with it raining on you. So what I’m hearing is that in order to make it happen, just like any other school subject, it’s all about being faithful, and if it doesn’t work one particular time, that’s all right, as long as you’re faithful over the long haul. I like that. 

What do we want to talk about next? Resources to help the parent who doesn’t know very much and is uncertain? Or the parent who has a passion for this and just wants to make sure she’s leading well without being overwhelming?

Karen: Let’s do the not being overwhelming.

Sonya: Okay. So let’s take you as an example. You’ve got a passion for nature study. You know a lot about nature because you’ve done it for so many years. How do you go about leading children in nature study without overwhelming them? And just dumping it, backing up the dump truck?

Karen: It is very difficult for those of us who enjoy being in nature to contain our excitement about giving that knowledge to our children. We want them to like it so much, but we have to step back and give them time to explore, time to make their own connections in nature. It’s very difficult, but it’s essential to do that. You can still share your knowledge in nature with your child, but do it in small amounts. Give the child a time to connect and make his own connections. If your child asks a question about whatever he is observing, and you know something about it, feel free to share something, but don’t dump on him. If you don’t know, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know, but we can research that later.” You can find books. You can do an internet search. You can also just let it sit for a while and learn what you can. Sometimes, even years later, you don’t find the answers. And that makes a greater connection than that quick lookup on the internet to get the answer. So don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” You can share, obviously. If you have knowledge, share with your child. Just be careful not to dump information. If the child wants to know more, go ahead and tell him. Give him room.

Sonya: So you are kind of letting the child lead?

Karen: In a sense. Give your children room to make their own discoveries and observations because that’s where they’re going to connect the best. We all know that after a while, if we talk too much, our children tune us out. We may think that we’re giving them so much information and it’s great, but all they heard was the first sentence. It’s the same when you’re out in nature. It’s what Charlotte called the Quiet Schooling of Nature, and that’s what we’re aiming for.

Sonya: What you said just clicked in a different sense. When you talked about treating it like other school subjects, I was thinking about how every parent has one favorite school subject. It might not be nature, maybe it’s art.

Karen: Or history.

Sonya: Or music or literature or poetry. It could be whatever that parent’s favorite subject may be. For example, if we’re doing a picture study with our children, we don’t hold up the picture and immediately tell them everything we know about it. We let them discover first and then we guide them gently to maybe discover one or two other things. We maybe tell them something that they can’t figure out just by looking at it. But those lessons are very short, and they are not a dump of information.

Karen: And they’re one picture at a time. You don’t bring out everything that your favorite artist has ever created and put it before your child at once.

Sonya: Yes. So if we can take that same principle and put it in with nature study, that makes all sense in the world. Absolutely. Thank you for that connection. Ding. A little light went off there. So now what about for other parents, where this is not their favorite subject, this is not a strong suit for them? Are there resources that can help them?

Karen: First, let’s address, “I’m not an expert. I don’t know anything about nature. How do I teach my children?” Well, I am sure that there are other subjects that you teach your children that you don’t know much about. For some people that might be math, others it might be history or art. But you learn alongside your child. And you grow in your knowledge at the same time. Your child is at different levels because you have more experiences, but you don’t not teach math because you don’t know much about it. You know that math is important. Nature study is also important. If for nothing else, it gives our children an appreciation of knowing God through His creation and just seeing the marvels that He has created for us.

Sonya: But when you talk about “Math is not my strong suit” or “History’s not my strong suit,” there are resources, there are guides to help parents teach those subjects to their children. So many times we think we don’t have that guide for nature study, but you’ve created a guide that has been very helpful to me—Journaling A Year In Nature. This gives you ideas of what to look for every week in the different seasons. It’s not just “Go look at a tree,” or “Go look at mushrooms,” but what to look for. It’s just a couple of ideas and not overwhelming.

Karen: No. It’s different ways to observe different things in nature and prompts and directions for you so you have an idea. Because how many people, for whom nature is not a friend yet, go out and say, “Okay. Well, there’s a tree. I looked at it.”

Sonya: Raising my hand. I did that. You know I did that. We went in the backyard and identified an American beech tree. I got the name of it down. Then the next week we went back there and you know what? It was still there.

Karen: And it was still an American beech tree.

Sonya: It was. And I’m standing there going, “What do I do with this now?” Then you came and said, “Well, in the spring, you can look for this. And in the fall you can look for this.” So that’s what’s in Journaling A Year In Nature.

Karen: And you can look at the different features of the tree. It’s all in there. So for those who need a guide, there is a guide to help.

Sonya: Just as there is a guide to help with history or a guide to help with math. Excellent. What other resources have you recommended for those of us who are nature-study challenged?

Karen: The number one thing that I recommend is that you develop a curiosity for nature. God created it, and it’s all around us. And we, so many times, ignore it. We’re not curious about it. We have no enthusiasm for the nature around us. If you can develop even just a little bit of curiosity about what’s in nature, your children will catch that. If you have no enthusiasm, that’s going to color your child’s perception in nature. “Mom doesn’t like it. Why should I like it? Why is she making me do this? She obviously doesn’t want to be out here.” We have to be very careful. We all know that our children catch the habits that we model than the ones that we try to teach them. We need to be careful that we are modeling—even just a little bit of curiosity.

Sonya: Yes. It starts small.

Karen: They’ll also catch on if we’re faking it. Children are really good at knowing when we’re faking.

Sonya: It’s not like we have to be over-the-top faking it. But as you said, even if it’s just a little bit, and it’s not just, “I’m curious if the tree is still there.” That’s not going to work. It needs to be a little bit of curiosity and digging deeper.

Karen: Right. It could be why something is growing the way that it is. Or, “Why is there a certain mark on this tree?” Or anything like that. You might not have the answers, but it only takes a moment to investigate. It’s the curiosity and your own enthusiasm.

Sonya: That’s the atmosphere you’re creating.

Karen: There are resources that can help. For me, field guides are up there as number one. We want to know. We want to give a name to what we are seeing. Field guides are an excellent way of doing that. I know today there are ways that you can take a picture, and you can immediately get a name for what it is you’re looking at. That can be good sometimes, but it does not give you the added benefits of a field guide. In a field guide, you have to search for what you are trying to identify. As you make that search, you see other things along the way that are similar or are very different, and your brain catalogs those, and those are helpful for you when you’re out in the field. So don’t miss that opportunity to have that other knowledge that comes with using a field guide.

In a field guide, you have to search for what you are trying to identify. As you make that search, you see other things along the way that are similar or are very different, and your brain catalogs those, and those are helpful for you when you’re out in the field.

Sonya: I know we’ve talked about field guides before in another conversation. For people who are curious and are like, “But how do I use a field guide?” You walk them through it in that post. You go over using field guides, and you talk about what your favorite field guides are—what to look for in a good field guide. What other resources do you recommend?

Karen: Things that children love to use. Magnifying glasses are great for getting those closeup looks. You can get ones that have larger lenses in them, so even young children love to use magnifying glasses to look at things. A pocket microscope is great if you want to see something a little bit more up close. It’s not a full microscope, but you can see some things that you cannot see with a naked eye with it. It’s called a pocket microscope because it’s small and fits well in your pocket. It’s easy to take with you when you’re doing nature study. Another thing that can be useful is a set of binoculars. Binoculars are great for seeing things that are across the yard, or maybe something that is across a river or a creek that you can’t get to. They’re great for spotting birds that are way up in the tops of the trees. But you can also use them to look at the moon.

Sonya: Ah. But not the sun.

Karen: Not the sun. But you can look at the moon with them. They are not as powerful as a telescope, but they are easier to use, and you can see some of the features of the moon. 

Sonya: That is a great idea. And I know we’ve done an post on how to pick out a good pair of binoculars. We did that with Doug. Great. Any other resources?

Karen: Well, one thing that is very important is to make sure that when you go out in nature, wherever you go, that you are wearing appropriate clothing and shoes.

Sonya: Oh yes, shoes. As we were talking about in going out in the rain earlier, I was thinking that for rain, it would be a poncho or a rain coat, but I didn’t even think about the shoes. That can be very important.

Karen: You might want to send your children out in boots so they can stomp in the puddles, and they don’t get their other shoes all squishy and wet, because that’s not pleasant for anybody.

Sonya: And it saves you time. You don’t have to clean them then.

Karen: But also, if you are hiking in the woods, you don’t really want to wear sandals. You want sturdy shoes so you’re not going to stub your toe on a rock that’s in the path, or something like that. Protect your feet. Wear appropriate clothing. Wear appropriate shoes.

Sonya: What’s the saying about there’s no bad weather?

Karen: “There’s no bad weather. Just bad clothing.”

Sonya: Yes. You can dress appropriately for just about any weather.

Karen: There are other things that you might like to have, such as nature journals so you can record your observations. Your children can record theirs. If you have one, you can model for them how they can do this. And these are individual things, these are keepsakes. Let your child put in it what he wants to put in it. If he wants to draw, great. Bring pencils, colored pencils, watercolors. Whatever he likes to use, bring that. If he likes to just sketch, that’s great. If he doesn’t like to draw, maybe he can take a picture with a camera. He can print it out and put it in his nature journal if he likes. He can then write down some notes about what he observed.

Sonya: Or, you can write it down for him if he can’t write. I know we did many ways. We did a post, well there are two posts recently we did on nature journaling. One is if you’re not artistic.  Like us. And then I did one with Richele on how you can improve your artistic abilities with your nature notebook. We’ve got links all over the place here. There are so many resources.

Karen: Yes. Another way a camera can be useful is that sometimes, when you’re out in nature, you see something that you want to put in your nature journal, but it won’t sit still. 

Sonya: Oh that is so frustrating. You can’t draw it. 

Karen: That squirrel is hopping around all over the place and it won’t sit still. Or the chipmunk, or whatever, or anything. Take a picture of it, then you can draw from the picture. If you can’t identify it, now you have a picture that you can look at and reference when you’re looking through your field guides later.

Sonya: That is a great idea. So often, especially if you’re just learning how to sketch and draw, you really want to take your time because it’s not natural for you yet. You’re not as fluent. When people say a quick sketch, it’s like, “You’ve never seen my quick sketches.” This way, with the picture, you can take your time, as much time as you need. I love that idea.

Karen: And if your child does not like to draw and would rather take pictures, challenge that child not just to snap any old picture. Nature study is not just about the drawing or the picture that you might take. It’s about observing and seeing what we can in nature. A quick picture might be okay for identifying something later, or to draw from because the thing won’t sit still, but if your child’s using pictures from a camera to put in his nature journal, challenge him to take them from different angles or to show different features of what he’s doing. When he’s doing that, he has to observe what it is he’s taking a picture of and decide what’s going to show it best. 

If your child does not like to draw and would rather take pictures, challenge that child not just to snap any old picture. Nature study is not just about the drawing or the picture that you might take. It’s about observing and seeing what we can in nature.

Sonya: Oh, that’s a great idea. Wonderful. There are a lot of resources that can help parents who are trying to encourage children in nature study. It all comes back to the motivation. Being curious. It’s almost like having enough respect for what God has made and to spend time on it.

Karen: That’s a good way to put it.

Sonya: That we’re going to take the time to look at it closely.

Karen: Or at least notice it.

Sonya: And encourage our children to do the same. Great ideas. Thanks, Karen.