Charlotte Mason Nature Study Object Lessons

Nature study is such a great way to help our children (and ourselves) develop a personal relation with God’s creation around us. Some children take to it quite naturally; others appreciate a little guidance and encouragement. That’s where object lessons can help.

When Charlotte encouraged us to use object lessons to supplement nature study, she was talking about noticing a natural object in its natural setting and using guided-discovery questions to help your child focus on particular aspects of it in order to sharpen his skills of observation.

For young children, these little lessons can be almost like sensory games. For example, a mother out in the woods with her children might ask, “What sounds do you hear? Close your eyes and see if you can mention them in order from loudest to quietest.”

An older child, on the other hand, might be encouraged to look at a specific aspect of, say, a butterfly that the family comes across in their weekly nature walk. The parent might direct his attention to the shape of its wings and ask how that shape compares to other butterflies he has observed.

Be sure to give the child space to form his own relations and make his own observations in nature study. Simply supplement those with a gentle object-lesson type question or two every once in a while, as the occasion calls for it.

But don’t overdo it. There is a big difference between offering one or two guided-discovery questions when you happen upon a nature object of interest versus peppering the child with a string of questions about everything he sees. Object lessons should be occasional and done as the opportunity arises.

“Object-lessons should be incidental; and this is where the family enjoys so great an advantage over the school. It is almost impossible that the school should give any but set lessons; but this sort of teaching in the family falls in with the occurrence of the object. The child who finds that wonderful and beautiful object, a ‘paper’ wasp’s nest, attached to a larch-twig, has his object-lesson on the spot from father or mother” (Parents and Children, pp. 182, 183).

That “on the spot” object lesson does not have to be exhaustive; in fact, it should not attempt to cover everything you can possibly think of about that object. Rather, picture object lessons as small, constant touches that add up to better observation skills. Feel free to focus on just one quality or aspect of the object, knowing that you are gently giving your child a bit more training in how to observe closely and carefully in nature. (Of course, if the weather is inclement, you could bring the object inside; but looking at it outside in its natural setting is preferred.)

“It is unnecessary in the family to give an exhaustive examination to every object; one quality might be discussed in this, another quality in that” (Parents and Children, p. 183).

It’s all about encouraging your child to employ all of his senses—look, listen, touch, smell—and then compare and contrast his discoveries with what he already knows. Now, your child probably won’t go down a strict mental checklist next time he sees a beetle, or something. He most likely won’t step through each of his senses consciously: What do I see? What do I hear? What do I smell? How does this compare? But he will have more tools in his nature study observation toolbox that he can use, because he has been trained how to observe closely and carefully. The result of occasional object lessons will be a child whose senses have been trained. Because of those small, constant touches of guided discovery, he will start to observe and learn more in his individual nature study.

“A boy who is observing a beetle does not consciously apply his several senses to the beetle, but lets the beetle take the initiative, which the boy reverently follows: but the boy who is in the habit of doing sensory daily gymnastics will learn a great deal more about the beetle than he who is not so trained” (Parents and Children, p. 189).

This might be a good spot to insert a gentle reminder about something you probably already know but it doesn’t hurt to mention. Your child is going to take his cues in nature from you. Your attitude toward the various nature objects around you sets the tone.

Some of you may have felt an aversion rise up within yourself when I talked last time about seeing an eastern kingsnake. I understand, believe me. Now, I didn’t have as much of a problem with the kingsnake because (1) I had warning that it was there—one of the children spotted it and called us over to look; (2) it was several feet away from me; and (3) it was down on the bank of the pond, while I was standing on a little platform about five feet above it. All of those factors gave me enough space to collect my nerves and cover any anxiety I might have felt.

But last week was a different story. We were on the road, traveling home from a convention. We had just checked in to our hotel and decided to walk down the quiet street to a restaurant at the bottom of the hill. As we walked, we were talking, and I was busy looking around at eye-level for any traffic. Then my daughter swerved her steps, and at the same time I saw, out of the corner of my eye, something big and black and curvy down on the ground by the side of the road. I don’t remember whether I jumped or gasped first—probably both at the same time. It was a blacksnake, about six feet long. (Although, I admit, I might have measured it with my nerves instead of with my logic.) The next thing I noticed is that it wasn’t moving. That was good, but I was still on edge until I noticed a small pool of blood near its mouth. It was dead.

Now, I would like to say that we stopped and had a wonderful natural object lesson right then, but that’s not what happened. I kept walking and glancing over my shoulder to make sure it stayed put. I might have shakily mentioned that it was a blacksnake, but that was about it.

I had another chance, though. During our meal at the restaurant, I had the distance and the time to recover my wits, and then Charlotte’s counsel came back to mind.

“If [the children] see that the things which interest them are indifferent or disgusting to you, their pleasure in them vanishes, and that chapter in the book of Nature is closed to them” (Home Education, p. 58).

I did not want to be an obstacle or a stumbling block to my daughter’s interest in all the things in God’s creation. I did not want to be the reason that “chapter in the book of Nature” was closed to her. So on the way back up the hill, as we returned to the hotel, I was prepared—both mentally and emotionally. We stopped for a few minutes to take a closer look at the snake and try to figure out what had killed it.

It’s not always easy, but it is always worth the effort. Our personal interest in nature around us creates an atmosphere of interest that draws the children in. In other words, the way to secure your child’s interest in a natural object is to be interested in the object yourself.

“Our constant care must be to secure that they do look, and listen, touch, and smell; and the way to this is by sympathetic action on our part: what we look at they will look at” (Parents and Children, pp. 192, 193).

Practice using all of your senses in nature study and encourage your child to do the same—both through incidental object lessons and through your positive example.

One great way to do a combination of personal observation and object lessons is with a nature project. Next time we’ll give you some ideas for projects that can add a lot to your children’s up-close experiences with nature.


  1. Natural Object Lessons

    We recently found a black widow spider sitting (alive, but not very) on the bottom of our pool. We scooped it out and observed the red hourglass markings, abdomen shape, the glossy blackness and discussed how they like to hide in dark niches.

    The next day, my son discovered one on our doorstoop. Boy was I glad we had taken the time to really look at it the day before. He knew not to get too close and could identify it.

  2. Sometimes it’s hard to get past our “fear” but I’ve found the more I’ve done so over the years, the easier it gets. I grew up in a family where my grandmother would scream, run, and lock doors if she saw a garter snake (we live in Western WA…not much over here). I grew up with the same fear although not quite to the extent she had it. Last October we came across a deceased garter. He was truly beautiful and healthy looking. I found myself carrying it back to the campsite, setting it on the table, and allowing my kids to explore. They were so fascinated. The yr old measured it, drew it, etc. My “bigs” enjoyed the process too. Just yesterday we were looking over the pictures of the beautiful creature. Now, with that said, we just got back from Eastern OR where rattlers like to take over prairie dog burrows. I was a bit jumpy every time the 3 yr old got too close. lol

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