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Nature Study in the City

Many of you know that Charlotte Mason was a big advocate of taking nature walks and doing nature study. She scheduled her students to get out into the fields one half-day every week, and Charlotte herself did a nature walk every day.

But Charlotte lived in a beautiful, rural setting in the picturesque lake district of England; she didn’t live in downtown London. Perhaps some of you are struggling with living in the middle of a city and figuring out how to do nature study with your children there. It is possible!

My nature study go-to person, Karen Smith, is here to give us some ideas.

Sonya: Karen, I’m so glad we’re going to be able to talk about this topic. Why do you think it is challenging for homeschool moms, or for anybody, to do nature study in the middle of a city?

Karen: I think because we forget that nature is all around us; and sometimes, instead of noticing what’s around us, we wish that we had other things.

Sonya: It’s true.

Karen: A different location.

Sonya: Yes, when I think of nature study, I picture the rolling hills . . .

Karen: The forest . . .

Sonya: And the beautiful lakes and woods and mountains and beaches—anywhere but right here.

Karen: Exactly.

Sonya: But nature is all around us, no matter where we live, even in the middle of a city.

Karen: Even in the middle of a city.

Sonya: So would you recommend that a homeschool family who lives in a city get outside the city to do nature study?

Karen: Sometimes, but they can do a lot of nature study in the city right where they live.

We forget that nature is all around us; and sometimes, instead of noticing what’s around us, we wish that we had other things.

Sonya: Like what?

Karen: Everybody can see the sun, the clouds, the sky; pay attention to the weather. Insects are everywhere, so you can always find insects wherever you’re at. Maybe stop and watch ants on the sidewalk someday. You can have plants, maybe a container garden, or even houseplants are nature.

Sonya: That’s true.

Karen: You can grow mold on bread.

Sonya: Some of us are really good at that.

Karen: But then examine it with a magnifying glass, or take several different pieces of bread and put them in different locations in your house and see how the mold grows in those different locations—one in light, one in dark.

Sonya: That sounds like a science experiment.

Karen: But it’s part of nature. Mold is nature.

Sonya: Good point.

Karen: So you can use science experiments, because experiments are just studying nature in a more controlled way. Even with that, you can study more abstract nature ideas, such as physics and chemistry, by doing experiments in your home. Grow crystals, rock candy; there are other crystals you can grow with common household items. So all of those are nature study things that you can do, and there’s more.

Sonya: One thing that I struggle with is, I think of nature so often as just what I can see; but there’s more to doing nature study than just what you can see. As you said, there is a lot that you can see in nature even in the middle of a city—the insects and the birds and all the other plants and things that you mentioned. But we also need to remember that nature study (as you’ve told me; I’m not bringing this up because I knew it just automatically but because you’ve told me this before), nature study is about using all of our senses.

Karen: Yes, as many as possible. You can listen for birds, the buzzing of the insects, all kinds of things. You have to kind of block out the airplanes and the traffic noise, but if you concentrate, you can do that. And perhaps that’s something that you do when you go to a park or maybe when you’re on vacation and you’re someplace else. You can notice the nature there, and How is it different from what you have in the city? Recently I read a comment from a mom on doing nature study. She lives in the city, and she mentioned that she’s taken her kids frequently for nature walks just in their city neighborhood. And it’s amazing the number of things that they notice that change over the years, and even over the seasons, because they’re so familiar with their neighborhood.

When you notice the details, that’s where the wonder starts to open up.

Sonya: Oh, that makes sense, because you’re going to see the same trees, the same whatever. When you said that you have to tune out the sounds of the city, I got this flashback: that’s exactly what I do when I go to my favorite park, because it is in the middle of a town. It’s not out in the country at all. I’m listening to birds and listening to the bees, all the insects and everything; but I have to pause whenever I try to get it on camera, like if I want to take a movie of this. Then I’m suddenly aware of the airplanes and the traffic. But otherwise I’m able to separate it auditorially. That makes total sense.

Karen: But using other senses, you can touch tree bark. Some insects, if you know what they are, you can pick them up and handle them. So there are things that you can touch and feel also. But look for those opportunities when you are outside.

Sonya: What about pets? Do they count?

Karen: Certainly, they’re nature. Observe your dog or cat or your goldfish or whatever you might happen to have. What does it eat? How does it eat? How does it behave? All those things are things that help you learn about nature.

Sonya: I know you have had dogs forever.

Karen: My whole life.

Sonya: And you’re like the “dog whisperer” in a way—to me you are. You have learned so much about their language, if you will, things that they can communicate to you just from observation. Is that how you have picked up on it so much?

Karen: Observation, and I have also read some books on canine behavior. Not instructional books, but books that were just somebody relating things that happened in their life, and those were things that I picked up from those books.

Sonya: So you can figure out what that dog is saying to you, because you’ve observed the position of the ears, the position of the tail . . .

Karen: The position of the body and how they move and that sort of thing.

Sonya: So there’s a lot more that we can observe about even pets than we might realize. . . . Maybe not goldfish.

Karen: There’s plenty to learn about goldfish too.

Sonya: So it seems like what you’re saying is, as you said, nature is all around us. The thing is, so often we don’t look at it as nature. We look at it as just the same old surroundings.

Karen: I think sometimes we’re looking for the big and exciting things to happen rather than looking at the details. And when you notice the details, that’s where the wonder starts to open up.

Sonya: I love that. So it’s very much about opening your eyes to what is around you.

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: It’s there. Thanks.

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