Charlotte Mason Nature Study Living Science Books

I hope you have been enjoying our series on nature study. We have talked about why Charlotte Mason included nature study in the curriculum line-up, when we should do nature study, the big picture of what it looks like, and some specifics on creating a nature notebook. Today we’re going to discuss what we need to add to nature study to provide a complete and well-rounded science education for our children.

As wonderful as Charlotte Mason-style nature study is, it does have its limits. Charlotte was aware of those limits, and she did not use nature study exclusively. She supplemented nature study with three things: living science books, object lessons, and nature projects. We’ll focus on living science books this time, then address the other two activities in the coming weeks.

“Charlotte Mason advised us to involve children directly with the world, letting them enjoy, wonder, and question themselves. She included direct observation and accurate recording from the earliest age. At the same time, she would have us hunt for ‘treasure’—books which open up the wonder and excitement of the created world” (For the Children’s Sake, Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, p. 133).

Living science books bring much to the feast of learning.

First, they allow the student to verify what he has already observed for himself during nature study. Charlotte was firm on the point that science education should include both elements: living books and personal time in nature. She said, “Now the knowledge of Nature which we get out of books is not real knowledge; the use of books is, to help the young student to verify facts he has already seen for himself” (Parents and Children, p. 261).

But if you think about it, no one person can see all there is to see in nature firsthand. So a second purpose of living science books is to fill in gaps in our learning. Distance can be a factor; most of us will not be able to do nature study in person around the globe. Accessibility is also a factor; some animals are rarely seen once in a lifetime, let alone available for prolonged observation at regular intervals in a year.

Several years ago at my favorite park, one of my daughters spotted a beautiful snake curled up on a rock down by the edge of the pond, soaking up the heat from the sun. We watched it for a while, but it stayed still. It was covered with dirt, which made it hard to identify what kind of snake it was. So I took some pictures and used them to eventually find out that it was an eastern kingsnake. From that day to this, we have never seen that snake again. I look for him often, but he is really good at staying out of sight. We have not been able to observe where he lives or what he eats or any of his other habits; and we probably never will. That’s where a living science book comes in. It can give us those missing details. We can read the observations that another naturalist recorded—one who did have extended access to the particular animal (or plant or rock or whatever) that we weren’t able to observe for ourselves.

And third, living science books give additional ideas of things to look for when we are out in nature. When you read a good book written by a person who has a passion for a particular nature friend, you pick up more nature study ideas along the way. The author might explain what she observed and how she managed to gather that knowledge, and those comments can help you expand on and fine tune your own practices in nature.

But a lot of those benefits depends on the book. Not all science books will accomplish those goals. So let’s take a minute to talk about what makes a good living science book.

To supplement your outdoor work, look for books that have literary value. Books that will illustrate and shed more light on your own observations in the field.

“Of Natural Science, too, we have to learn that the way into the secrets of nature is not through the barbed wire entanglements of science as she is taught but through field work or other immediate channel, illustrated and illuminated by books of literary value” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 256).

A good living science book will put the reader right beside the naturalist in the field. It will touch your emotions, fire your imagination, and make it seem like you are there, observing right along with her.

“The children are put in the position of the original observer of biological and other phenomena. They learn what to observe, and make discoveries for themselves, original so far as they are concerned. They are put in the right attitude of mind for scientific observations and deductions, and their keen interest is awakened” (School Education, p. 238).

Look for two kinds of living science books: books that provide a broad overview and books that focus on one particular aspect of nature. Both kinds are profitable.

Our elementary science courses include both kinds. The main science books—for example, Pond and Stream, Outdoor Secrets, or Jack’s Insects—give a broad overview of plants and animals or insects that can be seen in God’s creation. The corresponding companion volumes (The Pond and Stream Companion, The Outdoor Secrets Companion, and the Jack’s Insects Narration and Nature Study Notebook) provide titles of additional books that are more focused. Those additional titles will allow your child to dig deeper into the specific aspects of nature that he met in the main book. Most of the recommended titles can be found at your library. If you can’t find the exact book recommended, your library should have other books on the topic that you can use to help your student learn more about nature friends that he may or may not meet in person.

You can also find a list of some of our favorite living science books on our website.

What are some living science books that you and your children have enjoyed? Share a couple of your favorite titles (and please include age recommendations) to help other CM homeschoolers who may be looking for great books to add to their nature study times.

Next time we will talk about something else you can add to nature study: object lessons.


  1. One of the best living science books we have read is Cubby in Wonderland which describes the natural and geologic wonders of Yellowstone National Park through the eyes of a cub black bear and his mother as they visit the park for the summer. I don’t have the book in front of me right now to give the author.

    One neat part of our experience of the book was that the very day we read about Old Faithful, we discovered a web cam of the geyser and were able to “watch” it erupt twice.

  2. For your Australian members, I’ve recently come across ;
    The Wonderland of Nature, by Nuri Mass,
    this was first published in 1964, and has now been revised and is distributed by Downunder Literature.
    The format is the author going out for walks with her two children and discovering different things. The book focuses on Insects, and has other (less extensive) information about spiders, plants and seashore.She has done beautiful line drawings to accompany the text. My dd7 likes the book. We can use it as a reference when we find an insect but I’m also reading it a chapter at a time to learn about things to look for.

  3. We loved the Burgess Bird Book, too, and now we’re really enjoying the Burgess Animal Book! Another favorite is James Herriot’s Treasury for Children.

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