Have you ever noticed that the question When? has many facets? For example, if a person asked, “When should we go to the park?,” the reply could be any number of things.
The person asking might be a mama who has an older soccer player and a newborn in her household. She might be addressing the doctor, asking for help in determining the best age for the newborn to venture out to that practice field: “When should we go to the park?”
Or the person asking that same question could be a dad who is trying to coordinate schedules in a one-vehicle family. “When should we go to the park?” in that situation might mean that he needs to know what time would work best to use the van today and take the children to burn off some energy on the playground.
It’s the same thing when someone asks us, “When should I do nature study?” That question can mean different things to different people.
So we’re going to do our best to address several facets that could be included when a homeschool parent asks that question. We will talk about nature study’s place in your school schedule, what it might look like for different ages of children, and how to handle nature study throughout the seasons.
Nature Study in Your Schedule
For those of you with preschoolers, time outside is vital—the more, the better! You won’t be doing formal nature study at that age, but you will be getting your young child in the habit of spending time outside regularly, looking intently at all that is around him. Charlotte Mason encouraged time in nature every day for younger children.
“It is infinitely well worth the mother’s while to take some pains every day to secure, in the first place, that her children spend hours daily amongst rural and natural objects” (Home Education, p. 71).
For school-age children, your goal is at least one half-day a week outside. Charlotte considered that time to be “an essential condition” of a living education (that’s what the Latin phrase means in the following quote):
“It seems to me a sine quâ non of a living education that all school children of whatever grade should have one half-day in the week, throughout the year, in the fields” (School Education, p. 237).
And when you consider all of the benefits of spending time outside that we discussed last time, it’s easy to understand why she put such emphasis on it.
Practically, it works well to schedule nature study after lunch, when the book work is complete. However, feel free to make adjustments to best fit your climate and the time of year. The temperature in England during an afternoon in June is vastly different from that same afternoon in Georgia. While it is good for children to experience the shift in temperature throughout the year, we also need to keep health and safety in mind.
Your children will likely respond more enthusiastically to spending time outside if the temperature is at least somewhat user-friendly. So when the weather heats up in your area, you might want to spend time outside first thing in the morning when temperatures are cooler. It’s up to you to pick a time that works best for your situation. You have that freedom. Just remember that the goal is to spend a generous amount of unhurried time observing nature at least one day per week.
Nature Study at Different Ages
Begin regular time outside when your child is young. During those early years, the child can keep a nature journal if he wants to, but it should not be required. The main thing is to allow him plenty of time to become familiar with the nature friends around him. Occasionally point out something you notice in nature, but be careful that you don’t overwhelm the child with a flood of talk or force a science lesson. You want the child to grow up with a habit of enjoyable time outdoors.
Charlotte reassured us that it is not the parent’s job to entertain children during time outside. So many possibilities exist in nature for pretend-play objects! If your child has grown dependent on man-made objects for playtime, consider going to a location that doesn’t have a playground or at least starting in the part of the park farthest from the playground, so the child can more easily focus on nature and begin to discover what versatile play equipment nature provides in trees, sticks, acorns, rocks, leaves, and the like.
While playing outside is not formal nature study, it is laying the foundation of the habit and the introduction of nature around the child. And perhaps most importantly, it is teaching the child to care about God’s creation from the time he is very young.
School-age students (ages 6 and up) can be gently guided to intentionally observe nature closely and carefully. Sometimes it works well to have a specific focus in mind; for example, you might go looking for spiders or mushrooms or cloud formations. Those guided studies help provide students with ideas of what kinds of things to look for. The book Journaling a Year in Nature offers guided prompts for every season of the year.
An important part of any nature study is identifying what you are looking at, but keep in mind that learning a nature object’s name is only the beginning. Learning its habits is the goal. Spend time with it, watching and waiting to see what it does. Revisit it to find out what is happening during the different seasons of the year. Over time, your child will get to know that nature friend so well that he will recognize it in other locations too.
Older, more experienced nature students can expand on their studies, focusing on aspects of nature that are of special interest to them. Perhaps an older student has formed a strong connection with flowers and wants to cultivate a flower garden in the yard. Another older student might express a deep interest in birding and want to devote more time to pursuing that hobby. Encourage your students to keep their nature studies well-rounded, but at the same time, areas of particular interest should be nurtured.
Students of school age should keep nature journals—a record of their observations and their growing relation with God’s creation around them. One of the upcoming posts in this series will be devoted to the practice of keeping a nature notebook. We’ll talk about details then.
Nature Study throughout the Seasons
Charlotte Mason spent about an hour and a half outside every day throughout the year. And she encouraged us to do nature study all year long, too, so the children could see the changes that the different seasons bring.
Now, most homeschool parents I talk with can handle nature study in spring and autumn. It’s not too hot and not too cold, and there are plenty of nature things to see. Summer isn’t too hard either; it might only require a change in the time of day that you go outside. But for many of us, winter brings a challenge. Somehow it’s harder to step outside when the temperatures are low and the wind is high.
I have to admit that I used to think that Charlotte Mason had an unfair advantage doing her nature study in the Lake District of England. The landscapes are gorgeous! I would think, Of course, she talked about nature study all year round. Look at all the beauty there. It must have been easier for her than for me.
But then I did some research. Lake District average temperatures usually hover between 45°and 60°F. And while they have little, if any, snow, they have to deal with a climate that is almost always rainy and windy. Every day. In fact, the chance of having a sunny day is rarely greater than 20% year round! Doing nature study in Charlotte’s region of the world was not idyllic. There are challenges no matter where you live.
Charlotte’s challenge was rainy, windy, and cloudy weather most every day, but she didn’t use that as an excuse. In fact, she offered some great ideas for year-round nature study that we can also use, no matter what climate we’re in.
- Keep a nature calendar throughout the year. You can record the children’s observations of all the “firsts” — the first oak leaf, the first snowfall, the first robin, the first ripe blackberries. Then the next year they will know when and where to look for their favorites.
- Do month-by-month studies to follow how the same nature object or location changes as the seasons progress.
- Select a few trees to follow throughout the year. I love how she described this one: “Children should be made early intimate with the trees, too; should pick out half a dozen trees, oak, elm, ash, beech, in their winter nakedness, and take these to be their year-long friends” (Home Education, p. 52).
- In winter months, learn to identify birds and their songs. Charlotte explained that it can be easier to see the birds in cold weather when they come into view more freely to search for food. Hanging a bird feeder will give you an advantage. Keep in mind that many birds leave northern climates when it gets cold, and most birds don’t sing their songs until spring mating season. So you can also use the winter months to study a bird’s identifying features and listen to its songs on a field guide app or website. Then you’ll be better prepared to notice and identify those birds when out in the field.
This post on Nature Study Ideas for Winter will give you more possibilities culled from a variety of sources to help you keep nature study going all year long.
So far in this series we’ve looked at Why and When. Next time we’ll discuss How you do nature study. But don’t just sit and wait for that article. Go outside this week and look at nature around you!