I don’t know about you, but usually when I think about nature study I picture a beautiful spring day with a lovely breeze and gorgeous sunshine—really nice weather. We’re all happily walking down a lovely path, smiling at the flowers and the trees, and the little bunny rabbits are frisking about . . . . It’s not realistic, but that’s where my mind likes to go.
I don’t usually think of snow and ice and freezing temperatures when I imagine nature study. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that it’s so difficult sometimes to get outside during the winter days. When the weather isn’t very inviting. But Charlotte Mason encouraged us to do nature study all year round—even in the middle of winter. How do we do that?
Well, my friend and coworker Karen Smith is here to give us some ideas.
Sonya: Karen, you’ve got some great ideas for this because you live up north. I’m in Georgia, and our winters still get cold but not like up north. What’s winter like where you live?
Karen: Snowy, slushy.
Sonya: How snowy are we talking here?
Karen: Not as snowy as where I used to live.
Sonya: Which was way up north: Michigan.
Karen: Yes, so now it’s much better.
Sonya: You love the cold and I love the heat, so it’s a good thing we live on different ends of the country.
Karen: Where I live we might get a few inches at a time. And sometimes it’ll melt before we get more, but not always. So there might be a foot of snow on the ground any given time during winter.
Sonya: What kind of temperatures are we talking?
Karen: Very cold. Often in January we will be in single digits or below zero.
Sonya: And the wind sure cuts through.
Karen: Wind blows a lot, and it’s gray and it’s cold and it’s snowy—and it can be kind of dreary.
Sonya: So do you get really excited about going outside to do nature study when it’s like that?
Karen: I do!
Sonya: Why? What is there to see? Give us some ideas for nature study in winter.
Karen: Oh, there’s plenty to see. As usual, everybody has a sun and the moon. Actually, the winter time is a great time to observe the moon, because it gets dark earlier and the moon rises. Over the last several weeks here in November, I have noticed the moon when I take the dog out. I’ve been watching the phases of the moon. So you can see those at an earlier time, which is great for children.
Sonya: Especially younger children.
Karen: Yes, they won’t have to stay up too late to see the moon or the stars. You can always track the weather. But some of the things that you can do, that you don’t do in the warmer weather, is see the shapes of the trees now; you can notice the bark; you can see the buds and watch them throughout the winter and see how they change. The buds are on the trees for next spring already.
Karen: Yes. Watch how they change during those cold weather months.
Sonya: Now I want to go outside.
Karen: You can catch snowflakes on dark fabric and look at them with magnifying glasses. Do it outside so they don’t melt.
Sonya: I was going to say, “Aren’t they going to melt?” But if you stay outside, they won’t.
Karen: Yes, you can do that. You can put out a heated bird bath so that you can watch the birds; along with your bird feeders, it gives one more thing to do.
Sonya: (laughing) Okay, how heated? Because I’m seeing little birds in a hot tub.
Karen: Oh, just enough so it doesn’t freeze. I have one. It has an electrical cord on it, and you plug it in and it just keeps it from freezing. The birds love it. There will be snow all around it, and the birds taking baths. It’s fascinating. You can notice how the wind drifts the snow.
Karen: Have you ever noticed that? The way it looks.
Sonya: When I grew up, we lived in the country and we had a gravel road in front of us. Depending on where the trees were—there was a line of trees, evergreens, and the snow would always drift close to six feet right there, because the wind would push everything to that location and block the road. I never thought of that as nature study.
Karen: Oh, it’s nature study, because you’re studying the wind and how it affects things around you.
Karen: You can look for tracks in the snow. Not just tracks, but birds will leave wing prints in the snow also.
Karen: Yes, when they take off or when they land. So there’s all kinds of things you can look for in the snow. You can look for seed pods on plants. You can look for insect egg sacs or cocoons and things like that.
Sonya: Those are around in winter?
Karen: Definitely. Some insects’ eggs over-winter, or they over-winter in their cocoons and they emerge in the spring. You can collect rocks in the warm weather months and save them for examining in the winter time.
Sonya: So you would do that in your house?
Sonya: You can do nature study inside?
Karen: Yes, you can. You can sprout seeds and watch them grow. You can force flower bulbs. There are even kits you can get to do that.
Sonya: We did an amaryllis one winter.
Karen: You can do that, and you can draw it in its different stages and observe it everyday. You can watch the bird feeders and the bird bath from the window without even having to go outside. Change the bird feed, or put out different feeders, and see what kinds of birds you can attract and how they’re different. And what their preferences are.
Sonya: Yes, some birds like the sunflower seeds.
Karen: Some like peanuts.
Sonya: Some like suet.
Karen: So there are all kinds of things that you can do.
Sonya: Would you recommend a pair of binoculars at the window to observe the birds, or what do you think?
Karen: If your bird feeders are not right next to the window, like mine are, yes.
Sonya: Or they have the ones that you can attach right to the window.
Sonya: Do those work in the winter as well?
Karen: Yes, definitely. Birds go wherever there’s food. You can watch and observe if there are any mammals that come to your feeders in the winter time also.
Sonya: Oh, squirrels. My mom is always talking about the squirrels stealing the bird feed.
Karen: I actually have shrews that come and eat the seeds also. But you have to watch for them, because they tunnel.
Sonya: Oh, wow.
Karen: So you have to notice where their tunnels are. But all that is part of observing what is happening outside.
Sonya: Now, observing those types of things would take some time.
Karen: It could take a lifetime.
Sonya: Well, yes; but I mean if you’re going to see these holes or watch the shrew, if you’re outside in the winter trying to take your time to look at the buds on the trees or something like that, it can get very uncomfortable out there when it’s so, so cold.
Sonya: I looked it up, and it was interesting to me that Charlotte Mason lived in Ambleside, England, and their winters were averaging between 32 and 42 degrees.
Karen: Yes, they’re very mild there for as far north as they are.
Sonya: Yes, somewhat. But they would also get rain more than half of the days. So we’re talking probably very cold rain and probably good winds because you’re out in the lake district, not in the middle of town. So you’ve got wind and rain and not-that-warm (compared to Georgia) of temperatures. Do you have any tips or advice for people who need to go out to do nature study in those less than ideal conditions, just to stay comfortable? You can stay outside much longer if you’re not freezing to death, you know.
Karen: Correct and yes, I do have advice.
Sonya: Oh good.
Karen: Dress appropriately for the weather. I have a young mom who’s my friend, and her young children are outside in all kinds of weather because she goes by the Swedish proverb that there is no bad weather but there is bad clothing.
Sonya: What kinds of things do you recommend, and is this expensive?
Karen: It does not have to be expensive. If you’re in a colder climate like I am, warm winter jackets and hats or gloves and mittens and all that type of thing. Those are a must. And of course, if it’s 10 below outside with a windchill that’s colder than that, don’t stay out for an hour.
Sonya: Yes, some conditions are life threatening.
Karen: Know the limits. Maybe you can only go out for a few minutes. That’s okay. Observe something while you’re out there. If you live where it might be rainier in the winter time, get rain coats. Take the kids out. You can still layer underneath them.
Sonya: That’s true, you can have those ponchos and good rubber boots for rain.
Karen: So you can stay dry and warm in any climate. Dress appropriately.
Sonya: What do you do with nature notebooks when you’re outside all bundled up and your hands are in the nice warm mittens? What do you do then?
Karen: Observe what you can while you’re outside. If it’s a milder day, you can bring your notebook out there, and maybe that’s the time that you look at the buds on the trees, so you can draw a sketch. Maybe you take a picture while you’re out there, real quick, and then bring it in and draw while you’re inside. You don’t always have to draw, either. You can just remember some of the things that you saw and make notes of it in your nature book.
Sonya: Once you get back inside?
Sonya: That makes total sense. So do you have any encouragement for a homeschool mom or dad who’s just feeling completely unmotivated about getting outside during the winter to do nature study?
Karen: Open your eyes and see what is out there in your area to see. Don’t keep wishing you lived where it was warmer or where there were more nature things to see. But see what’s in your area and enjoy it.