Today I have a guest post from my friend Joy Cherrick that I know will be helpful for parents thinking about doing nature study with their kindergarten (or younger!) children. Joy is a homeschooling mother of 6 following the Charlotte Mason philosophy. She has a passion for introducing children and adults to the beauty of nature and shares her simplified nature study plans on her website Naturestudyhacking.com (which we have used in our homeschool and love!). She also authors a monthly eNewsletter, Naturalist Monthly, where she shares nature journal prompts, nature lore, and other ideas for parents and children to learn side by side about the world they live in. You can see a sample lesson she provides for flowers here, or learn how to germinate beans in your window here!
I will be a lion
And you shall be a bear,
And each of us will have a den
Beneath a nursery chair;
And you must growl and growl and growl,
And I will roar and roar,
And then–why, then–you’ll growl again,
And I will roar some more!
Wild Beasts, by Evaleen Stein, 1863-1923
Mother as a Guide
When I first began trying to figure out just exactly HOW to do Nature Study with my children, I heard mothers say to do it casually: “just do it when you are outside with your children” or “it will just happen as you go.” Well, friends, that NEVER happened. I was always wrangling or distracted by one thing or another. In addition, it’s too overwhelming to go out into The Wide World without a plan.
You need a plan.
Your plan will begin with one topic to look for when you go out. Trees? Birds? Wildflowers? Clouds? Weather? Pick ONE! (Only one, please.) You may want to get all fancy and add a subcategory. Don’t do that, not at first. You need to actually get STARTED studying nature, and choosing ONE topic to study will help you get focused and have a sense of purpose to your time spent in nature. This is especially true if you are new to a region or new to learning to call things by name.
Once you choose your topic, say “trees,” you will notice how many trees in your neighborhood that you can’t name. That is OK! In fact, that means you are on the right track. Humility is essential to learning. From here, you will want to read a little bit about the topic you selected. (If you can’t find time, then find a book you will read to your children ABOUT your topic so that you can all begin learning about it together.) The absolute best place for a mother to start is to read the section in Handbook of Nature Study on the topic you’ve selected. This may take two or three sittings (remember you are only reading about ONE TOPIC [don’t get overwhelmed thinking that you have to read the whole tome!]), but it is full of worthy information that will help you talk with your children about how trees live and grow and how trees differ from one another, etc.
If you only have time to read to your child to learn about trees, I recommend The Tree Book for Kids and Their Grownups. This book will explain how a tree eats, what photosynthesis is, and it also has some delightful stories about some of the more common North American Trees. As you read to your children, it is really best if you only read one or two pages from this book at a time. This is because they introduce new concepts and explain some of the scientific terms. Sometimes that’s cool and sometimes nobody but mother cares. This too is just fine. Your education matters too! You can take some of this new knowledge on the road with you.
With your book learning under your belt, it is now time to go outside WITH your children. Charlotte Mason emphasizes this in Home Education, and I know that sometimes it is easy to ignore this as “charming” or “idealistic.” But, going out into nature with your children is not JUST good for them. It is good for you too, and it is good for your relationship with them. I enjoy taking a daily walk with my children. We don’t go far, just around our block. But this little habit has brought so much restoration and healing to us and has saved many days.
- Pick the ONE topic you are going to study this term or year.
- Read up a little about this topic so that you get acquainted with basic terms and categories. You can focus on how it eats and reproduces.
- Go outside WITH your children.
Now that you are outside with your children, let’s talk about your attitude. Are you dressed properly for the weather? If you are going into the woods, are you wearing the proper shoes so that you aren’t squeamish about meeting various wild creatures? We all have varying levels of comfort here, so let’s assume you are walking on a sidewalk in your suburban ‘hood. Please be dressed comfortably for the weather and elements you will face. (If you need more outerwear, I’ve had good luck just asking friends if they have unused things like raincoats or umbrellas. Even rain boots and snow gear can be easily found at thrift shops or online consignment for great prices. This is an investment in your family. If you have the right gear, you will find a way for your children to get the right gear as well).
Attire is the first step, but you will also need to remember that you are a co-learner with your children. Your wonder and curiosity will rub off on them, if it’s genuine. I think that a simple desire to learn is all that is required.
Please do not be a stick-in-the-mud or have a grumpy attitude for the entire outing. Set your expectations ahead of time. Let them know how to meet them. And, if they are very young or very new to exploring, then it may be helpful to spend the first five minutes practicing your guidelines. (For instance, they may not cross the street without you. Or no running ahead where they can’t be seen. Or, you may need to let them know that they are not allowed to play in the creek during this trip because you are in the middle of the school day and they will be free to come back after lessons, etc.) This is basic classroom management, but when it’s our own children, it’s very easy to forget that we need to tell them what we expect of them and then we end up putting out fires instead of enjoying the outing.
Now that you are properly dressed and you are wearing a smile on your tired face you are ready to head outside and see what comes your way. Though field days are lovely and necessary, I think that a regular outing around the place where you live can teach you and your family so much about the seasons in your area and plants that grow there. You may even end up making dear friends.
We did just this when we lived on top of a mountain. We met a woman who has become a good friend, and she kept the most glorious garden. She had many native species and had resolved to have blooms in her garden for Spring, Summer and Fall. Because of our daily walks, we were able to learn the names of many plants and birds and see many that I had only learned the name of and never met in person. We even got to see some monarch caterpillars “in the wild” eating milkweed leaves. What a gift for us all!
Mother as co-learner
Now that you are outside with your children and you have a topic, it is time to talk about guiding and studying alongside your children. You certainly won’t have all of the answers and this is good. One way to model humility is to actually be brought low enough to realize how much we truly don’t know. Which is so very much. One phrase that will work on your own mind and the minds of your children is…
When you wonder about things out loud, it can become a bit of a game.
This is not time to get out your phone and start googling.
I know it is tempting, but for now, just wonder. Let the questions you encounter out in the wild work on you all during your time outside together. When you get home or have a natural break, and the question is still working on your minds, then you can see if there is an answer. Sometimes there are only theories. That is fun too.
You may wonder: “I wonder what makes some mushrooms red and some white?” or “I wonder what a wasp eats?” Or, “that flower is beautiful, I wonder what it’s called?” (You can take a photo and look it up later.)
One time, we had been reading about bugs and had just learned about a spit bug. On our walk, we saw a stalk of grass at about eye level with a wad of spit resting between the stalk and the leaf blade. I was excited and said, “I wonder if there is a bug hiding inside that glob of spit!” I broke off a piece of grass and inserted it into the spittle. Sure enough, a little black bug was hiding inside. We returned him to his place, but we were now empowered with new information. We now can pass by a spit glob on a branch or grass and know that the little occupant is hiding away inside.
As a student, you will be making your own connections. You may even get excited enough to learn a few things on your own. This is great! Don’t feel like you have to deliver a lecture to your scholars about all that you’ve learned. Some of your new knowledge will be gradually shared over time. Sometimes, you may assault your husband or friends with your new information. Great! It’s fun to learn new things. Just don’t get too frustrated if your scholars don’t seem to care as much as you. In our home, enthusiasm catches, but it seems to have a lag-time. Perhaps it’s three months? Perhaps it will be years and years. But you loving and learning about nature will, if nothing else, teach them what it is to learn about and love a thing.
The Child’s Role in Nature Study
Child as Observer
It’s important to understand what your goals are for your scholars as you study nature together. In general, your main objective is that they will be able to notice the world around them with the hope that they will be able to call trees and flowers by name and have a general understanding of the way God’s creation works in harmony (or cacophony) with one another.
Your goal is NOT to make them love nature study. It is NOT to force them to memorize lists of trees or flowers or seeds. It is not to drill the kingdoms or phylum or species of each thing they encounter. You will be leading them to nature. The leading is what you can control. They will take what they will take. What affections they develop are not up to you. Don’t be discouraged if they aren’t excited about what you are excited about. That’s normal.
As you go out into nature and study it, remember that the chief objective for your scholars is that they would become aware of their surroundings and be able to observe nature for themselves. You may play a game if that is helpful.
In Home Education, Charlotte Mason also explains a memory game to help encourage observation and also develop oral composition skills. Lead the children into nature. Then, ask them to look around at all they see. Tell them to be careful to make a note of everything. Then, close their eyes and describe it all back to you. Take turns and see who can catch the most details and explain through all your five senses. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? What could you taste?
Your child’s role here is to simply be aware and observe. It is a delight to find that children can often remember much more than we can. They can even help us discover new things right under our noses.
Child as Co-learner
The most satisfying consequence of my decision to become more intentional with Nature Study has been seeing my children taking the reins of their own learning. Whether it’s pouring over encyclopedias or mimicking my Nature Journal entries, I can tell that they see me. But they have their own interests as well.
Sometimes a child’s interest will be piqued during an outing or a reading. We can encourage or dampen this tiny spark. As you would for a friend, you will be able to learn and grow and even give your child tools to learn more.
We’ve found that having books about the topic we are studying prominently displayed is important. Sometimes I’ll face out these books on the shelf which makes these books more likely to be picked up. Then, my readers are able to read for themselves about their areas of interest. Often, they will read to non-readers and help them also gain more knowledge apart from Mother. This self-education in a non-academic area is so important that it will also spread into other subjects.
Often, we will be learning about something and need to head to the map to see where in the world it comes from. From that discovery, we may find out about a war or a historic event that happened in that region, and this may lead us to learning yet another thing. Often, our studies are not easily tucked away into neat little boxes, but they bleed over into many subjects.
A Child Set Free (with purpose)
Going outside with your children for 10-20 minutes each day can’t be too much. Mothers need the sunshine and fresh air just as well as children. We also need to give our children time where they are free from our watchful eye to explore, climb, dig, etc.
In America, it is increasingly difficult to find children playing outside in neighborhoods together. Most of them are tucked safely inside their homes, glued to one blue light or another. If you are reading this, you are likely one of the few parents who crave less screen time and more time outside for your children. The first step to getting them comfortable playing outside for long stretches is for you to be outside with them. Often, what happens when you go out with your children is they see that the outside isn’t so bad. In fact, it is much more exciting than the walls inside. If they are having trouble staying outside, be sure they are properly dressed and go outside with them at first. Then you can slowly wean them off of needing you. Hand them a tool such as a shovel or a rope. Both of these can provide hours of interesting play for most children.
If you use screens regularly in your home, you may need to require a certain amount of time outside prior to allowing access to a screen. I have a hard rule that on beautiful days everyone must be outside. If I need to be in the kitchen or attend to the baby, I’m usually longing to join them because great weather refreshes me to the bone.
When children are outside without you, they are able to experiment and play in a way that is different from when you are on your walk with them. They may discover a bird’s nest or an ant climbing up their favorite tree. Sometimes my children will stop to watch the birds near our home and thus learn about their manners and habits. These unstructured moments are so valuable to the developing child because it allows them to not only learn about the world God created first-hand, but they are developing their executive function — they are making decisions for themselves about what they will or will not do. This is a skill that is almost non-existent in most students graduating from college. They’ve spent their entire childhood being told what to do and where to go so that when the real world requires that they make some decisions, many adults flounder. It’s very frustrating for employers looking to hire good people.
Anyway, let them play and get dirty and don’t hang over them assaulting them with stories about broken bones or broken necks. If you are that worried, set some limits, say your prayers and trust them to stay within the boundaries you’ve laid out. All will be well. And even when it isn’t, all will be well.
In His hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to Him. The sea is His, for He made it, and His hands formed the dry land. Psalm 95:4-5