Since we are what I like to call “Charlotte Mason style agrarian homeschoolers”, people often ask how we do the nature study portion of our educating. I enjoy talking about this, because to me, nature study is one of the most important and rewarding things we can do with our children. Nature study, for us, is more of an everyday, all the time pursuit and less of a “subject” or part of a school day. We live and breath “nature study”.
The first and most important thing that everyone needs to remember is that for children to understand the natural world and God’s creation they must spend time outdoors. Although good literature, accurate field guides, and the like are important; nothing can replace spending time in the outdoors observing the wonders of creation. Seeing it…feeling it…smelling it….tasting it, these are what matter most. While all people rely on the natural world for food and fiber, our family does so in more direct way than most. We make our living from the land and our work is primarily outdoors. Our jobs and chores ebb and flow with the seasons and the weather. For our family, the outdoor world is not unfamiliar or foreign. It’s more like an old friend. When not working outdoors, we spend our leisure time there as well. Depending on the time of year, we might take off after chores to pick wild blueberries or black caps. We might decide at the spur of the moment to hike into the backwoods and build a camp from scratch, cook up some supper on a cast iron fry pan, and sleep under the stars. In the fall, we scout for fur and set traps. We often just take walks to see what we can see.
Seeing, my friends, is an art. In our age, only about one in twenty people see the single mink track in the mud on the edge of the stream, or the common red poll nest hidden in plain sight in the buck brush. Most people would walk right past the sleeping whitetail fawn without ever noticing her curled up on the edge of the hedgerow or the tiny salamander that blends perfectly into the rock he is sitting on. Most people are too distracted and absent-minded to notice their surroundings. To be observant, this is what we try to teach our children to be. If you can teach them to be observant, the rest falls into place.
How does one teach children to be observant? One way is through good literature, books that instill in the minds of children the intricate details of the natural world and it’s communities. These books may be read during “regular school hours” but for us they often are read at other times. Sometimes they are read for family readings, but many are read independently by the children because they love this sort of stuff. Here is a list of some of my favorites…
The Handbook of Nature Study
The Burgess Bird Book for Children
The Burgess Animal Book for Children
Scratching the Woodchuck: Nature on an Amish Farm
Our Bird Friends and Foes
Secrets of the Woods
The Natural History of Selborne
Great Possessions : An Amish Farmer’s Journal
Other books that are helpful in this area are good field guides. Our children count their various field guides as their prized possessions. Often after a trip to the woods or day working on the fence line, the first thing the children do when returning home is run to get their field guides to identify some new plant or creature they have discovered. Here are some that we really like…
Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign
A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern and Central North America
Peterson Field Guide to Mammals of North America: Fourth Edition
A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and central North America
Up North Again
Smithsonian Birds of North America
The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Rocks and Minerals
The Tree Identification Book : A New Method for the Practical Identification and Recognition of Trees
I know that many people have formal “nature study” projects during the normal school day. We have found that for the most part, nature study projects take care of themselves. It is a joy to watch the children develop certain interests in the many areas of natural science. My oldest son, John, is a lover of birds. In his “spare time” he loves to read about birds. The boy is a walking bird encyclopedia. He keeps lists of all the different birds he has seen, has video he has shot of many birds (mostly for the audio of the songs and calls) and he has a sketch book filled with just about every bird you can think of. Each of these sketches has been colored with colored pencils and marked with size, wing span and other information. His latest endeavor is painting birds. I should point out that none of these things were asked of him. None of these things were our idea as parents. Each of my children have developed similar interests and started their own projects. My experience has been that if you teach them to observe creation and give them the tools they need, “nature study” projects take care of themselves.
Some might wonder why nature study should have such a prominent place in a Christian’s education. We live in an age where mankind has been has, for all practical purposes, been removed from his natural surroundings, removed from the basic functions of life. This is a problem. God formed man from the dust of the earth, charged him with the task of turning the wilderness into a garden and gave him, within the natural world, all he needed for sustenance. The bible itself, speaks to us in language steeped in the common knowledge of nature and the workings of creation. When we study the natural world we can see the work of the creator and meditate on his great and mighty works. To neglect the study of nature we risk becoming gnostic and neo-platonic in our thinking.
This is, in a nutshell, our basic philosophy regarding nature study. I hope that if your family hasn’t included the study of creation in your schooling, you will consider doing so. It is a very rewarding part of my family’s life and I’m sure it will be in yours as well. If you are like me, a lover of nature study, perhaps I have mentioned a book or idea that you haven’t seen before. Whichever the case, May God bless you and guide you as you educate your children in His ways.