When I first read Charlotte Mason's Home Education (you can read it online here thanks to Ambleside Online) I was very intrigued by the concept of Nature Study. I was made aware suddenly that there is much more to spending time outside than just getting out of the house. The benefits are manifold and rich and I have become absolutely convinced that not only is spending time outside a good thing; it is an essential part of the kind of education I want for my children.
Rather than wax philosophical like I usually do, I will simply share how this has developed in our family.
It started with a book (of course). I found a little book while browsing at the library that had pictures of fall leaves and the names of the trees that went with them. I had never been able to identify any trees, except perhaps maple and oak. So I read this little book to my kids and then we took a walk. Lo and behold, almost every single type of tree listed in that book was in our neighborhood! I was very excited. We brought leaves home and checked back with the book and identified them. From that moment I was hooked. This naturalist stuff was actually fun!
I had read about nature journaling somewhere, and I decided that it was something we ought to do. So I bought a small sketchbook and told the kids that this was to be our family nature notebook. We would use it to draw and write about the things we encountered outside. It was mostly me drawing, and at the time when we started it I was still the only one who could write so I did that too.
At first I tried to force it. I told the kids that they had to tell me about something they saw outside and we tried to make it happen once a week. That didn't go over too well. I was frustrated. But I decided that I could at least keep the notebook for myself and maybe try again with the kids at another time. So I let it go.
I bought small field guides on plants, trees and flowers. I observed and learned the names of things myself simply because I wanted to. I did also want to be able to pass the knowledge on to my kids, and when the occasion arose I would be sure to tell them the proper names for what they noticed and looked at, but I still didn't try to make them learn any of it purposefully.
I became a bird watcher. At first I could only identify robins because I had read about "robin red-breast" in books. But I noticed that there were quite a few other kinds of birds flying about that I couldn't name. So I got another field guide. Then one day in the spring I heard a beautiful bird-song. I kept hearing it over and over and it was so sweet and cheerful that I had to find out what it was. I got out a pair of binoculars we had been given and tried to find it. Eventually I did (it was a robin).
Once those binoculars came out it was all over. The kids were enchanted and they all wanted turns to look at birds close up. Since that time we have spent hours watching birds, reading about them, identifying them. We keep a running list of all the interesting birds we see. This year alone we have seen close to fifty different types of birds that included several hawks, orioles, swallows, woodpeckers, finches, meadowlarks, jays, hummingbirds, bluebirds, herons and even a bald eagle! Not to mention the more common birds that we see every day like starlings, blackbirds and sparrows.
We watch for interesting bugs. My husband found a praying-mantis one day and brought it home for us to see. We kept it for a couple days and then let it go outside. That was last fall. Not even a week ago we saw a praying mantis on one of our windows and everyone is convinced that it's the same one. Another time a katydid got in the house. It was just sitting quietly on the wall near the ceiling and one of my daughters saw it and pointed it out. I carefully caught it and we spent some time looking at it and then released it. We have caught spiders, flies, ladybugs, lightning bugs, and ants.
None of this is planned or scheduled. It happens in the course of our life, lived out day by day. Sometimes we spend days learning about a new plant or animal or insect, other times we might go a week or two without any significant discovery. But the learning is still taking place and the effect of this lifestyle is visible.
We find ourselves learning and observing in the most unexpected places and at the most interesting times. Once we went to the zoo and, as we were walking through to the next area we'd planned to see, we had to walk across a bridge. On the bank of the creek running underneath the bridge we spotted a turkey vulture who had just stolen a fish from another bird greedily devouring the fish. We stopped for a good twenty minutes just to watch and my son got out the notebook and drew what he was seeing. Of all the things we saw at the zoo that day nothing was discussed so much as that turkey vulture.
Another time we were coming out of swimming lessons when we saw a new (to us) bird on the grass at the edge of the parking lot. We pulled over to the side and took a minute to sketch the bird so we could remember what it looked like when we got home. Nothing else was talked about all the way home. Everyone had a guess as to what they thought it was. It turned out to be a killdeer.
We spend lots of time talking about the weather and the way it changes from season to season. We read about nature, we talk about it and we live it. It has become an interest in our lives that exists independently of any curriculum or school plans. My life has become richer for it and I can see the effect on the lives of my family as well.
I think that's the best part - this delight in creation. The love of all that God has made leads one to God Himself. As Coleridge put it,
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
A few resources that I have found helpful:
Handbook of Nature Study (the book)
Handbook of Nature Study (website)
The Private Eye
All the Birds of North America
National Audubon Society First Field Guides (we currently only have the bird one, but I plan to collect the rest)
The Living Page
The Nature Connection
James Herriot's Treasury for Children
Clara Dillingham Pearson's Among the People books
Find the Constellations