Nature Study, Science, and Charlotte Mason

creek and woodsStudy finds that just looking at nature for even a few seconds can help you focus better and improve your thinking (they need studies for this stuff?)- although, most of the studies seem to involve looking at images of nature, rather than nature itself. At any rate, we know there were plenty of people there ahead of these studies (nothing wrong with that, we all stand on the shoulders of others), including Charlotte Mason.

Mason, however, wanted more than just a few microbreaks.

Nature Study is a distinctive part of a Charlotte Mason education.  Miss Mason herself set the example for her students by spending many hours several times a week out of doors, studying God’s creation, keeping a nature journal, and learning about the animals and plants of her own environment. If you only have time to read one thing about the topic, you should read what Miss Mason herself said here.

seed 6 full cycle silver mapleNature Study is Planting Seeds for Later Development: The children go on nature walks, engage in nature study, and draw what they see, and in doing these things they develop firsthand skills of observation, which will help them with later science studies as well as life in general.

 

In reading volume 1, pages 177-178, I found Miss Mason’s outlining of something like a child’s nature study manifesto  helpful:

“(a) That the knowledge most valuable to the child is that which he gets with his own eyes and ears and fingers (under direction) in the open air.

(b) That the claims of the schoolroom should not be allowed to encroach on the child’s right to long hours daily for exercise and investigation.

(c) That the child should be taken daily, if possible, to scenes- moor or meadow, park, common or shore- where he may find new things to examine, and so add to his store of real knowledge. That the child’s observation should be directed to flower or boulder, bird or tree; that, in fact, he should be employed in gathering the common information which is the basis of scientific knowledge.

(d) That play, vigorous healthful play, is, in its turn, fully as important as lessons, as regards both bodily health and brainpower.

(e) That the child, though under supervision, should be left much to himself- That the child, though under supervision, should be left much to himself––both that he may go to work in his own way on the ideas that he receives, and also that he may be the more open to natural influences.

Miss Mason believed that young children deserved long hours in out of door play (no knowledge so appropriate to the early years … As that of the name and look and behavior in situ of every natural object he can get at: page 32)  In situ means in its natural setting.

vintage garden coloring pageCharlotte Mason suggested that the parent’s most important role in teaching children to think scientifically is to “afford abundant and varied opportunities and to direct his observations so that, knowing little of the principles of scientific classification, he is, unconsciously, furnishing himself with the materials for such classification…the future of the man or woman depends largely on the store of knowledge gatheredand the habits of intelligent observation acquired, by the child”  Regardless of the field of study or career path chosen, the invaluable skills of observation gained through nature study done the CM way will benefit the children all their lives.

What does it mean to furnish the children with the materials for classification?  Well, the parent needs to do some reading and learning.  Then you start with small things- while looking at a flower, a bug, a tree, a toad in a jar, a bird at the bird feeder, comment or ask questions such as “What does his beak look like?  How many toes does it have?  How many legs?  What is the skin like?  How does it move?  What color is it?  What is it eating?  What is the shape of the leaf, the petal, the stem?  How many petals?  How is this different from a ….” and so on.  These are the elements of classification that he will build on later.

Children first should be learning about the world as it is– no matter how brilliant and academically gifted children are, they should all have plenty of opportunities to climb trees, play in mud puddles, go for long walks, run in meadows, wade in streams, sort rocks, shells, and acorns, collect bugs, watch butterflies emerge from a cocoon, run, skip, ride, swim, and more.
seed 3 cotyledonA child who has splashed in a puddle has a richer understanding of a pond. A child who has climbed a tree has a broader grasp of what was involved when explorers first climbed Everest. A child who has collected stones or shells has a deeper grasp of what is involved in scientific classification later.

Children who do all these things early also are actually laying down impressive growth in the brain synapses.

...The chief function of the child- his business in the world during the first six or seven years of his life- is to find out all he can, about whatever comes under his notice, by means of his five senses; that he has an insatiable appetite for knowledge got in this way; and that, therefore, the endeavor of his parents should be to put him in the way of making acquaintance freely with Nature and natural objects… page 96-7 of volume one

“The child who does not know the portly form and spotted breast of the thrush, the graceful flight of the swallow, the yellow bill of the blackbird, the gush of song which the skylark pours from above is nearly as much to be pitied as those London children who ‘had never seen a bee.”

“Most children of six have had this taste of a naturalist’s experience, and it is worth speaking of only because, instead of being merely a harmless amusement, it is a valuable piece of education, of more use to the child than the reading of a whole book of natural history, or much geography, and Latin. For the evil is, that children get their knowledge of natural history, like all their knowledge, at second hand. They are so sated with wonders, that nothing surprises them; and they are so little used to see for themselves, that nothing interests them. The cure for this blasé condition is, to let them alone for a bit, and then begin on new lines. Poor children, it is no fault of theirs if they are not as they are meant to be- curious eager little souls, all agog to explore so much of this wonderful world as they can get at, as quite their first business in life.”  (volume 1, page 60)

“He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small:
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”

Nature Knowledge the most important for Young Children. –It would be well if all we persons in authority, parents and all who act for parents, could make up our minds that there is no sort of knowledge to be got in these early years so valuable to children as that which they get for themselves of the world they live in. Let them once get touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life. We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.” Charlotte M. Mason, Home Education, volume 1, p 61.

Of the teaching of Natural Philosophy, I will only remind the reader of what was said in an earlier chapter––that there is no part of a child’s education more important than that he should lay, by his own observation, a wide basis of facts towards scientific knowledge in the future. He must live hours daily in the open air, and, as far as possible, in the country; must look and touch and listen; must be quick to note, consciously, every peculiarity of habit or structure, in beast, bird, or insect; the manner of growth and fructification of every plant. He must be accustomed to ask why––Why does the wind blow? Why does the river flow? Why is a leaf-bud sticky? And do not hurry to answer his questions for him; let him think his difficulties out so far as his small experience will carry him. Above all, when you come to the rescue, let it not be in the ‘cut and dried’ formula of some miserable little text-book; let him have all the insight available and you will find that on many scientific questions the child may be brought at once to the level of modern thought. Do not embarrass him with too much scientific nomenclature. If he discover for himself (helped, perhaps, by a leading question or two), by comparing an oyster and his cat, that some animals have backbones and some have not, it is less important that he should learn the terms vertebrate and invertebrate than that he should class the animals he meets with according to this difference.~Vol. 1, p.264-265

pumpkin vine drawing

The children spend considerable time looking, observing, asking questions, categorizing, and learning names.  

In Science, or rather, nature study, we attach great importance to recognition, believing that the power to recognise and name a plant or stone or constellation involves classification and includes a good deal of knowledge. To know a plant by its gesture and habitat, its time and its way of flowering and fruiting; a bird by its flight and song and its times of coming and going; to know when, year after year, you may come upon the redstart and the pied fly-catcher, means a good deal of interested observation, and of, at any rate, the material for science.

Observation, categorizing, and drawing conclusions are important parts of ‘doing science,’ and with Miss Mason’s approach to nature study, they’ve been doing this for years.  Now it’s time for another important part of science study- the lab notebook.  Only we call it a nature journal or nature notebook.

Consider this from a scientist and former CM home-schooling mom (the former list-mama of the Cmason mailing list, Lynn H.):

As it is with the birds and the moths, so is the best Science in all areas. Science is a pattern of thought, of observation, correlation, theory, hypothesis, experimentation, and more thought. The methods of Science apply to all subjects. Therefor, it does not really matter where you begin to teach Science. Begin where you are- with the moth on the patio, the birds on your birdfeeder, the aquarium in the kitchen, the volcano in your cornfield. Spend the time needed to really look, and think. In Graduate microbiology classes, time was the most precious resource there was. I spent many long evenings staring through a microscope examining the characteristics of some bacteria or fungi. We went through complicated procedures to obtain electron microscope photographs, which we would blow up and hang where we could see them every time we raised our eyes. We had to, because they didn’t come labeled- we had to think and identify each structure ourselves. The Science was not in the fancy equipment, it was in the time we spent thinking. We learned the names, we kept vocabulary notebooks (half of any subject is vocabulary), we wrote detailed lab reports. These were not the Sciences- the real work was our lab notebooks, where we kept our notes of what we saw, what happened, what we thought might happen. Lab notebooks are the personal property of the individual scientist, and are the most valuable part of his work.

A Charlotte Mason Nature Notebook is a lab notebook. Teach your children to write down everything they see. The illustrations should be as detailed as possible, the notes should never be removed. A young child may do better with loose-leaf paper, but a teen should learn to keep notes in a bound book where removing pages shows! If they make a mistake (such as in a math calculation) they may draw a line through it, but never obliterate. Obviously, different notebooks should be kept for each topic. Edith Holden did not keep her chemistry notes in her Diary. Her chemistry notebook would have held illustrations of her experiments, notes of colors and reactions, tables of data, titles and quotations applicable to the experiment, and her conclusions.”

Click through to read the rest, it’s very helpful.  So, the children are branching out now, having sent deep roots down into the field of science through their early observations and time with nature .  Now, Miss Mason has them write:

“The children keep a dated record of what they see in their nature note-books, which are left to their own management and are not corrected. These note-books are a source of pride and joy, and are freely illustrated by drawings (brushwork) of twig, flower, insect, etc. The knowledge necessary for these records is not given in the way of teaching. On one afternoon in the week, the children (of the Practising School) go for a ‘nature walk’ with their teachers. They notice for themselves, and the teacher gives a name or other information as it is asked for, and it is surprising what a range of knowledge a child of nine or ten acquires.

The teachers are careful not to make these nature walks an opportunity for scientific instruction, as we wish the children’s attention to be given to observation with very little direction. In this way they lay up that store of ‘common information’ which Huxley considered should precede science teaching; and, what is much more important, they learn to know and delight in natural objects as in the familiar faces of friends. (Vol 3 pg 237)

As soon as a child is old enough, he should keep his own nature notebook for his enjoyment. Every day’s walk will give something interesting to add – three squirrels playing in a tree, a bluejay flying across a field, a caterpillar crawling up a bush, a snail eating a cabbage leaf, a spider suddenly dropping from a thread to the ground, where he found ivy and how it was growing and what plants were growing with it, and how ivy manages to climb. (Vol 1 p 55)

They write and they draw- and it’s worth while to find resources to help them learn drawing.

This is what we wish to do for children in teaching them to draw – to cause the eye to rest, not unconsciously, but consciously, on some object of beauty which will leave in their minds an image of delight for all their lives to come. (Vol 1 p 313)

The first buttercup in a child’s nature notebook is shockingly crude, the sort of thing to scandalise a teacher of brush-drawing, but by and by another buttercup will appear with the delicate poise, uplift and radiance of the growing flower. (Vol 6, p 217)

All that nature study, the nature notebooks, the nature reading, as well as other science observations about how things work (the philosophy, or science, of ‘everyday things- more on that here) is building up, layer upon layer, toward a more substantial and meaningful understanding of the scientific discoveries of the day, to knowledge the student will need and use in high school, college, and life.  It’s taken root, branched out, and it’s bearing fruit.

 

Getting Ready for High School Science, Wonder and Order  by Beth Pinckney: How students with a good Charlotte Mason style background in nature study build a firm foundation for high school and college lab sciences. It is a good read for parents teaching older students.  But I also think it’s a very good read for parents who are just starting out.  It will help the beginner understand why nature studis important. It will help a young mother lacking confidence understand more about how nature study works and why it’s so important.

AO’s Nature Study Posts Page: Once you’ve read about why you need and want to do Nature Study, and perhaps even after you’ve tried it a handful of times, you might want to read this collection of nature study posts which experienced moms shared on AO’s old email list.

But mainly, get outside with the kids and start looking, observing, categorizing, asking questions, drawing conclusions.

 

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3 Comments

  1. Kimberley
    Posted June 1, 2015 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for beating the nature drum! We’ve lived in suburbia until the beginning of April when we built a house on five acres about 20 min away from the hustle. (You made a comment once that building a house together requires a marriage of stout stuff and you are right!) While everyone enjoys coming here it amazes me how terribly concerned parents are about their children playing in a natural setting.

    There is poison oak.
    Rattle snakes
    Wolf spiders
    Black widows
    Ticks
    The list goes on…..and it is all true (not to mention coyotes, mountain lions, skunks, etc.) but it is also very easy to avoid all those things. A group of kids could never startle a rattle snake. You can hear them coming from a mile away. The poison oak that you can see (in an area where we don’t let kids play) can’t actually get you. It makes me sad. Nature somehow took on this dangerous edge to it. But these same parents think nothing of the air park (picture huge trampolines with kids bouncing all over with minimal supervision) or being so relaxed about letting young kids in pools. Somehow if we control the environment by planning where everything is and pouring nice curbs with pretty planters, it is safe but if it is unplanned nature we need to be vigilant about all the things out to get us.

    It’s strange but I am so glad my kids love dirt. My eldest daughter (8) recently told me that she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she grew up but she was sure she would have “some number of dirty kids.” Love it!

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted June 1, 2015 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      Oh, I love her plan. I tell people you can measure how much worthwhile fun a kid has outside by how dirty they get in the process.=)

  2. Elise
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    What kills me is how to get this wonderful benefit for younger siblings! I have 3, and older “pair” close in age and then a younger. The older 2 were out in nature with me all the time. Long afternoons in the woods or at parks or on nature trails. It was great but now with the younger guy, if I can peel out half an hour to take a walk with him it’s a sign I’m on my A game that day and A game days don’t come around all that often anymore! And that’s completely abandoning the idea of long afternoons of exploration. I’m needed at home with my middle school aged olders and I can’t leave them for that long and they can’t spend hours outdoors anymore. It makes me sad that I can’t give my younger as good an early education as my olders had.

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