Charlotte Mason Education: Nature Study

Many people put off nature study and the nature journals that go along with a Charlotte Mason education.  They put it off until they know more, until they are more confident, until they have a schedule down, until they’ve learned more.  There’s nothing wrong with this- to a point. The problem is when a delay to catch your breath and get your ducks in a row becomes eternal procrastination and the delay itself has become a weight and discouragement holding you back.


Dive in.  You can do this, and it will bless you and your family. There are several things you can do right now to begin nature study with your children even if you are beginning from abject ignorance.

1. Convince yourself that this is interesting and something you want to know more about.
2. Get a notebook or journal of any kind and a pencil or two- don’t waste your time trying to find the absolutely perfect materials- you can take the time to search for those, but start with what you have readily available.
3. Go draw something. It can be a weed in your backyard, at the local park, at the edge of the parking lot of the grocery store. It can be a potato or an onion that sprouted in your kitchen. It can be flowers you buy for the dinner table. Do this regularly- at least weekly.
4. Mind your attitude: It does not matter if you draw well. It doesn’t matter if nobody could distinguish a buttercup from a rose in your sketches. This is where you start. This is probably the most important step in helping your children learn to keep nature journals- you need to model this yourself, and you need to model a good attitude about it. Don’t whine, cry, berate yourself under your breath or out loud, don’t tear up your paper or your hair, don’t scribble out your drawing in despair or rage, don’t stomp off in frustration or pound your own head with your fists (if you think I’m describing you, why, hello, my soul-sister!)

If it’s awful, laugh at it yourself, and say something like, “Well, nobody else could tell this is a plant and not a splotch made by the dog tracking in mud, but I’m glad I tried, anyway. If I hadn’t, I never would have noticed that deep inside this flower there is yellow spot shaped just like a star…” Insert your own thing that you noticed because you were legitimately attempting to see the plant as it is and then draw something about it on the paper. Repeat this regularly- the drawing and the good attitude.

Do not get preachy about it. Once positive comment and a shrug of your shoulders over the frustrating results is plenty. If you overdo this, the children sniff out a Morality Lesson and spontaneously erect a sound and Moral Lesson proof barrier between themselves and you.

When you have time, peruse the Comstock Handbook of Nature study for yourself.  You can read it online here- I don’t recommend this for the whole book, but for the beginning of nature study direction for yourself, I do recommend reading the first 27 pages.

“The scientific names given to the parts of plants have been the stumbling block to many teachers, and yet this part of plant study should be easily accomplished. First of all, the teacher should have in mind clearly the names of the parts which she wishes to teach; the illustrations here given are for her convenience. When talking with the pupils about flowers let her use these names naturally:
“ See how many geraniums we have; the corolla of this one is red and of that one is pink. The red corolla has fourteen petals and the pink one only five’ etc. ” This arbutus which James brought has a pretty little pink bell for a corolla.”
” The purple trillium has a purple corolla, the white trillium a white corolla; and both have green sepals”
The points to be borne in mind are that children like to call things by their names because they are real names, and they also like to use ” grownup ” names for things; but they do not like to commit to memory names which to them are meaningless. Circumlocution is a waste of breath; calling a petal a ” leaf of a flower ” or the petiole ” the stem of a leaf” is like calling a boy’s arm ” the projecting part of James’s body ” or Molly’s golden hair ” the yellow top ” to her head. All the names should be taught gradually by constant unemphasized use on the part of the teacher; and if the child does not learn the names naturally then do not make him do it unnaturally.
The lesson on the garden or horseshoe geranium with single flowers may be given first in teaching the structure of a flower, since the geranium blossom is simple and easily understood.

From first to last the children should be taught that the object of the flower is to develop seed. They should look eagerly into the maturing flower for the growing fruit. Poetry is full of the sadness of the fading flower, whereas rightly it should be the gladness of the flower that fades, because its work is done for the precious seed at its heart. The whole attention of the child should be fixed upon the developing fruit instead of the fading and falling petals.”
From Handbook of Nature Study, By Comstock

Do not read the above and despair- learning these things is a process. You do not have to know everything all by yourself by Tuesday.  In addition to the four items at the start of this post:

5. Slowly begin learning to identify plants and their parts. You can do this with your kids. There are various ways. Ask around locally, maybe you have an expert in your family or neighbourhood. Look for books at your library, at the bookstore, at a local nature center if you have such a place. Use the internet- there is an excellent FB group for plant identification. Take a picture, post the picture and the location your found it, and somebody will tell you the scientific name. You can look it up to find out more.

As you learn, use the information you gain naturally, in your day to day conversations with your family.  Do not turn this into a quiz, worksheet, or tiresome memory game.

"If the teacher says, " I have a pink hepatica. Can anyone find me a blue one? " 
the children, who naturally like grownup words, will soon be calling these flowers 
hepaticas. But if the teacher says, " These flowers are called hepaticas. Now please 
everyone remember the name. Write it in your books as I write it on the black- 
board, and in half an hour I shall ask you again what it is," the pupils naturally look 
upon the exercise as a word lesson and its real significance is Ipst. This sort of nature- 
study is dust and ashes and there has been too much of it. The child should never 
be required to learn the name of anything in the nature-study work; but the 
name should be used so often and so naturally in his presence that he will 
learn it without being conscious of the process." (Comstock)

Learn the details to look for- the colour of the blossom is always what we notice first, but this is not nearly as useful as details like:
The number and shape of the petals
The shape of the leaves and how they are placed on the stem
The size and location of the plant- not just ‘Philippines,’ but information like- at the edge of a pond, in the shade beneath a tree, in a cultivated garden, sprouting up in a trash pile, by the beach, on the side of a rocky road, in a cow-field…
The shape of the stem- plants in the mint family all have a square stem, for example.

Again- you can take this slowly. It’s not a race. Notice and learn one or two things now, and the knowledge gradually builds, one piece of information on to the other.

Find a reference you can take with you outside to the plants, or print the picture below and take it with you and hold it right next to an actual flower, looking to see if you can identify the parts of the real flower by referring to the printed picture.  You won’t necessarily be able to see and identify every single part on every flower every time.  Just do what you can.


A suggestion about the nature notebooks and journals- It’s fine to use products that give you help with jumpstarting the process, suggest seasonal things to notice and draw. But if these programmed projects assign copywork, poems for the children to add, craft projects for them to do, and so on- that’s really not necessary. Skip those things. The craft projects seldom are beautiful or useful nor do they contribute to understanding of nature and science. The best practice for copywork is for the children to choose their own from their reading, or, if the can’t or won’t, for the teacher/parent to choose *from their reading.* Don’t bring in outside quotes, snatches and excerpts from things they have not read. Don’t make the connections for the children, and don’t let somebody else who is selling you something be the one to make the connections, either.

Nature study is part of a growing process. You are not looking for a scope and sequence to complete, boxes to check off, and perfectly executed works of art at the end of the study. For one thing, there should be no end of the study. Nature study is for life. We are always learning in a Charlotte Mason education. The most important work is the invisible workings that happen in the hearts and minds of the children.

Here’s another excerpt from Comstock illustrating the sort of thing we hope to see with nature study:

“Many of the subjects for nature lessons can be studied only in part, since but one phase may be available at the time. Often, especially if there is little probability that the pupils will find opportunity to complete the study, it is best to round out their knowledge by reading or telling the story to supplement the facts which they have discovered for themselves. This story should not be told as a finality or as a complete picture but as a guide and inspiration for further study. Always leave at the end of the story an interrogation mark that will remain aggressive and insistent in the child’s mind.

To illustrate: Once a club of junior naturalists brought me rose leaves injured by the leafcutter bee and asked me why the leaves were cut out so regularly. I told them the story of the use made by the mother bee of these oval and circular bits of leaves and made the account as vital as I was able; but at the end I said, ” I do not know which species of bee cut these leaves. She is living here among us and building her nest with your rose leaves, which she is cutting every day almost under your very eyes. Is she then so much more clever than you that you can- not see her or find her nest?

For two years following this lesson I received letters from members of this club. Two carpenter bees and their nests were discovered by them and studied before the mysterious leaf-cutter was finally ferreted The leaf-cutter bee out. My story had left something interesting for the young naturalists to discover.
The children should be impressed with the fact that the nature story is never finished. There is not a weed or an insect or a tree so common that the child, by observing carefully, may not see things never yet recorded in scientific books; therefore the supplementary story should be made an inspiration for keener interest and further investigation on the part of the pupil. The supplementary story simply thrusts aside some of the obscuring underbrush, thus revealing more plainly the path to further knowledge.”



Comstock’s nature guide, of course, if for no other reason but the preface (if your volume has it), especially the first 27 pages, and then skim over a few of the sections on some specific topic or species and get an idea about what sort of things to help your students notice, how to draw their attention to closer details.  This is NOT a book to take with you out on the field.  You could use it for specific nature study at your kitchen table- bring home a violet or grow a marigold in a pot, set out a fish bowl with a tree frog, turtle or a toad to examine, bring in a baby chick or a twig of oak and acorn- get out the Comstock, open it to that page and *only* read aloud the questions, one by one, and then collectively attempt to answer them through first hand observation.

A field guide to your area.

blank journals and pencils or paints

Some drawing instruction- this is the single issue for most people who give up on nature study.  You want some very basic drawing instruction which will help you learn how to draw what you actually see, not what you think is there, and will help you see what is really there instead of what you assume is there.  If this sounds confusing or overwhelming, you really want one of these books (there may be others as good or better, but this is what I have found most helpful to me):

The Drawing Lesson, a graphic novel that teaches you how to draw, by Mark Crilley- this is an instruction book in story form, using a graphic novel format. It’s excellent.  It is ostensibly written for children, but personally, when I want to learn something new, I always start with children’s books.

You Can Draw in 30 Days, by Mark Kistler (I have found Kistler extremely helpful, not just this book, but videos and other books as well). The style is cartoon, but you can apply the same principles to drawing other things, and frankly, if you’re as hopeless at this as I am, it’s quite a confidence booster to be able to draw even something as simple as asmall stack of cans successfully, looking 3 dimensional.

Drawing : the only drawing book you’ll ever need to be the artist you’ve always wanted to be, by Kathryn Temple  I do not find this the *only* book I ever needed, but it’s useful.  Often I find in a subject like drawing, or picking up a second language, using at least two different resources really helps.
Did these books turn me into an artist?  Not really.  Partly I didn’t use them diligently.  Partly, when I draw I give up too soon.  What they did do for me was make me FAR LESS frustrated with what I draw.  They are also short enough, laid out simply enough, and enjoyable enough that I don’t mind returning to them and trying again.  They are also laid out easily enough that all I have to do is pick up my pencil and any blank paper and start.  If I am going to have flip around from page to page and create my own lesson plans and fuss and bother, I’m not going to do it.  These books pretty much are open and go, although you probably want to read the introdcutions.

My drawings today still look lopsided and childish, but they don’t make me want to scream in frustration. They don’t make me feel stupid and worthless.  I feel like improvement is possible, which other books have not done for me.

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