Monday, August 1, 2011

Cultivating a Love of Learning : Nature Study in Our Home

"If we give our children regular opportunities to get in touch with God's creation, a habit is formed which will be a source of delight throughout their lives."  ~from the Charlotte Mason Companion

As a homeschooling Mama, I have found the world of nature to be a rich treasure for sparking my children's interest in learning, unlike anything else.  It is able to fill a child's mind with ideas of things that are beautiful and true, simple and profound; and that naturally lead into all other areas of education (Bible, literature, poetry, art, music, etc.)

Here are a few ways we have tried to bring the appreciation of nature into our home (and homeschool!).  My prayer is that this collection of small ideas might be an encouragement to you in the simple journey of nurturing a love of learning in your own home....

~ Little Children ~

I absolutely love nature studies when my children are small, because they are so enthusiastic and already full of curiosity and wonder about the world around them.  Most little ones naturally begin to appreciate nature on their own, given just the opportunity to be outside...mine were (are!) always collecting little flowers, bugs, acorns - anything of interest, and bringing their little prizes to show to Mom with big grins.  It really is a very simple thing to turn all this curiosity into a little lesson...

Nature Walks - We put on our walking shoes (or hiking boots that look "just like Daddy's"), grab a glass jar for collecting things and then go for a purposeful "walk" out in our yard, or down the sidewalk.  On special occasions we will go to a park or the forest preserve.  Sometimes we make a special theme for our walk - one day it may be a bug hunt, or to count how many bees we see, or to make a list of birds sighted, to collect wildflowers, or a fall leaf of every color and shape, etc.  And sometimes it will be just "to see what we can see."  No matter what we set out to do, my goal for our walks is to be sure the kids all enjoy this time outside and that their imaginations have been captivated by something seen or experienced!  A little something to bring back home with them, that I will then use to expand into further learning.

Nature Lessons at Home : Science - After their legs are all tired out from walking, my kids have always loved coming home from our walks and examining their findings/sightings.  We may look something up in a field guide to identify it...and then read about it in a book (if I have one) or online (if I don't).  Or sometimes I just read to them from a general nature book (I'll show you my favorites in a little while!).  Sometimes I try to weave together our walk with our homeschool science curriculum...for my preschoolers, this is our science curriculum :)

Nature Lessons at Home : Art - Whatever the children "collect" from our walks, whether it is a little treasure found along the way (and hopefully put into the collection jar instead of a pocket!) or the image of something sighted still fresh in their memory, I usually will start by having them draw a little picture of it.  This is a fun way to bring art into the experience, because they have something interesting or exciting to "tell" about through their drawings.  Sometimes I will just have them use crayons and paper, and sometimes I change it up a bit and provide paints, pastels, art markers, sculpting clay, or whatever else we may have on hand.  Some school years we have used sketchbooks for these little drawings, and called them our Nature Journals.

Nature Lessons at Home : Language Arts - Once our drawings are finished, I usually have them add any labels they can think of to their pictures - things like scientific names, or maybe names of the specimen's parts, which we probably learned during our reading time.  Depending on their age, I will have them write or tell me a sentence or two about their picture (I'll write it for them if they are too little or tired to do it themselves).  Sometimes they like to include other observations like weather conditions, or their own thoughts/feelings about the walk.

Nature Lessons at Home : Literature - this is my favorite part!  I love My kids love children's poems and picture books, and have so much fun reading poetry and little stories that go along with whatever we've learned about. 

Nature Lessons at Home :  Bible -  For little children, I can't think of any better way to teach them about our Creator or His Word than through nature study.  "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows His handiwork." (Psalm 19:1)  It is so very simple to take a child's curiosity and wonder over whatever his newest discovery outside may be - and direct that awe toward our Creator.  I rarely have to say much more than something like - "Do you know Who made that pinecone?" (for very little ones).  Or, "Can you believe God made something so beautiful/colorful/special?"  Or point out one of His attributes that is expressed in what we're watching - His big-ness in the sky, lovingkindness in the fact that He creates and cares for tiny hidden little violets, orderliness in the way a wasp methodically builds its hive.  Sometimes I will have them copy a Bible verse into their notebooks that relates to our study (trees, ants, creation, rainbows, etc.)  And once in awhile I'll just read to them a few verses from the Psalms, which are full of poetic references to creation.  I never make this into anything complicated or in-depth...usually I just share my own on-the-spot observations....we all really are learning together!

~ Older Children ~

As my kids get older, I find that I do have to work a little harder at keeping their interest-level high in our nature studies ;)  The biggest difference I've noticed in my oldest two (my son especially) is that our observations have become much more scientific!  They still enjoy nature walks and all of the learning activities I listed above - and it has been a joy for me to watch them take delight in teaching and guiding their younger brothers.  But obviously, as they grow older, so do the goals for their walks and are a few things we're doing this summer:

~ Collecting bugs to identify them - and sealing them into baggies in my freezer, to make a specimen collection at the end of the summer.

~ Making a running list of all the wildlife we've sighted in our yard (birds, animals, bugs, etc.).  Actually, our yard is a typical small-ish suburban type, which at first glance wouldn't seem like it has a whole lot of nature in it for observing.  But once we began keeping track of all our sightings, it was actually pretty surprising how much wildlife we do have!  (You can read our current lists up in the "Nature Lists" tab, if you're curious!).
~ Every summer, we always have many different types of wasps and bees building nests around our house, and this has become a huge source of interest for my kiddos (and me!)  because each species' behavior is so different and fascinating from the next!  All of this information is easy to find online, and since the sight of big pictures of insects makes my skin crawl, it adds to the intrigue for my my boys, who just *love* discussing things that make the girls in our house a little woozy!

...a huge horsefly that General managed to smush all over my front window without much damage to the bug...and now it is in my freezer, LOL!  For the record, I usually do try to encourage more observing and less smushing...but hey, it was a horsefly... 

Here are some of the books on my shelf that have been helpful to me in our little journey of nature study:

~ for Mom ~

Country Diary is an out-of-print book that I found years ago in a thrift's a beautiful example of nature journaling.  Sharing Nature with Children was given to me when I was a teenager interested in teaching nature studies at our church's summer camp.  The author is not a Christian, but he clearly shares an appreciation for nature that can be easily adapted to fit a Christian perspective.  It is full of great ideas for little games and activities for getting kids excited and aware of nature around them.  Little did I know - at the time - that I would someday be using that book for my own little brood of nature-explorers! :)

My all-time favorite is The Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Botsford Comstock:

This thick little book is full of enough inspiration and ideas to last a lifetime!

~ a few of our favorites for children ~
 (the ones I could find for photos...the rest are probably shoved under pillows or have fallen behind couches & beds from nighttime reading :)

Both of these books are my personal favorite read alouds for preschoolers-through-first graders.  The Christian Liberty Nature Reader may not look very interesting at first glance, especially because all of the illustrations inside are all black & white ink drawings.  But this is one book you certainly can't tell by its cover - the readings are divided up into short essay/stories and are SO well written...they have delighted the imaginations of all of my children (who have read it with me so far!) and I have learned a lot from this book, too!  I highly recommend this one :)

Other favorites...

~ a very helpful online resource : The Outdoor Hour ~

I found out about Outdoor Hour from Amanda at Homegrown and Beeyoutiful - a lovely homeschooling Mama whose heart for children, homeschooling and nature studies has been very inspiring to me! If you are looking for more ideas about real learning...or for a warm dose of encouragement in motherhood or homeschooling... you really should take the time to stop by and visit her blog! 

The Outdoor Hour has a wonderful collection of simple and fun little unit studies, using the Handbook of Nature Study, making it very quick and easy for any Mama to get started.  There must be a hundred (maybe more??) little lessons you can read online or download - something for every season, subject, interest.  Most of the photos in this post are from "The Dandelion Study" which we spent a couple days on, earlier this summer.  We all had so much fun!

Last, but not least...the most important thing I've learned about bringing nature study into our home and homeschool is that it doesn't have to be anything grand or complicated.  Keep it simple and just have fun with it!   Our list of ideas above was put together in small bits and pieces, here and there - over the past eight or so years.  In the same way, every little thing you do with your family will add up over time, and will become, for your children, a collection of warm memories that lead them toward a life-long appreciation and love for God's creation.

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  1. Dear Collette,

    What a wonderful post! Full of all good information!!!This sounds so much like our homeschool, each and everything. Thank you for featuring me here. I feel completely honored:-)But, likewise. I have found so much encouragment here on your blog and I'm looking forward to a new school year where we can live and learn together!


  2. Love the post! Love the reading books... and the fun walks outside. I chuckled over freezing bugs for the specimen collection. We had a mud dauber that just wouldn't... succumb ;>) Sure was feisty! Putting a cotton ball soaked in alcohol into the bug bag helps. Enjoy the nature finds!

  3. Thank you, Amanda! I'm looking forward to this schoolyear, too. I'm always a little amazed how even in the bloggyworld so much encouragement can be found through like-minded friends :)

    And Karen, lol, that is too funny! Great advice about the cotton ball - Josh is all too anxious to try it out, haha ;0)

  4. Hi Collette, I just found you via Amanda's blog. I enjoyed this post. Nature Study is one of my favorite Charlotte Mason philosophies. Yes, this is the way we teach science around here too : D



Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment! Things are pretty busy around our house, so I can't always leave as many replies as I would like to. But please know that I look forward to reading every note you send my way - they brighten my day! Blessings,Collette

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