One of the most well known aspects of the Charlotte Mason approach to education is nature study, the quaint Victorian era practice of an English educator getting children out of doors and enjoying the natural world. I have often wondered if the Anne of Green Gables character Miss Stacy was inspired by educators trained in Charlotte Mason’s methods, as she had her one room schoolhouse full of children out in the woods collecting a crow’s nest for nature study in chapter XXIV.
Despite the images of turn of the 20th Century English and Canadian children romping through wooded glens, nature study can and does have a place in my modern American desert landscape.
Yet, our nature study isn’t as formal as Charlotte Mason’s. I have tried giving each child a nature journal, and spending half a day each week sitting quickly out of doors drawing and writing. However, that has always felt like work or school, and I wanted my children to love enjoying and exploring nature.
So we just get out. We hike, play, or sit as we feel. We explore and enjoy. And we collect. We leave living things behind where we find them, but we bring home all sorts of lovely treasures. Here are a few of our favorites.
My husband found this intact rattlesnake skin. You can see from the tip of the snake’s mouth through three segments of it’s rattle. In the background you can see our large and attractive pine cone, which seems like a ho-hum thing to collect, but down here at almost sea level pine trees are scarce and only produce small, ugly cones. The feathers are chicken feathers, which are also sort of boring, but my kids like them. Plus, they are handy to have on hand for science experiments. Try looking through a feather at a bright light source and move the feather closer and farther from your eye until you see a rainbow. This is the diffraction of light, and is a great teaching tool for showing that light is a wave. Then watch this great video that recreates Thomas Young’s double slit experiment.
This is a devil’s claw. It is a dried seed pod from a low plant that grows in sandy places around here and blooms yellow trumpet flowers in the summer. The seed pods look somewhat like okra when they are green and growing, but they dry out and split, curling backward into these “devil claws”, spilling it’s seed as far from the mother plant as it can. The dried devil’s claws are fun to collect, but we also learned that the plant’s scientific name is Proboscidea althaeifolia. We call them devil’s claw plants, but they are also called desert unicorn plant. Bringing this home led to discussion about the many different ways plants produce and disburse seeds.
This is my personal favorites from our nature shelf. My husband found this sun bleached bone out in the desert while driving for work and brought it home to us. I spent hours researching what it was, keeping at it long after the kids grew bored and wandered away. I am now confident that this is an atlas bone of a canine, most likely a coyote considering where Matthew found it. An atlas bone is the first cervical vertebra, right under the skull. We had a great anatomy lesson with this one, with a focus on human skeletal anatomy. We have an atlas bone too.
Lastly, this photo shows some of the variety of our collection. You can see seashells, honey comb, a dried leaf, a femur bone of some small animal, a piece of sandstone that someone had shaped into a near perfect circle, a shark tooth, a pair of desiccated geckos, and more. Fun stuff.
Each of these items inspired discussion, research, and learning. It’s not just biology that we covered either. The geckos led to learning about the physics of how they walk up glass so easily. Chemistry was the subject at hand as we learned about anthocyanins changing colors when exposed to acids and bases and how that makes fall colors. Biology, of course, botany, zoology, geology, ecology, even mathematics as we learned about Fibonacci’s sequence in natural spirals.
My older two kids found large portions of high school level science to be familiar or even review, as they have learned so much through exploring God’s world. My younger kids often listen in on the Biology and Chemistry co-op classes I teach and can answer questions my teen students can’t answer. But even more importantly, the time out of doors and bringing home treasures has become precious memories. THAT is what childhood is all about.
Do you do nature study? What does it look like? Does your family collect things you find in nature? What interesting items do you have?