Since posting about our nature study bags, I’ve had lots of people asking how we actually do nature study. I’m no expert, so I thought it might be helpful for home-ed bloggers to get together and share some ideas. If you have a post about nature study that you’d like to share, please feel free to add it to the linky at the end of this post.
What is nature study?
Nature study is seeing and understanding. The Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock (1911) says:
“The object of the nature-study teacher should be to cultivate in the children powers of accurate observation and to build up within them, understanding.”
Nature study is not the same as science, although it is closely linked to astronomy, botany, ecology, geology and zoology. Science is about the characteristics of all different life forms, whilst nature study is about getting to know the living things close by. Science is about classification, logic and order. Nature study is about hands-on sensory experiences and developing a love of the natural world.
Nature study isn’t simply outdoor play either. Children can spend time outdoors without paying any attention to the living things around them. Nature study may be playful, but it also involves intentional and mindful observation.
Different families have their own way of doing nature study. It can be planned or unplanned, structured or unstructured. There are many benefits of nature study, but the main aim is to cultivate a love of nature. Anna Botsford Comstock says:
“If nature-study as taught does not make the child love nature and the out-of-doors, then it should cease.”
How do we begin?
Begin by going outdoors! Listen to birds singing and grasshoppers chirping. Smell flowers and herbs. Touch pussy willow and tree bark. But most of all, encourage your children to look and watch. Point out interesting things and ask questions to get them to observe in more detail. Charlotte Mason suggests making a game of exploring an area and then trying to describe every feature by memory.
Follow the child’s interests. Not all children will be interested in flowers or want to handle minibeasts. Discover what they do enjoy looking at and provide opportunities to broaden or deepen that interest. Don’t forget to incorporate their other interests into nature study. If your child is interested in music, why not record bird song and compose a piece of music? If your child is interested in photography, how creating a time-lapse video of plant growth?
Keep a nature journal. Encourage children to record what they see, hear or feel and provide prompts if necessary. Allow them them to use their journals however they want, this isn’t the time to push handwriting or spelling. Some children won’t be interested in journaling at all, but keep one yourself anyway.
Bringing nature study indoors
Most nature study takes place outdoors, but animals such as ants, caterpillars, earthworms, snails and tadpoles can be brought inside for observation and then released. This is a wonderful opportunity to watch lifecycle changes or observe behaviour that is not normally visible. Last spring we kept tadpoles and the children loved watching them metamorphose into tiny froglets.
Seasonal nature tables are a lovely way to display found items such as bird nests, feathers, leaves, seed heads and shells. Add art, books, magnifying glasses and sorting trays to encourage further investigation. Charlotte Mason suggests keeping a nature calendar:
“It is a capital plan for the children to keep a calendar – the first oak-leaf, the first tadpole, the first cowslip, the first catkin, the first ripe blackberries, where seen, and when. The next year they will know when and where to look out for their favourites, and will, every year, be in a condition to add new observations. Think of the zest and interest, the object, which such a practice will give to daily walks and little excursions. There is hardly a day when some friend may not be expected to hold a first ‘At Home’.”
What equipment is needed?
You don’t really need anything at all to start doing nature study with your children. The most important thing to have is suitable clothing, not only for the children but also for any accompanying adults. I realised long ago that being wet and cold makes me feel grumpy and impatient to get home, hardly the best frame of mind for nature study! A notepad and pencil is useful to record observations. Although not necessary, there are many other tools which could be useful for building on and extending a child’s interests.
- magnifying glass
- pocket microscope
- butterfly net
- pond dipping/rockpooling net
Geography and weather tools:
- rain gauge
- wind vane
- measuring tape
- tally counter
- audio/video recorder
- flower press
- sketching pencils
- coloured marker pens
- crayons for rubbings
- watercolour paints
The Woodland Trust’s Nature Detectives website has an amazing selection of free downloadable resources covering many different themes. Membership includes weekly challenges and activity packs in spring and autumn. This outdoor learning pack is aimed at schools but contains some great educational activities.
The RSPB Wildlife Explorers has activity suggestions and online resources. WildSquare is a nature survey for children to take part in.
Local Wildlife Trusts provide information about events, groups and nature reserves. The Wildlife Watch website has lots of free downloadable activity sheets and resources, and membership offers the opportunity to take part in an awards scheme.
This Toolkit for Families from the World Forum Foundation contains lots of activities and information about stewardship themes including plants, air, water, soil, energy, animals and insects, and human health.
Project Wild Thing have produced a WildTime app for Android and iOS with hundreds of ideas for connecting with nature.
Barb at Handbook of Nature Study posts a weekly Outdoor Hour Challenge and all previous challenges are available on the blog, along with some useful posts about the basics of nature study and journaling. This is not a UK site, but still worth a look.
Join the blog hop
If you have a post about nature study that you would like to share, please
use the linky tool below leave a comment or message me with a link to the post and I will add it to the list below. I’m really looking forward to reading about how other families approach nature study!