Nature Study For Beginners

Cattail seen on Nature Study outing.One of the the questions that comes up again and again among those who are new to Miss Mason’s methods, or those who are considering trying them out is, “What about Nature Study? How does that work?” Because so many of us grew up largely apart from nature, and certainly without any consistent exposure to or instruction as to what we’re seeing in nature, the idea of studying nature can be terribly intimidating.

It does not need to be. At its most basic, doing nature study is simply going outside and finding Interesting Things.

You would be hard pressed to find someone less aware of nature, and less comfortable in nature than I was when my first child was born. I was terrified of bees, probably diagnosibly phobic: if anything that might possibly be a bee flew past, I typically screamed. I wanted to be outside, but if I got “buzzed” be a bee or bee-like object (meaning they flew past anywhere that I could hear or see them), I panicked. Typically within 10 or 15 minutes, I would flee back to the safety of my house, snatching my baby, and shaking as I ran for the door. Today, I can happily spend hours and hours outside, wandering the park with my nature journal. If I can learn to do it, then anybody can learn to do it.

The first thing that I did was to ask the Lord to help me to be able to go outside. And not only did I keep trying to go be outside, but I also watched the outside when I was safely inside, from the picture window in my living room. And I hung a bird feeder and watched the birds, which 12 years later are still definitely an Interesting Thing. I didn’t know what any of them were called, so I’d keep my camera on the table, and try to catch them when they came to visit. Even a bad picture can be enough to make an identification!

You don’t need to know the names of things to start observing them (and observing the world around you is the heart and soul of Nature Study). For instance. Every winter, for five or more years, I’d drive down the road and see these amazing trees that looked like they belonged in front of a full moon on a Halloween decoration: an Interesting Thing. I wondered what they were, so we dubbed them “Halloween Trees”. But inevitably, we were driving past the trees on the way to Somewhere Important when I saw them. The year that I found one out at our favorite nature center very early in spring, and took note of where it was at so that I could find my Halloween Tree again after it had put on its leaves was the year that the nature center decided to do a major upgrade, and closed that section of the park for more than a year. No identification for me! But, I began to suspect that they were a family of trees, rather than a single species, because I noticed that some were more “Halloween-y” than others: their branches had a more jagged pattern to them, and some were barely “Halloween-y” at all, though if you looked closely, you could see they had the same basic branching structure. Early in the spring of 2018, I happened to be at a park that had one, and it still had a large number of leaves at the base. And acorns. My “Halloween Trees” are Oaks. It took me 5 years to figure that out, but in the process I learned a fair amount.

Once you have found an Interesting Thing,  you watch it, and find out what happens. This may be over a period of five minutes or a series of visits to the same Interesting Thing over a season or a year: the day that I heard the squeaks of a frog being eaten by a snake, the thing was done in less than five minutes, but I learned several things about both frogs and snakes, including that frogs make a remarkably loud noise when they are eaten feet first by a snake, and also that snakes can’t move very well until they have the frog all the way inside of them: it clearly did not appreciate me watching it have lunch, but wasn’t very mobile while actually ingesting the poor, protesting frog. I don’t know the name of either the frog or the snake in question, but I did learn some things, and the kids that were close enough to call over in time got to see some of it, too.

For a long time -until I no longer felt like taking my eyes off my toddlers would result in them disappearing- all we did was look at Interesting Things. There was never any lack of things to look at; the more we looked, the more things we found that were new and interesting, in spite of the fact that we visited the same small section of the same park every week for years. Much of the time, nature study looked a lot like playing outside, but the fact that we all got into the habit of saying, “Hey guys, look at this!” and “I wonder what it’s called?” and “Why is that doing that?” made all the difference.

My kids were about 9, 5, and 3 when I bought cheap sketch books at Walmart for the three of them; the little one got one because she would have cried if she’d been left out, not because I expected that she’d do any Serious Work. My expectations for the five year old were only slightly higher. I got myself a slightly nicer one with an elastic to hold it closed and slightly better paper. And we started carrying them around. At first, dragging them around was most of what happened.  I would forget to bring them, or forget to get them out. There was static and complaints, particularly from the kids who struggled to see well, and as a result, struggled to draw well. But I slowly started to draw in my own book more. And the kids liked to look at it. And my oldest slowly started doing more in his book. For my middle child, I actually started out having him draw from pictures. He needed a lot of coaching: seeing things, learning to look really carefully, did not come naturally. But it is coming. Practice is a magical thing. Much of this coaching took place inside, when the weather was too extreme to allow us to go out much; we live far enough north that winter can be intense.

Another thing you can do during inclement weather is look up the hazards that exist in your area, so that as you’re out tramping around, you can learn to do it safely. And practice your drawing skills: any increase in your art skill is going to show up in your nature journal when you do get it out –and that feeling that your drawings are getting better is a lovely feeling. In addition, drawing (and later thumbing back through the book) helps you to remember what you’ve observed. I painted this tree from the rocking chair in my living room, following an April blizzard in 2018, after being inspired by other nature journal snow entries I’d seen on Instagram. I would not have been able to do something like this in the field; I’m much too slow. But doing it from home, and only the part of the trees that peep over the neighbor’s house, was a small enough project that I could finish it, and it got me practice that means that next time I want to paint snow, I’ll have a better idea how to go about doing it.

One of our other secrets to successful nature study is to find a nature buddy if we can: one other family or a friend who will meet you at the park, and talk over all the amazing things there are to see is an invaluable asset. The times when we have had friends to meet at the park have been the times when we got there most consistently. (The times when we’ve gone with large groups, the outings were more social than observational.) Our friends have drawn our eyes to things that they loved, but that we had overlooked. If you can find someone who already knows the local plants and animals, they can greatly speed the process of learning the names of things, and help you know where to look to find Interesting Things that you might otherwise miss.

The lovely thing about Nature Study is that you can always start with what you know, however little that is. Each time you find an Interesting Thing you learn a little more. And a little more from the next Interesting Thing. Pretty soon, you and your children start to have favorite things that you like to return to.  And the habits that build that process are very small and simple: get outside, relax and enjoy the process of learning to love nature, and keep an eye peeled for an Interesting Thing. Then, do it again.

DoriAnn HaskinsDoriAnn Haskins is a wife and a mother of three. She has been studying and then using a Classical/Charlotte Mason approach to homeschooling since about 2009, when her oldest started preschool. You can find her blogging at Baby Steps, where she primarily posts about homeschooling life, educational philosophy, and the Gospel.

Oak Tree photo credit:
Frog photo credit:

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