It’s spring in the Northern Hemisphere, and many people are starting to venture outside more often. Miss Mason’s book are full of suggestions of what sorts of activities outside would be beneficial. If you’re just starting out with Nature Study, feel free to keep it simple. But if you want a few ideas for digging in a little deeper, try one of these:
Children should be encouraged to watch, patiently and quietly, until they learn something of the habits and history of bee, ant, wasp, spider, hairy caterpillar, dragon-fly, and whatever of larger growth comes in their way.
-Charlotte Mason, volume 1 page 57
Thinking about how I might apply this suggestion, and knowing that my kids are, some of them, going to find this sort of assignment a little challenging, I think that I might tell them, “Today, I want you find something that you can watch, keeping as still as you can, for at least 2 minutes. This can be a plant, or an animal, or a bit of water: choose something you find at least a little bit interesting –or I can help you choose something, if nothing seems interesting today.” Two minutes isn’t very long, but it’s a start. I think you want to meet the child where they are, and then encourage them to stretch just a little bit, so that next time, maybe they can watch for just a little longer, or they can find their own Interesting Thing to watch. It’s ok if they don’t do it naturally; if loving the lovely came naturally, we wouldn’t need to educate! The trick is to patiently lead them along so that they learn to love the Good, the Beautiful, and the True.
There is no end to the store of common information, got in such a way that it will never be forgotten, with which an intelligent child may furnish himself before he begins his school career. The boy who can tell you off-hand where to find each of the half-dozen most graceful birches, the three or four finest ash trees in the neighbourhood of his home, has chances in a life a dozen to one compared with the lower, slower intelligence that does not know an elm from an oak––not merely chances of success, but chances of a larger, happier life, for it is curious how certain feelings are linked with the mere observation of Nature and natural objects .
-Charlotte Mason, volume 1 page 68
Because I do not know, myself, the different types of trees, carrying a field guide for trees has been a regular thing the past year or so, since I decided that I’d like to know the trees in my area. While the kids play, I will look up the name of the tree standing next to the playground, and then I can tell them about it, or show the drawing that I made in my book. One time, with a particularly difficult identification, I called the City Forester (our town, amazingly enough, has one of those, attached to the Public Works department), and asked him what kind of tree is in front of my neighbor’s house. He looked it up both on Google Earth, and in the city records, and was able to tell me that it’s a Honey Locust –but the identification had been difficult because the city has found a supplier of a cultivar of these lovely trees that comes without the characteristic sap and thorns.
As I learn the different trees, it’s been fun to start to recognize them around our neighborhood and at our favorite parks: as Miss Mason predicted, I am happier for knowing more intimately my neighborhood. The more of the trees I know myself, the more often that I’ve been able to answer the kids’ questions –and the more that they know that I’ve been learning these things, the more they ask about them.
“Mom, what kind of tree is this?”
“I don’t know; I think it’s some kind of spruce, because the needles are similar to the spiky Blue Spruce, don’t you think”?
“Yeah, but they’re not as sharp as those.”
“No, they’re not. It must be some other kind of spruce. We’ll have to bring our book out and see if we can figure out which kind next time we come.”
In this way, we’ve gradually learned quite a few of our trees. Miss Mason presumes that parents will already know quite a bit about the natural world, and where so many of us were raised without this knowledge, we have to remember to be nice to ourselves as we’re learning. The process of filling in the gaps in our own education, and seeing how we treat ourselves when we do not know, is, itself, a lesson that our children will absorb. Remember to be kind to yourself while you learn!
There are certain ideas which children must get from within a walking radius of their own home if ever they are to have a real understanding of maps and of geographical terms. Distance is one of these, and the first idea of distance is to be attained by what children find a delightful operation. A child walks at his usual pace; somebody measures and tells him the length of his pace, and then he measures the paces of his brothers and sisters. Then such a walk, such a distance, here and there, is solemnly paced, and a little sum follows––so many inches or feet covered by each pace equals so many yards in the whole distance. Various short distances about the child’s home should be measured in this way; and when the idea of covering distance is fully established, the idea of times as a means of measurement should be introduced. The time taken to pace a hundred yards should be noted down. Having found out that it takes two minutes to pace a hundred yards, children will be able for the next step––that if they have walked for thirty minutes, the walk should measure fifteen hundred yards; in thirty-five minutes they would have walked a mile, or rather seventeen hundred and fifty yards, and then they could add the ten yards more which would make a mile. The longer the legs the longer the pace, and most grown people can walk a mile in twenty minutes.
-Charlotte Mason, volume 1 page 73
This section, and the one following that includes ideas for how to introduce compass activities, could provide a whole series of excursions, taken in over the course of the whole summer. You could measure the yard, the ball diamond, the distance between your two favorite trees at the park, and the distance across Nana and Grandpa’s yard, or whatever other distance happens you catch your fancy. Later, you could discuss the direction that one is from the other. The compass in the car also becomes more meaningful as they become more familiar with distance and direction. As distances get longer, the sense of how long is a mile or a kilometer becomes more real, and this will make the scope of the vast distances on State, national, or world maps that much more visceral.
Part of the “magic” of a Charlotte Mason education is the way that she grasps the power of the small and simple things, and shows us how to bring those small things to bear in ways that give our children remarkable opportunities for deep learning about and appreciation of the world around them. One or two of these activities is plenty for any given Nature Study outing, but done consistently over a period of time, they will start to add up to a beautiful element in an education that cultivates the whole soul.
DoriAnn 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.
Caterpillar Photo Credit: FreeImages.com/Marie Jeanne Iliescu