Nature Study for Mom

I am a lover of nature. The love of nature and good books drew me to Charlotte Mason, but reading her works, seeing what her students could do, left me feeling inadequate. You see, I’ve spend a lot of time in nature, and I’ve looked at the forest. But I’ve missed the trees. Miss Mason says it is “important for [the child] to know the difference between snakeweed and Lady’s Thumb, or hawkweed and dandelion, and where to find this or that plant and what it looks like as it grows” (Parents and Children, pg 231). I have two trees in my yard. I can tell you the name of only one of them. Isn’t that sad?

An Old Problem
I assumed this was a modern problem. Especially after reading about Beatrix Potter‘s life. But it turns out that Miss Mason faced the same issue when she first started the Parents’ Educational Union in 1887. In her outlines, she wrote:

“Children under nine should get the more valuable part of their education in the open air. They should be on speaking terms with every sort of natural object to be met within miles of their homes.” —Story of Charlotte Mason, pg 17

Immediately after this, she notes the same issue I, and many others, face today:

“It is from his parents the child must get this real knowledge. We all know how eagerly a child takes to the lore of the fields — but how shall we tell what we don’t know, and do we not all wish we knew more of this sort of thing?” — Story of Charlotte Mason, pg 18 (emphasis mine)

Yes, I do wish I knew more. I wish there was someone to teach me. I have field guides, but sometimes I can’t even find the plant I want, or I am not sure which of two similar plants (or birds) I am observing.

We Need a Teacher
Naturally, Miss Mason plans out the solution:

“A couple of field excursions every year under the lead of a naturalist, with opportunities for asking questions, and a notebook, should give us at least a score or two of new acquaintances every year, and, what is more, should initiate us into the art of seeing – both communicable possessions, to be passed on to the children.” —Story of Charlotte Mason, pg 18

Of course! I’d thought about doing these kinds of nature walks “with the kids”, but just for myself? I’d always felt that those classes were frivolous, perhaps something other people needed, the ones who thought meat came from the grocery store. I was wrong.

Finding a Teacher
Thanks to my DH’s new job, we are each enjoying a bit of spending money. I haven’t spent much of mine. Surprisingly, I feel no pull to buy books. There are several reasons for this, the top two are we plan to move long-distance this year, and my local library is now fine free (meaning I can afford to go there). I really want to buy more time, but I’ve not found a vendor yet. Now, I know what I want to do: find some nature classes for mama.
I’ve seen advertisements or notices in several places, please comment if you have other ideas of where to look:

  • The local community college (the “continuing education” section)
  • My local homeschool group (search the HSLDA, Facebook, Google)
  • State parks (The website for Montana is http://stateparks.mt.gov/) My closest park currently has a snowshoe walk every Saturday, the cost is $4 plus an optional $5 snowshoe rental.
  • National parks (Find parks near your area.) My nearest park has a link “For Teachers”, which contains both a list of classes and a list of books available. Most of the classes are free, but the location varies.
  • Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (Montana is http://fwp.mt.gov/)
  • Local organizations. One near to me is the Glacier Institute – day trips run about $65.
  • The bulletin board at the library
  • Hunter Safety (contact your Fish, Wildlife and Parks) Not a nature class, per se, but I think it is a good idea, especially if you are going to be trekking about during hunting season. The ones I’ve seen are free. My son finished Hunter Safety last fall, and I really appreciated their emphasis on safety and survival.
  • Visitor centers. I mistakenly thought these were just little tourist traps, but the ones I’ve visited are full of information, both natural and historical. And they were free or inexpensive.
  • Search for natural history museums, nature centers and similar terms in your state or area. Google has “related searches”, a few of which proved helpful for me.
  • Pretend you are a tourist in your hometown. Visit or check the places tourists visit.

We Need Time
The Handbook of Nature Study, a Very Scary Book – at least until I took a few small nibbles with the Ambleside Online study group and discovered otherwise, has another instruction to teachers. This one is very simple:

“In my belief, there are two and only two occupations for Saturday afternoon or forenoon for a teacher. One is to be out-of-doors and the other is to lie in bed, and the first is best.” —Handbook of Nature Study, pt 1

Comstock is writing for a teacher in a school, so I assume she is thinking of solo walks here. Perhaps a good compromise is Miss Mason’s method of sending the children off to explore or to play, so mother can observe (and provide an example that the children will notice).

Measuring Progress
The heart of a Charlotte Mason education is relationships. “Education is the science of relations”, she tells us. It is not parroting facts. We can’t be a great teacher by memorizing a field guide. Anna Botsford Comstock provides a metric:

“The teacher may judge as to her own progress in nature-study by the length of time she is glad to spend in reading from nature’s book what is therein written. As she progresses, she finds those hours spent in studying nature speed faster, until a day thus spent seems but an hour.” —The Handbook of Nature Study, pt 1

Further Reading
First, nature study with Charlotte Mason involved a lot more than painting pictures of flowers on sunny days. Here is a short list for one nature topic, the skies.
If you are new to Miss Mason, or even if you are not, I highly recommend the topical series at Ambleside Online. Here is nature study and science.
The Handbook of Nature Study is large, but broken into managable sections. Join us at the Ambleside Online forums where we read through it together (free registration required).

5 Comments

  1. Anna

    It’s good to know I’m not alone in feeling inadequate to guide my children in nature study. Thanks for sharing these great ideas!

    Reply
  2. Katie

    This was extremely helpful. Thank you for practical thoughts on a subject I’m struggling with. I really appreciate the work you put into this.

    Reply
  3. Cindy Belcher

    Thanks for sharing these ideas. I definitely need an extra push when it comes to nature study, and I look forward to looking into some of the options you suggested!

    Reply
  4. Lisa

    I am thankful that I am not the only mom who feels nature illiterate at times. With spring not far away, I am determined to learn more about identifying trees in our area. I am looking for a good tree field guide to help me. Thanks for such a helpful post, and for the links, too.

    Reply
  5. Charmayne

    I too am in this boat. This post gives me a starting point.

    Reply

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