Monday, August 20, 2012

Chapter 4: Nature Study and Notebooks

Nature study is one of the hallmarks of a Charlotte Mason education in that it both sets it apart from other schooling methods and makes up the sum of science study for the early years.  This chapter by Bobby Scott is short, but he does outline here what a nature walk should look like and how to keep a nature notebook from Miss Mason's perspective: all students should spend one afternoon a week outdoors, making their own observations, with the teacher alongside to answer questions.  They should mark the change of the seasons and take careful notice of both known and new species, delighting in the natural world "as in the familiar faces of friends."  They should then neatly note their observations (through pictures, descriptions, and labels) in a notebook, which becomes, as in the case of a Book of Centuries or a commonplace book, something the student takes ownership of and pride in.  These practices lead, one hopes, to lifetime habits. (172)  Scott admits the limitations of teaching nature study as a subject in the classroom, the primary one being time constraints both on the nature walk and on the notebook work.  Happily, homeschoolers have no such obstacles.  I think the merging of schoolwork and "life" that happens when one is schooling at home is perfect in pursuits such as these, which can so easily captivate the mind of a child that it is a shame for them to be confined to "three to four class periods."  We can strike when the student's "keen interest is awakened"--a wonderful advantage for the child. (172)

In applying the discussion from this chapter to young children, I thought back to "A Formidable List of Attainments for a Child of Six," which I have been reviewing as we go through our first-grade year.  I have always been impressed by the number of these skills that are related to nature study.  Quoting off and on from that list:

"6. to know the points of the compass with relation to their own home, where the sun rises and sets, and the way the wind blows
7. to describe the boundaries of their own home
8. to describe any lake, river, pond, island etc. within easy reach ...
10. to be able to describe 3 walks and 3 views
11. to mount in a scrap book a dozen common wildflowers, with leaves (one every week); to name these, describe them in their own words, and say where they found them.
12. to do the same with leaves and flowers of 6 forest trees
13. to know 6 birds by song, colour and shape ...
15. to tell three stories about their own "pets"--rabbit, dog or cat ...
18. to keep a caterpillar and tell the life-story of a butterfly from his own observations."

Nature knowledge makes up fully half of the list.  How much differently do we measure children's early education in our school system today!

On a personal note, I related to Bobby Scott's admission regarding his own experience: "Eve Anderson, the former Eton End PNEU school headmistress, inspired me to pursue nature painting and study in my forties.  It is never too late to begin to appreciate beauty in this way." (173)  Just a couple years ago, I couldn't tell an oak from a sycamore, the only birds I was able to identify were crows and pigeons, and I hadn't a clue what season tulips bloomed in.  My formal schooling in the natural world was seriously lacking.  But as my children hit preschool age, they started to ask questions: What's that tree called?  What bird is making that sound?  Despite my reservations, I knew that the best way to teach them a love for nature was by trying to live it myself.  I'm not a natural outdoorswoman, and I don't think I ever will be.  I don't even plan on taking the children camping any time soon!  But I started checking out field guides from the library, trying to answer their little barrage of questions as well as I could, and asking them questions of my own: What do you think caused those holes in the bark?  What is that bird doing down there?  How can we tell if it's a chestnut-backed chickadee or a house sparrow?  My children know I'm not just quizzing them--when I'm asking questions, I'm really asking questions!  :)  

And despite being pretty intimidated by the idea of trying to learn to draw, I started keeping a nature journal of my own, thinking I would model the practice for the kids and perhaps pick up some art tips I could pass along to them.  But to my surprise, it has become a hobby of mine, and I do love having my own record of our nature walks and the change of seasons in our yard.  I am certainly a novice in both nature study and the recording of it, but luckily, the key isn't a perfect product but the process itself, which is a form of narration: we look at the natural world and attempt to reproduce it just as in an oral narration, we listen and then tell back.  As Scott says, it's another way of "appreciating beauty," and I'm pleased to have discovered it now and to be able to pass it along to my littles.

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