What Is Nature Study?

What is Nature Study? When you hear those words, do you immediately feel overwhelmed? Do you immediately think, what on earth is “nature study” and how do I begin to teach such a gargantuan topic?

The words “nature study” were not in my vocabulary when I began homeschooling.

However, after years of fits and starts, I finally came to understand that nature study, like much of homeschooling, isn’t about having all the answers, it’s about discovering the answers along the way.

In this article, I will provide you with a basic working definition of nature study and offer a few practical applications to help you better understand what nature study is and what it is not.

what is nature study

“I know how to make magic for the teacher who is growing old.  Let her go out with her youngest pupil and reverently watch with him the miracle of the blossoming Violet and say, “Dear Nature, I know naught of the wondrous life of these, your smallest creatures. “Teach me!” and she will suddenly find herself young.”

-Anna Botsford Comstock

Why Nature Study Feels So Big

Perhaps, the reason you feel overwhelmed is because both of those words, NATURE and STUDY, seem to connote something really BIG.

Studying nature seems like a huge undertaking. How can you possibly incorporate such a large subject into your homeschool?

Added to that misunderstanding, are all the Instagram posts and Pinterest articles about nature journaling.

Is it any wonder why your inner child who feels she can’t draw a stickman or who can’t tell a poplar tree from an oak is bound to shrink back and shove the topic to the side?

When I began homeschooling, I thought the teacher surely had to know all the answers to the student’s questions.

I thought I must become the expert on whatever topic we were going to study.

That meant if nature study was important, I must become an expert on nature and art and that was TERRIFYING!

As if I was going to become a “nature expert” before my oldest turned 5 years old and teach him everything he needed to become a naturalist.

That’s like believing I must learn everything about the Bible before telling them about Jesus.

Rest assured neither of those statements are true. You can incorporate nature study into your homeschool without being an expert on nature or a particularly talented artist.

I hope to help you grasp the simpleness of nature study and thereby avoid the overwhelm that I felt in the beginning which kept me from embracing it with the passion that I now enjoy.

What Is Nature Study By Definition

First things first, let’s get the definition of nature study, as I see it, out of the way.

My understanding of nature study is derived from the books I’ve read, the experiences I have had with my children, and the method of homeschooling I have chosen to embrace.

The working definition I have embraced for nature study is as follows.

Nature Study is a careful observation of natural objects and natural phenomena followed by wondering and pondering upon these observations, inquiring about and researching answers, telling others, and finally recording your findings.

Let’s begin by unpacking the above definition for you.

Nature Study Is The Careful Observation of Natural Objects and Natural Phenomena

Anna Botsford Comstock is probably the most well known name among those who practice nature study in the homeschool community, excepting maybe, Charlotte Mason.

In the very beginning of her well known, Handbook of Nature Study, Ms. Comstock says,

“Nature-study is, despite all discussions and perversions, a study of nature; it consists of simple, truthful observations that may, like beads on a string, finally be threaded upon the understanding and thus held together as a logical and harmonious whole.”

At first, because of the older way in which this is written, it may be hard to grasp, but I want you to focus simply upon the phrase:

“nature study…consists of simple, truthful observations…”

This is truly where you will start. Whether your child is 2 years old or 12 years old, the foundation of any nature study begins with simple, truthful, observation.

W.S. Furneaux, says in his book, A Nature Study Guide, that

“It [Nature Study] is the careful and thoughtful observation of natural objects and natural phenomena by the children, under the guidance of the teacher…”

The first step in nature study is simply the observing of nature.

Your job as the teacher isn’t to know everything about what you observe. Your job is to create an atmosphere in your homeschool which encourages the observation.

Nature Study Is About Wondering and Pondering

John Muir Laws encourages his nature journal students to use the following three statements when observing nature.

  • I notice…
  • I wonder…
  • It reminds me of…

These are very helpful prompts to consider and is consistent with the teachings of Anna Botsford Comstock, Charlotte Mason, and many other naturalists of the past and present.

The beauty of homeschooling outdoors and nature study is that you can tap into the natural curiosity of your child.

If you, as the teacher, attempt to learn all the facts about the object and spoon feed that to your student, you will actually achieve the opposite objective you desire.

This is good news both for you and your student. You don’t have to have all the answers before observing and learning from nature, and your student doesn’t have to be “bored” by meaningless fill in the blank worksheets or diagrams.

Nature Study Naturally Leads To Inquiry and Research

The mistake I made early on in nature study was thinking that I had to make a lesson plan, formulate all the questions, and be ready to provide all the answers. However, this method of imparting knowledge to the children in such a dry fashion only led to their lack of interest and my frustration.

Picking up on the definition that Mr. Furneaux provides in, A Nature Study Guide,

“…nature study, as we are to understand it, is to be looked upon rather as a method than as a subject. It is, with the teacher, an effort to bring the children in direct contact with things, to cultivate the habit of careful observation and discrimination, to create a living interest in the surroundings, and to encourage independent thought.”

When a child is very young, this careful observation may simply lead him to discover that the earthworm is squishy while the lizard is not. There is no need to inform him on the classification of animals into vertebrate and invertebrate at this time.

However, if his curiosity is particularly piqued, a trip to the library to find books on worms and lizards is often a worthwhile endeavor.

The older student may wish to read even further about each of the insects and discover more about their differences going so far as to label them in his journal or writing them into a classification chart. That leads us into the last aspects of our nature study.

Nature Study Often Leads To Telling Others and Recording Your Discoveries

The young child who has been able to closely observe a natural object, follow his curiosities and research out his answers, most often will be eager to tell others about his findings.

He will often, unprompted, be eager to recall to dad or grandma the events of the afternoon of observations or to proudly pull out the pictures he has drawn.

If he is very young, you can write his descriptions and his observations in a nature notebook on his behalf.

Later, when he is older, if the subject of vertebrates and invertebrates appears in his studies, he will most likely recollect the observation of the squishy earthworm and the spiny lizard.

He will have a memory to hang his thoughts and understanding upon.

Older students may be less eager to tell others about their findings depending upon their personalities and familiarity with nature study.

However, we have found that participating in a natural history club has been a pleasant experience for all ages and encourages even more discovery, eagerness to share, and willingness to record their findings in their nature notebooks.

I hope this simple definition of nature study has helped you begin to grasp the beauty of nature study as well as the fact that it doesn’t have to be too scary. I will leave you with this quote by Charlotte Mason.

“It would be well if all we persons in authority…could make up our minds that there is no sort of knowledge to be got in these early years so valuable to children as that which they live in. Let them once get touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life. We are all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of marvels of pant and animal life and to care for none of these things.”

Charlotte Mason

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