Nature Study Tips from Karen Glass

Karen Glass's tips for using the Handbook of Nature Study, especially as it applies to first, birds, and then mammals

AmblesideOnline provides a rotation for the Handbook of Nature Study. Each term, you are focusing on one area--rocks and minerals, birds, trees, mammals, wildflowers--whatever. Just one (although there is some doubling in the later years). If the schedule doesn't suit you because of your geographic location or season, change it. (There's no special rhyme or reason to the rotation--it's just arbitrary.)

Now, during the term that you are focusing on . . . let's say birds . . . you will want to look over the bird section of Handbook of Nature Study. Pay attention to which birds you are likely to see in your area. During your nature walks, pay especial attention to the birds. Where are they? Are they nesting? What are they eating? Are they alone or in flocks? Keep a list of the different birds you see during this term. Try to discover the names of birds you see, but don't recognize. Use the Handbook of Nature Study to teach your children some basic facts about birds (such as all birds have beaks, feather, wings, and two feet, etc.). The Handbook of Nature Study suggests using a chicken to study birds up close. If you don't know anyone with a chicken, maybe you have a friend with a parakeet?

Your primary goal during the "bird" term is to heighten your children's awareness of the feathered creatures around them. Teach them to be very still and quiet while they watch birds. If it's the right time of year, put out birdseed. Of course, you will want to implement your nature notebooks during the term. Set a goal of drawing 5 or 6 different types of birds (use picture books to help you draw them--they move around too much). Put your list of birds into the nature notebook--it's not just for pictures. If you have a bird nesting close to your home, you might keep a journal and follow the progress of the babies. This could go in the nature notebook, too.

You might choose to read to your children directly from the Handbook of Nature Study (not about every bird, but perhaps a few that interest all of you), or you may just use it more as a "teacher's guide." When your bird term is finished and you move onto reptiles or something next term, you will find that the relationship your children developed with birds continues. At least, that has been the case at my house. I've been doing the "focused" nature studies for several years now, and the results have been pleasing. Once the children have their awareness heightened, they continue to notice birds, even when you are focusing on rocks and minerals. After a few terms of this, they begin to be aware of many things at once and get quite sharp at spotting items of interest!

Now, one caution. Just because this is the "bird" term, it does not mean that you must limit your nature study exclusively to birds. That is your focus, so at least once a week, on a nature walk, you will want to be noticing them. But if the kids get excited about a wasp's nest, or a pretty flower, or a fossil . . . take advantage of their interest and draw or talk about that for the day. You have a whole term to "focus" on birds, so there's no need to tune out all the other interesting things that come up.

If you follow the AmblesideOnline rotation for nature studies in years 1-6, you will cycle through every section in the Handbook of Nature Study. My suggestion is to follow the same rotation for all your children. You can also take advantage of the "focus" to check out library books on your topic. My favorite "bird" book for the lower grades is "Tony's Birds" by Millicent Selsam. It's just an I Can Read book, so if you can find it, it's easy to add into your term's reading. Your kids will be excited about watching birds if they get to read that book!

Happy nature studying!


I thought I'd send some special "helps" for this topic, since it seems to be a problem. Please keep in mind that these ideas are largely mine. They are influenced by CM, and I hope I am adhering to the general principles. However, they are my ideas and opinions, and are not even sanctioned by the rest of the AmblesideOnline developers.

If my disclaimer hasn't scared you into deleting this post . . .

First, the big, important, significant principle at stake in nature study is obervation and forming a relationship with what you are observing. Let me say it this way: quality matters more than quantity--much more!

Now, let's say the topic for the term is mammals. You have twelve weeks to spend on this topic, but you don't have to spend all twelve weeks on it. Designate a time each week for "nature study"--half an hour would be nice if you can squeeze that much into your schedule. This half hour is nature study time.

Look at the general information about mammals included in the Handbook of Nature study. You don't have to read this directly, but you will see that there is basic information you want to cover, such as the fact that mammals have hair, give birth to live young which they feed with milk . . . whatever. You want your child to know in what way a mammal is different from birds or reptiles--that's the point.

Look through the lessons on mammals offered in the Handbook of Nature Study. Do not try to do a different animal every week. Just look at the list, and try to think of a way that you could manage to observe a few of these animals. Is there a farm nearby? Do you have a pet, or easy access to one of your neighbor's? Are the squirrels and chipmunks common in your area? Any chance to observe deer? Rabbits? Raccoons? Don't even think about covering everything--this is not an in-depth study. It is just a term to focus on one particular aspect of nature. (That means you don't have to ignore the great nature-study things that just happen to fall in your lap, even if they are "off topic".) Once you've selected a mammal or two, use one or two of your nature study times to watch it.

You don't have to cover everything about the life cycle or habits of the animal in question. You are observing, so what you want to focus on is this:what is this creature doing right now, and why? If you are watching squirrels . . . are they eating? playing? nest-building? What exactly are they doing? Pay attention to the way they react to each other, as well as other things in their environment (like you). As well as looking at their behavior, teach your children to notice the shape of their bodies, tails, paws, ears, and mouths. Consider why they are made the way are.

If you do just this much . . . devote half an hour a week to observing something in nature, you are doing a lot. If you use part of the time to draw or record in writing something that you see . . . you have the beginnings of a nature notebook. If you have to watch the same animals all the time (and you might!), try to vary other factors. Watch them in the morning, and the evening. Watch them while they eat, and find out what they do when they are not eating.

I would try . . . and I do mean try . . . to observe at least one wild animal and one tame animal as you do the mammal nature study. If all you can manage are tame ones (and believe me, that's all I'm going to see), then . . . .(maybe I should whisper this?) . . . watch one or two high-quality nature programs/videos about mammals in the wild. Count it as nature study. Yes, it's second-best, but that doesn't make it all bad.

Somewhere in the CM series, I find that CM intended the children to make six illustrations for their nature notebooks during the term. Just six. So, if you can manage to add something to your nature notebooks on the term's topic just six times, you are doing WELL. If it just happens 3 or 4 times . . . that's still okay. Don't worry about what you can't do . . . take advantage of what you can. Visit a pet shop or animal shelter, if you need to, and watch kittens romp. Watch the reaction of a puppy let out of it's cage to play. If you visit the animal shelter, notice the differences in behavior between sick animals and healthy, or between older animals and younger.

Nature study means taking advantage of the nature that's available to you. If the only mammals you get to look at during the term are cats and dogs . . . so be it. Add in a video or two, and be content. Do what you can to develop your child's powers of observation, and help him or her to develop a relationship with something this term . . . even it's only the neighbor's cat. :-)


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