Nature Study

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Nature Study

By Naomi Goegan

"How delicious it is to sit down with a twig." ~A student as quoted by Charlotte Mason

What is Nature Study?

Nature Study at its simplest is time in nature, observing the natural world around us. It is not a one time event; rather, it is a habit of being outdoors on a regular, consistent basis over weeks, months, and years. It is a process of getting to know the natural world around us through first-hand, personal experience. Nature, or creation, is worth knowing personally. No textbook, no nature video can replace its significance in our children's lives.

What is the purpose of nature study?

Our goal in nature study is to awaken interest and to give children their first inspiring ideas about the natural world. It is not to learn facts and definitions. It is not a rigid curriculum to follow. Information of this kind can be had at our fingertips without ever going outside. But these don't train the mind in "exact observation, impartial record, great and humble expectation, patience, reverence, and humility, the sense that any minute natural object enfolds immense secrets." (Vol., Book II, p.101) What we want to do is put our children in touch with the wondrous world created by the Maker of heaven and earth, and to bring him/her in living sympathy with it.

Hindrances to nature study

Nature study should not follow a rigid curriculum because we can not always predict what nature will produce on any given day. Additionally, there are different climates, seasons, and habitats offering widely differing opportunities and challenges throughout the year, so prescribing one plan for all can be impractical, therefore it is open to the incidental and kept informal.

Teachers should avoid hurrying to answer questions. As children spend time outdoors observing and noticing nature, questions naturally arise. What is it? What is it doing? Where did it come from? Is it always here? Where does it live? What does it eat? etc. This is an essential part of the process of nature study. Like narration, interrupting this mental process with facts and information too quickly robs the child of wonder and the thinking needed for growth.

"He must live hours daily in the open air, and, as far as possible, in the country; must look and touch and listen; must be quick to note, consciously, every peculiarity of habit or structure, in beast, bird, or insect; the manner of growth and fructification of every plant. He must be accustomed to ask why--Why does the wind blow? Why does the river flow? Why is a leaf-bud sticky? And do not hurry to answer his questions for him; let him think his difficulties out so far as his small experience will carry him." ~Vol. 1, p.264-265

"Do children keep tadpoles, and silkworms, and caterpillars in these days? . . . We have many capital descriptions from books, and that is better than nothing, but the very essence of natural history is that it should, so far as possible, be drawn direct from Nature." ~"The Home School" article by Charlotte Mason in the Parents' Review

Benefits of nature study

The benefits of nature study are many. It provides us with healthful breaks from sit down schooling, opportunities for physical exercise, movement, balance, weighing risks and decision making. It brings all the senses alive in a way no indoor stagnant atmosphere can. The ever changing hues of light and color, scents wafted along on changes of air and atmosphere, the gentle touch of a cool breeze, the warmth of the sun, etc. It is spiritual (meaning more than just physical.)

Unstructured time in nature provides an escape for children; a therapy against the many mental health concerns of our day. They are able to forget themselves and the troubles of the world. There are endless avenues to explore in later life whether it's gardening, hiking, birding, wildflowers, the microscopic world -- there are endless avenues for exploration.

Nature teaches us an appreciation for beauty and art -- the sunset, the silhouette, the sparkling light on water. It teaches us the realities of life -- our physical limits, pain, humility, reproduction, birth, death, regeneration.

It provides opportunities for companionship and relationships to grow as it draws our attention away from phones, tv, noise, and leaves us with time together alongside one another.

"Out in this, God's beautiful world, there is everything waiting to heal lacerated nerves, to strengthen tired muscles, to please and content the soul that is torn to shreds with duty and care. The teacher who turns to nature's healing finds, not trouble, but a sweet, fresh breath of air . . . She who opens her eyes and her heart nature-ward even once a week finds it a delight and an abiding joy. She finds that without planning or going on a far voyage, she has found health and strength." ~Anna Botsford Comstock

Foundation for scientific knowledge

Many of the greatest scientists had their beginnings in nature, like Newton and Kepler.

Nature trains the eye in simple, truthful observation. The child who sees a brown bird will be presented in their field guide with brown birds that are large or small, some with spots on the breast, others without, some with longer tails, others with shorter, some with an eye stripe, others without -- and learns to look closer on his/her next attempt.

Children who spend hours in the outdoors store up a wealth of first-hand knowledge contributing to future studies. In nature children learn to see patterns, cycles, numbers, order and arrangement, interconnectedness of life, classification, mathematics, harmony, cruelty, blessing, etc.

"To know a plant by its gesture and habitat, its time and its way of flowering and fruiting; a bird by its flight and song and its times of coming and going; to know when, year after year, you may come upon the redstart and the pied fly-catcher, means a good deal of interested observation, and of; at any rate, the material for science." (Vol. 3, p. 236)


We care for what we love. Children raised with a living sympathy for the world around them will naturally care for it.


Nature does have its thorns. It is important to be aware of your surroundings. Things like poison oak, mountain lions, ticks, rattlesnakes, etc. do exist depending on your area so take proper precautions.

The Nature-walk

Nature study is so simple it often eludes us. While we may be thinking of the epic adventure, the national park, the museum, the aquarium, or the local naturalist's lecture event (which all have their place,) nature study is as simple as a nearby walk or time in the backyard.

"On one afternoon in the week, the children (of the Practising School) go for a 'nature walk' with their teachers. They notice for themselves, and the teacher gives a name or other information as it is asked for, and it is surprising what a range of knowledge a child of nine or ten acquires. The teachers are careful not to make these nature walks an opportunity for scientific instruction, as we wish the children's attention to be given to observation with very little direction. In this way they lay up that store of 'common information' which Huxley considered should precede science teaching; and, what is much more important, they learn to know and delight in natural objects as in the familiar faces of friends. The nature-walk should not be made the occasion to impart a sort of Tit-Bits miscellany of scientific information. The study of science should be pursued in an ordered sequence, which is not possible or desirable in a walk. It seems to me a sine quâ non of a living education that all school children of whatever grade should have one half-day in the week, throughout the year, in the fields. There are few towns where country of some sort is not accessible, and every child should have the opportunity of watching from week to week, the procession of the seasons.

Geography, geology, the course of the sun, the behaviour of the clouds, weather signs, all that the 'open' has to offer, are made use of in these walks; but all is incidental, easy, and things are noticed as they occur." (Vol. 3, p.236-237)

As described later in this page, there are many avenues to extend nature study, but these are not required. What is most important is the habit of being outdoors.

Learning to see

Nature is often subtle and reveals her mysteries to those who take the time to notice. When we are fresh and new in the world, everything is a marvel! Young toddlers are curious about every last thing -- the ant, the puddle of water, the leaf. As time goes by we learn as adults not to see, to pass by without even a glance. We learn to ignore what we have come to assume is "just a tree" or "just a bird." Learning to see again, to begin to wonder anew, will take slowing down and trusting the process. Be open to seeing what your children see, things that seem common and unimportant. The rock, the leaf, the spider web, the flower, the insect, the bird. Think of what questions you could ask -- What, why, how, when, etc. Over time, with regularity, a new world will begin to reveal itself.

Teaching nature study

Children must do the work of learning. It is not for us to tell them what we know, or should be known. Ask a leading question or two to bring them to observe something closer. This can be done preferably in its natural habitat or by bringing a plant or a flower or other item back home. Have them look and explain what they see, its structure and its meaning. Keep it short, no more than fifteen minutes. This is not a test. Parents can refer to the Handbook of Nature Study for ideas on the kinds of leading questions to guide observation.

Narration and Story

The act of telling about natural finds adds joyful dimensions to a child's learning. Our analytical world would have us imagine there is only one way of knowing a natural object -- by its facts. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Knowledge is as unique and diverse as are people and sharing that knowledge is valuable and edifying within the right context. Telling and hearing stories of a child's observations, how an object was discovered, what they thought and felt, the context and people surrounding the discovery and more are all fascinating and meaningful. Reading the history of discovery through biographies and other nature books of people's stories related to their time and context regarding the natural objects they came across is also a wonderful expansion of natural history knowledge.

Nature note-books

Observations should be kept in a nature note-book. Drawing and painting can be taught separately and should not become a source of strife while adding to the nature journal. While children are very young mothers can write in their observations for them.

"The children keep a dated record of what they see in their nature note-books, which are left to their own management and are not corrected. These note-books are a source of pride and joy, and are freely illustrated by drawings (brushwork) of twig, flower, insect, etc. The knowledge necessary for these records is not given in the way of teaching. (Vol. 3, p. 236)

Bird and Plant Lists

Children can keep a list of birds, plants, or any other category of observations in the back of their nature note-books, or in additional note-books including common name, latin name, date and location it was observed. Some also keep a calendar of firsts.

"It is a capital plan for the children to keep a calendar--the first oak-leaf, the first tadpole, the first cowslip, the first catkin, the first ripe blackberries, where seen, and when. The next year they will know when and where to look out for their favourites, and will, every year, be in a condition to add new observations. Think of the zest and interest, the object, which such a practice will give to daily walks and little excursions." (Vol. 1, p. 54)

These should be interest led and optional.


"We supplement this direct 'nature walk' by occasional object-lessons, as, on the hairs of plants, on diversity of wings . . ." (Vol. 3, pg. 238)

Short Object lessons, perhaps once a week, no more than ten or fifteen minutes, like those found in the Handbook of Nature Study, add to the children's knowledge. Parents can also research unique and specific nature findings online or via resources like iNature.

". . . the children are put in the position of the original observer of biological and other phenomena. They learn what to observe, and make discoveries for themselves, original so far as they are concerned. They are put in the right attitude of mind for scientific observations and deductions, and their keen interest is awakened. We are extremely careful not to burden the verbal memory with scientific nomenclature. Children learn of pollen, antennae, and what not, incidentally, when the thing is present and they require a name for it." (Vol. 3, pg. 238)

For more information and inspiration, listen to Naomi Goegan discuss nature study with Cindy Rollins on the New Mason Jar (42 min).

Materials and Resources

A nature note-book, preferably one that lays flat and has paper thick enough to withstand watercolors.

A set of watercolors like Winsor-Newton Cotman Sketchbox Paints ($amzn) and a paint brush that has a fine point like this set of Pentel Aquash waterbrushes ($amzn), no larger than a size 6.

Field guides -- local guides will be most helpful if you can find them. Books are helpful for in-depth reference at home, but impractical to carry very many with you on a walk. Laminated folding guides are lightweight, indestructible and helpful for quick reference. Search Sibley's FoldingGuides for your area - ($amzn)
Peterson Field Guides on YouTube

A jeweler's loupe is an excellent lightweight lens you can carry with you for a closer look. ($amzn)

Nature Study Rotation

An optional nature study rotation is provided here for parents who may want to follow a sequence. This would be useful primarily for the object lesson part of nature study.

summer/fall: Trees/shrubs/vines
winter: Stars/sky
spring: Amphibians

summer/fall: Cultivated crops
winter: Weather/climate
spring: Insects

summer/fall: Reptiles
winter: Brook, river, ocean
spring: Garden flowers/weeds

summer/fall: Invertebrates
winter: Rocks, minerals and soil
spring: Fish

summer/fall: Birds
winter: Mammals
spring: Wildflowers/flowerless plants

summer/fall: Trees/shrubs/vines
winter: Stars/sky
spring: Amphibians

summer/fall: Cultivated crops
winter: Weather/climate
spring: Insects (Book suggestion: Insect Adventures by Jean-Henri Fabre)

summer/fall: Reptiles
winter: Brook, river, ocean
spring: Garden flowers/weeds

summer/fall: Invertebrates
winter: Rocks, minerals and soil
spring: Fish

summer/fall: Birds
winter: Mammals
spring: Wildflowers/flowerless plants

summer/fall: Trees/shrubs/vines
winter: Stars/sky
spring: Amphibians

summer/fall: Cultivated crops
winter: Weather/climate
spring: Insects

summer/fall: Reptiles
winter: Brook, river, ocean
spring: Garden flowers/weeds

summer/fall: Invertebrates
winter: Rocks, minerals and soil
spring: Fish

summer/fall: Birds
winter: Mammals
spring: Wildflowers/flowerless plants

summer/fall: Trees/shrubs/vines
winter: Stars/sky
spring: Amphibians

summer/fall: Cultivated crops
winter: Weather/climate
spring: Insects (Book suggestion: Insect Adventures by Jean-Henri Fabre)

summer/fall: Reptiles
winter: Brook, river, ocean
spring: Garden flowers/weeds

summer/fall: Invertebrates
winter: Rocks, minerals and soil
spring: Fish

summer/fall: Birds
winter: Mammals
spring: Wildflowers/flowerless plants

Nature Study Suggestions

Additional suggestions for nature study can be found in The Handbook of Nature Study and/or the Cornell Nature Study Leaflets.

Parents' Review articles that discuss nature study:

Our Work (nature collections)
Natural History as an Educational Discipline
Nature Study and Handicrafts
The Training of Children in the Observation of Nature
Nature Study
Nature Teaching
How To Best Study Nature
The Charm of Nature Study

Special Studies

Students may wish to make special studies for a term to gain knowledge about a particular object, natural subject, or local area of nature that holds interest for them. Studies would include observing, drawing and taking notes chronicling the subject for the length of the term. Books and field guides should be consulted to add to the child's knowledge of the subject, Poetry, folklore, etymology, etc. pertaining to the subject are also welcome additions.

Furneaux's Nature Study Guide List

This list from A Nature Study Guide by W. S. Furneaux may be a helpful reference for special studies.

Spring Studies.
Spring the season of the re-awakening of life.
Vegetable Life.
The opening of buds.
Detailed study of one large bud:
Bud-scales and other temporary structures.
Gradual transition of bud-scales into leaves.
Simple experiments to demonstrate the manner in which the sap flows.
Germination of various seeds under different conditions as to moisture, food, heat and light. Records kept
Plants reared from seeds, in a good soil, for continuous observation. Records of life-history.
The growth of bulbs and corms.
The growth of potato plants from the tubers under varying conditions. Make records.
Spring flowers (chiefly outdoor studies):
Habitats and habits.
Calendar observations.
Cultivation of flowers in the school garden.

Animal Life.
Forms and habits of the common creatures of the garden -- snails, slugs, centipedes, young spiders, etc.
Rearing of caterpillars or other insect grubs for the study of their metamorphoses.
Observations of aquatic creatures in the school aquarium:
Development of frogs' eggs.
Various aquatic larvae.
Water snails. Small fishes.
Marine life as seen in the rock-pools.
Study of the common birds of the neighbourhood:
Return of the summer visitors.
Nest building and the care of the young.
The common mammals of the neighbourhood:
Wild and domestic. Forms and habits.
The frolicking of young animals -- lambs, kittens, etc.

Studies of Earth, Air, and Sky.
Daily path of the sun: rising, setting, altitude at mid-day.
Lengthening day and increasing warmth.
Spring winds and showers. Droughts and dust.
Planets visible at the time. Appearances and movements.
Stars. Their apparent motions. Conspicuous constellations.

Summer Studies.
Summer is the season of greatest abundance of animal and vegetable life, and of rapid growth and development. [my note: interestingly, in California, summer is the dormant month for many of the natives due to the heat.]

Plant Life.
Summer wild flowers -- chiefly outdoor work:
Observatinos of habitats and habits.
The flowers and weeds of the garden:
The struggle for existence.
How plants are protected -- thorns, spines, prickles, etc.
Forms and arrangement of leaves. Leaf mosaics. Functions of leaves.
Storage of food in rootstocks, tubers, bulbs, etc.
Calendar of summer flowers. Records of observations on the habitats, habits, flowering, fruiting, etc.
Parts of the flower and their uses:
Relation between flowers and insects.
Relationships in plants, as shown in the structure of the flowers and other parts.
Our forest trees and shrubs. General form, bark, branching, leaves, fruit, etc.
Simple experiments illustrating the general activities of plants:
Absorption of water, transpiration, movements of sap, formation of starch and other products.
Flowerless plants and their life-histories:
Ferns , mosses, lichens, fungi, algae.

Animal Life.
The small creatures of the garden.
Common birds of the neighbourhood.
Habits of animals seen during school rambles.
Common creatures of our ponds and streams.
Life in the rock-pools on the coast.
In all the above attention paid particularly to -
Movements-voluntary and instinctive.
Means of defence and offence.
Means of capturing or procuring food.
Manner in which the food is eaten.
Construction of homes or shelters.
Solitary and social life.
Storing of food not required for immediate use.
Care of the young: preparations for, protection, feeding, teaching, etc.
Construction of snares -- spiders.
Resemblances to environment, and mimicry.

Studies of Earth, Air, and Sky.
The sun: rising, setting, altitude at mid-day.
Length of the day. Summer temperatures.
Summer showers and droughts. Their effects.
The planets visible.
The star-constellations visible in summer only.

Autumn Studies.
Gradual reduction in temperature and gradual decline in both animal and vegetable life.

Vegetable Life.
Ripening fruits. How fruits are formed.
Difference between fruits and seeds.
Uses of the fruits (seed-cases) to the seeds within them.
Splitting and non-splitting fruits.
Collection of fruits and seeds. Agents concerned.
Autumn flowers-studied, as far as possible, in their habitats.
Decay of leaves. Autumn tints.
Fall of the leaf. Cause of. Observations and records.
The meaning of decay. Action of bacteria.
Storage of food by biennials and perennials.

Animal Life.
Creatures that never live to the end of the year:
Deposit of eggs before they die.
Storage of food for the winter -- squirrels, bees, etc.
The movements of birds. Summer visitors leaving. Winter visitors arriving. Birds of passage.
Small creatures of the garden seeking shelter for the coming winter.

The Earth, Air, and Sky.
The shortening day and decreasing temperature.
Observations of the rising and setting sun:
Decreasing altitude of the mid-day sun.
Autumn gales, mists, and fogs.
The planets visible at the time.
Some constellations of stars visible only during the autumn.

Winter Studies.
Life now at its lowest ebb. Many plants and animals in a dormant condition.

Plant Life.
Winter condition of deciduous trees and shrubs.
Study of winter buds.
Evergreens: their principal characteristics.

Archived posts from the AO email list about nature study

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