Teaching Science Through Nature Study

Homeschool nature studyBecause we believe that every area of homeschool study should be done as “hands on” as possible, we recommend the the bulk of your science instruction take place through nature study, particularly with children younger than 10 or 12. This is the quickest, easiest way for them to absorb science information and principles. In fact, we’ve found that very little formal science study is needed if you take as much time as possible studying science through nature.

When I was growing up, even though I lived in a suburb of Atlanta, there were acres and acres of woods and streams and ponds and marshes just a short walk from my house. I thought nothing of leaving in the morning with a sack lunch and spending all day exploring all the wonders of nature—picking wildflowers, catching tadpoles or butterflies, exploring caves, birdwatching, and generally enjoying the outdoors by myself. So spending time in the woods has always been a treat for me. Ditto, the beach. My grandparents had a beach cottage and I spent many glorious summer days tooling around the bay in a small motorboat, fishing and gigging stingrays or catching sharks.

When my children were growing up, they also loved roaming the woods, building forts, collecting “critters,” and having a fine time outdoors. And they felt just as much at home in the ocean as I had as a child.

But when I began speaking about nature study at homeschooling conventions, I began to notice something curious. People were afraid of nature. At first I couldn’t understand how that could be, but I gradually realized that nowadays many people’s lives are lived almost completely indoors, so interacting with nature seems frightening to them since they’ve rarely done it. And movies about nature gone wrong like The Birds, or Jaws, or Grizzly, or Anaconda have made the woods or the ocean seem like predator-infested territory, full of wild, scary creatures just waiting for the chance to attack us, bite us, hurt us, and possibly eat us.

So, if you are one of those people who feels unsafe out in nature, the first thing you need to do is calm your fear. You can easily do this by studying the real hazards in your area of the country. Yes, there may be large predators, venomous animals, stinging or biting insects, or poisonous plants, but you’re far safer spending time in nature than you are driving your car. Familiarize yourself with the types of animals and plants you might encounter. Learn how to avoid getting lost. Start with short walks in city parks or nature sanctuaries before tackling the deep woods. Go on a camping trip to a National Park or Forest. Ease yourself into interfacing with nature and soon you will be just as hooked on roaming the woods as I was as a child.

Nature Walks

“Nature Walks” are the backbone of any “hands-on” science study and are the best way to familiarize children with the natural world. Taking a nature walk simply means you are going to place yourself and your children in the context of living, breathing plants and animals and are going to interact with nature first-hand rather than through books or in a laboratory. This can be done in your backyard, in your city park, in a neighbor’s field, or in the woods. If at all possible, find an area that has both open spaces and woods and that is near water, because that type of terrain gives you the best variety of plants and animals.

Prepare beforehand. Find books about the different plants and animals in your area and have some idea of what you will look for. It is better for the children if the first few nature walks actually turn up something interesting, so plan the walk in an area and at a time when the wildlife you want to see will be observable. For example, pick one or two common birds, one or two common plants, and one or two common insects that you are almost guaranteed to see and make them the object of your first few walks. You can prepare the children beforehand with sheets to color, with bird songs to listen to, and with field guides to look at.

You can gradually make the acquaintance of your natural neighborhood by learning only one name at a time, a few names a week, for a year. If your children learn just the most common plants, birds, and animals around them, they will eventually recognize most of what they see.

Make it enjoyable. If you and your children are not used to spending a lot of time outdoors, you must prepare beforehand so that it will be a pleasant experience. Pick a comfortable time of day when no one is tired or hungry. Wear the proper shoes and clothes; put on insect repellent and sunscreen; perhaps take drinks and a snack. Start with short excursions of 15 to 20 minutes and increase the time gradually as the interest level builds.

Invest in the tools of the trade. As finances allow, begin acquiring the following: A pair of lightweight binoculars, a hand lens, a few pocket field guides, an insect net, a plant press, stout walking sticks for probing in holes and under rocks and logs, a small field notebook, and something to hold treasures your children may find. If you want to encourage your children to keep a nature journal, have the supplies on hand: a blank journal, pens, colored pencils or markers, etc. For a complete list of the nature study resources we recommend, GO HERE.

Agree beforehand on the behavior you expect. Nothing is more frustrating than having a unique “nature moment” spoiled by a loud “Hey! Look at that!” Agree beforehand on the behavior you expect: no loud noises, no running ahead or hanging behind, no damage to the landscape, staying out of water, etc. Also make sure the children understand basic safety rules such as always probing first with a stick, never entering water without permission, and so forth. Familiarize them with any poisonous plants, snakes, or insects they need to avoid.

Gradually increase the level of difficulty. As children become used to nature walks, you can demand longer periods of silent attention, you can take more lengthy excursions, you can go out in uncomfortable weather, etc.

Nature Journals

Nature journaling is another staple of science study. All great naturalists from John Muir to Jane Goodall kept journals with sketches or photos, pressings, and information about what they observed.

Rather than teaching science from a textbook, why not let each child keep a nature journal? The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady is out of print now, but it is a wonderful example of how nature, art, literature, and history can be interwoven.

In 1906 Edith Holden began a nature journal in which she recorded and illustrated what she saw month by month during walks in the English countryside. She began each month’s entry with brief historical explanations of events associated with that month. The rest of the month’s entry consisted of notes of what she saw on her frequent walks interspersed with drawings of selective wildlife and plants. She also included poems and famous quotations about the month or about the things she saw. Her watercolor illustrations are exquisite and her Victorian penmanship is delightful.

There’s no reason children could not follow a similar format. If drawing is a problem, field guide coloring books and let the children trace and then color illustrations for their journals. Flowers, leaves, and grasses can also be pressed and then mounted to the journal pages with clear Contact paper. Classification and detailed study of certain topics, such as the parts of a flower, can be included. Such an approach can incorporate history, nature study, art, weather study, literature, penmanship, and whatever else you can imagine—even personal entries and photographs. It can be done for as long a period of time as you like. If a year seems intimidating, try it for a month, particularly in the spring and fall, or during a family trip.

Several excellent examples of nature journals are available (See How to Keep a Naturalist’s Notebook). There is also a wonderful book on how to start and keep a nature journal called Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You.

See our complete list of  Nature Study Must-have Resources.

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