“Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.” (Vol. 1, p. 42)
Nature study and appreciation for creation is an integral part of Charlotte Mason's philosophy. However, it's probably also one of the most misunderstood aspects of a CM education. As with so many other subjects, oftentimes we make the mistake of viewing nature study as a compartmentalized subject or a box to be checked. Or maybe we view the concept of nature study as too daunting we don't even know where to begin, or we're afraid to do it wrong. And perhaps worst of all, we might even make the mistake of believing that nature study is an expendable part of our children's education. Whatever the reason, it's not uncommon to feel overwhelmed when when navigating the world of Nature Study. This post will explain the importance of Nature Study as well as provide a few (of the countless) practical suggestions Miss Mason provides throughout her volumes.
Nature Study Connects us to our Creator
Nature Study is a fancy term that really just means learning about and making relationships with creation. Learning about creation allows us to learn more about our Creator. If we make the mistake of thinking that Nature Study is about gaining knowledge about the world, we miss a very large opportunity to allow our children to gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of the Gospel and how we fit into God's story.
Charlotte Mason says, “It would be well if we, all persons in authority, parents and all who act for parents, 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 get for themselves of the world they live in. Let them once get in touch with nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life. We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.”¹
Children can begin to learn and understand that our universe is not random, but rather there are certain natural laws that apply to our world - and even our own lives. The more a child can begin to peel back the vastness of their world, the more opportunities they have to observe the awesomeness and endless creativity of their Heavenly Father. Furthermore, even as adults, how often does spending time in nature help dissolve the woes we experience as humans living in a fallen world? There's something uniquely powerful not only about spending time in nature, but going slowly enough to appreciate it.
Nature Study Fosters Attention
Charlotte Mason believed Nature Study helps cultivate children's power of attention - among countless other worthwhile habits. She says, "Consider, too, what an unequalled mental training the child-naturalist is getting for any study or calling under the sun––the powers of attention, of discrimination, of patient pursuit, growing with his growth, what will they not fit him for? Besides, life is so interesting to him, that he has no time for the faults of temper which generally have their source in ennui; there is no reason why he should be peevish or sulky or obstinate when he is always kept well amused.”²
This is even more true today than it was during Charlotte's lifetime, before the existence of screen time. This isn't to say that children who do nature study will never have a crummy attitude. However, there is something powerful in nature's ability to refresh our minds, divert our thoughts, or even inspire new ideas - and sometimes this manifests in the form of an attitude adjustment. Charlotte Mason suggested that children, "should be encouraged to watch, patiently and quietly, until they learn something of the habits and history of bee, ant, wasp, spider, hairy caterpillar, dragon-fly, and whatever of larger growth comes in their way."³ This type of observation requires a child's full attention.
Practicing and honing their ability to pay attention through nature study (especially in the early years) will pay dividends when it comes time to learn more advance sciences; and we, as homeschooling parents, have the ability to model this type of attentive admiration for nature. Charlotte Mason states, “The child who sees his mother with reverent touch lift an early snowdrop to her lips, learns a higher lesson than the 'print-books' can teach. Years hence, when the children are old enough to understand that science itself is in a sense sacred and demands some sacrifices, all the 'common information' they have been gathering until then, and the habits of observation they have acquired, will form a capital groundwork for a scientific education. In the meantime, let them consider the lilies of the field and the fowls of the air.”⁴
Charlotte Mason provides so much practical advice in her volumes regarding outside time and nature study. First and foremost, the goal is obviously get outside with the children. Mason writes, "In the first place, do not send them; if it is anyway possible, take them; for, although the children should be left much to themselves, there is a great deal to be done and a great deal to be prevented during these long hours in the open air. And long hours they should be; not two, but four, five, or six hours they should have on every tolerably fine day, from April till October. Impossible! Says an overwrought mother who sees her way to no more for her children than a daily hour or so on the pavements of the neighbouring London squares. Let me repeat, that I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children;"⁵
Going outside with your children can happen at various points throughout the day. Try adding a nature walk into your routine, or simply have lunch in the backyard. Other ideas for getting outside is to plant a flower or small garden, read books outside, go bug hunting or rock hunting. We've taken to walking up and down our street in the morning for our nature walk and we're constantly surprised by what we see, hear and find!
Once outside, depending on the age and ability of your children, Charlotte Mason suggested activities such as,Picture Painting, goes like this, "Get the children to look well at some patch of landscape, and then to shut their eyes and call up the picture before them, if any bit of it is blurred, they had better look again. When they have a perfect image before their eyes, let them say what they see."⁶ She talks of a similar activity she calls Sight-Seeing which you can read about on page 47 of Home Education. In addition, Mason gives ideas to help teach about the following: rain, clouds, snow, hail, directions, compass drills, boundaries, calendars, nature diaries, etc.
Regarding nature diaries, Charlotte Mason writes, "As soon as he is able to keep it himself, a nature-diary is a source of delight to a child. Every day's walk gives him something to enter: three squirrels in a larch tree, a jay flying across such a field, a caterpillar climbing up a nettle, a snail eating a cabbage leaf, a spider dropping suddenly to the ground... Innumerable matters to record occur to the intelligent child. While he is quite young (five or six), he should begin to illustrate his notes freely with brush drawings; he should have a little help at first in mixing colours, in the way of principles, not directions. He should not be told to use now this and now that, but, 'we get purple by mixing so and so,' and then he should be left to himself to get the right tint. As for drawing, instruction has no doubt its time and place; but his nature diary should be left to his own initiative. A child of six will produce a dandelion, poppy, daisy, iris, with its leaves, impelled by the desire to represent what he sees, with surprising vigour and correctness."⁷
Nature study plays a crucial role in Charlotte Mason's educational philosophy. If you're unsure where to begin, I highly recommend reading the first chapter or two of Anna Comstock's Handbook of Nature Study which is available in the public domain. While there are many wonderful nature study curriculums available, they are certainly not a requirement. It's more important to simply get outside, bring a nature notebook and record observations. It's never too late to cultivate the habit of nature study in our homes!
¹,²,³,⁴,⁵,⁶,⁷ Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 44-62.