"Essential nature literacy", a term coined by Robert Michael Pyle in Orion in 2000, describes the aim of beloved books such as Handbook of Nature-Study by Anna Botsford Comstock, which was to train teachers and facilitate direct contact between children and living organisms is one of the ideas discussed in this wonderful blog post by Jennifer Frazer: Natural History Is Dying, and We Are All The Losers.
Please take the time to read Frazer's blog post. It really is a must-read. In it she discusses her own 'free-range' childhood, and love of the natural world.
My own children are educated at home. One of the primary reasons for this decision was the freedom for them to spend hours out of doors. When my eldest daughter was four months old, I came across the writings of Charlotte Mason , a British educator who believed that education was an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life. Her emphasis on time spent outdoors, in all weathers, "Never be within doors, when you can rightly be without." was a large part of her philosophy, it being necessary for a child to form a relationship with the natural world, and to learn about nature directly.
Her ideas are often counter-cultural to our modern, fast-paced, intensive lives. We often feel our children are to be supervised at every turn, facts stuffed into their little heads, every moment filled with activity.
Charlotte advised differently:
"They must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens."
In other words, we must let them form their own connections, ask questions (and not necessarily give them an immediate answer; let them see if they are able to work it out themselves. Allow them time and space to form their own relationship with creation.
"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."
Note the words Miss Mason uses: "encouraged to watch" and "patiently and quietly". What skills our children will develop if only we followed this advice.
"Consider, too, what an unequaled 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?"
Here is where Miss Mason puts it in black and white for us; we don't need to worry about the child who spends their time dawdling among the flower beds, watching a butterfly, listening to bird song, or running their fingers through a group of tadpoles, gathered in a pond. These are valuable lessons for a child of any age. This "mental training", it will prepare them for anything they will chose to study, any career they will follow in later life. Miss Mason even lists out some of the qualities this time in nature will develop: "the powers of attention, of discrimination, of patient pursuit".
This is a call to all parents, grandparents, and carers of children of all ages. We can reclaim the childhoods of our precious children as Miss Mason would have us do:
"Every child has a natural interest in the living things about him which it is the business of his parents to encourage."
How to begin if this is a new idea for your family; start small. Just five minutes each day, over the course of a year will give you over thirty hours of nature study!
- Before you tuck your child into bed each night, take a moment to look at the moon. Notice how its shape, size, and even colour changes.
- Plant seeds in a seed tray, water them carefully, and plant them out in your garden when they are ready. Pumpkins would be a good plant to grow with children, as would sunflowers, radishes, and sweet, cherry tomatoes.
- Hang up a feeder for the birds in your garden and spend a few moments each day watching which feathered friends come to visit.
- Take a picnic, and watch the world go by.
- Take a late summer walk and see how many different types of seeds you can collect.
- Dress up well and go puddle jumping.
I would strongly recommend keeping a nature journal along-side your child - a record of what you observe in the natural world. Do not worry about your sketching ability; the point of a nature journal is to record scientific data, so accuracy is much more important than creating pretty pictures. Drawing skills can be learned along the way. It will also be encouraging for your child to see you learning something new. Here are some pages from the journals my children and I have kept:
If you are keen to get going but would like more ideas, consider my book Exploring Nature With Children, a complete, year-long curriculum designed to guide you, step by step, through an entire calendar year of nature study. Completely self-contained, this book has all the information you need to make nature study happen regularly for your family.
Exploring Nature With Children is currently available with a 20% discount until August 20th. Simple use code EXPLORE as you checkout.
To find out more about my book Exploring Nature With Children, or simply to follow our nature walks and journals, please visit us at my blog: www.raisinglittleshoots.com
[Sign up for a Free Mini Nature Journaling Video Class HERE and stay tuned for my upcoming on line class, Beginning a Nature Journal: creating lively sketches of the natural world, launching in spring 2017 ~ Jan]