Saturday, April 1, 2006

Nature Study

This was originally posted on my other site, Twice Bloomed Wisteria.

Spring is a natural for nature study. You only have to step outside to hear the almost obscene symphony of bird courtship rituals, see flowers blooming and trees leafing, feel rivers and streams gushing, and find tadpoles and frog eggs. Take advantage of your child's natural desire to be outside and live nature study. It's never too early to start.

We've been doing nature study since my children were born, though I didn't realize it as an organized "real school" subject until this year. We just walk, look, and talk. Finding snakes, alligators, beaver huts, fox holes, and nests of eggs in the wild and learning to respect the animals and their habitats is the official lesson, but mostly we just look, listen, and enjoy. Granted, not everyone has the wild so close at hand, but nature is everywhere if we are patient enough to find it. Here are a few things I have learned in the past ten years of nature study.

  • Babies love to be outside and I think they learn about nature even when tiny. I let mine stay outside on a blanket as much as possible. I back country hiked when my first was four months old and took him overnight canoeing when he was two. He loved it!
  • Let the child lead. Children are closer to the ground and unbelievably observant and therefore able to find small treasures you might miss like a salamander, crystals in rocks, mushrooms, and bugs. Even if they are too young to identify species they are learning to find beauty in nature and to interact with nature in a positive way.
  • Let the child set the pace. I have to watch myself here. I have a tendency to rush (combining exercise and nature). Children can spend much time watching ants carry loads and snakes sunning. They learn more from watching nature than listening to you drone on and on about the details.
  • Let your child explore freely, yet safely. Be aware of your surroundings and hidden dangers like posisonous mushrooms.
  • Don't give all the information you know or can produce from the guidebook to small children. If they need to know something they will ask. Do provide basic observations and comparisons.
  • Teach your child respect for animals' wildness, personal space, and habitat. Some adults need this lesson too. When hiking in Glacier National Park the trail crossed the highway where several cars were pulled over to look at a grizzly bear. One woman took her camera and started trekking up the side of the hill to get a better picture (despite all the warnings in the park). She put herself at risk and that bear at risk. Luckily, a ranger showed up and dragged her down the mountain.
  • I may carry this a bit too far, but clothes can be washed so let them get dirty. Feeling mud squish through toes and fingers, making clay bricks, and rolling in the grass are learning experiences too!
  • Children don't melt. Let them play in the rain if lightening is not a problem. Teach them respect for weather, not fear.
  • Nature happens everywhere. Every city has a park (not a researched point). Take advantage of them and the zoos, natural science museums, botanical gardens, and aquariums found in a city.
  • When the children are older and you wish to add more structure think about starting collections of rocks, shells, flowers and leaves; growing vegetables and flowers from seeds; starting a bird watchers life list; or starting a nature journal.
  • If you decide to journal these things have worked for us:

    • I love the Bienfang Notesketch books. Each page is divided into a lined section and a sketching section. The paper is heavy enough for water colors and packing. They come in two sizes and two page configurations. They are available from Rainbow Resources (search words note sketch) or Office Depot.
    • Use the best colored pencils you can afford. I truly believe the Berol Prismacolor pencils and water color pencils are worth the extra money.
  • Subscribe to The Big Back Yard or Ranger Rick. My children love the pictures and stories. They also like getting mail with their own name on it.
  • If you want or need more information or structure you can use materials available at Ambleside Online - a free Charlotte Mason inspired curriculum. Many of their suggested books are available online.
These are resources and books I like for my 10 year old and under.
  • In the Small, Small Pond and In the Tall, Tall Grass by Denise Fleming. These are for the very young. They are bright, happy and appreciate nature.
  • I Took a Walk by Henry Cole. Again, this is for the younger children. It teaches attention to detail and camouflage.
  • Let's Read and Find Out Series i.e. From Tadpole to Frog. These come in two stages. Stage one is appropriate for 4-6 year olds and stage two is for 7 to 10. My 6 year old daughter enjoys the stage 2 and I frequently catch my just turned 10 year old reading the stage one books. We have many resources and my children have much hands on experience, but they still like these books that have enough information to be useful, nice illustrations, and in the stage 2 books some activities.
  • The Usborne Complete First Book of Nature Study is a colorful and useful guide for children. Loaded with illustrations and short informational sections and activities this book will be picked up over and over again.
  • The National Geographic Nature Library. I think there are eight slim books in the series. Each species has a "What is a..." page that show the commonalities of all reptiles, birds, insects, mammals, or fish. The pictures and drawings are what you would expect from National Geographic. We have poured over these. I would guess that they are expensive though we got them as a gift.
  • I love Stellaluna and Verdi by Janell Cannon. They create lovable images of two of the world's most feared and least understood animals. I couldn't bring myself to buy Crickwing, the cockroach.
  • Mammalabilia and Insectlopedia by Douglas Florian are fun poetry books about animals and insects.
  • For conservation's sake try The Lorax by Dr. Suess. We've read it at least a thousand times and still love it.
  • The Raft by Jim Lamarche is a wonderful longer picture book story about interacting with nature in a positive way on a special raft.
  • National Geographic's My First Pocket Guides provide enough information to identify animals and start a conversation with the 7 and under group. There is not enough information for more prying minds. Some of the guides are redundant.
  • Secrets of the Woods by William Long(actually all his books) personify animals while teaching real concepts. The stories are long enough and interesting enough for the 8 and above crowd.
  • Burgess Bird Book and Burgess Animal Book by Thornton Burgess personify animals in fun stories while teaching real characteristics, habits, and homes. Both my children love these stories.
  • For you, get Anna Botsford's Handbook of Nature Study. This book, as recommended on Ambleside Online, provides information for you and leading questions. There is a ton of stuff in this huge volume.
  • If you decide to start a life list get a Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds or another complete guide. Many of the junior versions only have the most common species and this can be frustrating when you find that more rare species.
  • Online resources:
    • provides such useful resources as How to draw a bird, coloring pages, puzzles, and Identify a Bird.
    • provides species identification and sound tracks
    • provides study pages, online databases, and a weekly newsletter.
Of course, all this being said all you really need is some time and a child and a place to explore. Get out there and live school!

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