Monday, January 6, 2014

Some Nature Study and Outdoor Time Notes for the New Year

During our recent break from school, I took the time to do a fairly quick re-reading of Charlotte Mason's first volume, Home Education.   I am really glad that I took the time to do this as I have most definitely gained some fresh inspiration for the coming year!  I made some notes of things that stood out to me to apply this coming year and thought that I would share them here both for my benefit (organized and in one place!) and perhaps for yours too.
Nature study has gone well for us this year, keeping to the simple format that I outlined here, but this is always an area that I need to be stretched in.   With that in mind, I gleaned a number of new ideas to incorporate into our time from the section titled Out-of-Door Life for the Children.   I was glad to find ideas of ways that we can kick our nature study and outdoor time up to the next level while keeping it appropriate for my young children. (Volume 1 gives Mason's suggestions for the education of children under the age of 9.)   This is not an exhaustive list of everything Mason suggests, but are some of the ideas that were striking to me and that I hope to incorporate in the coming year:
Meals Outdoors: We've taken teatime outdoors on occasion, but perhaps we should take lunch outdoors on occasion too – or even breakfast during this hot season when it is nasty to be outside at mid-day.  An idea to consider….
Sight-Seeing: Here is how Mason describes this activity in her own words: "By-and-by the others come back to their mother, and, while wits are fresh and eyes are keen, she sends them off on an exploring expedition––Who can see the most, and tell the most, about yonder hillock or brook, hedge, or copse. This is an exercise that delights children, and may be endlessly varied, carried on in the spirit of a game, and yet with the exactness and carefulness of a lesson." (Vol 1, p. 45-46)  And on the benefits of such an activity: "This is all play to the children, but the mother is doing invaluable work; she is training their powers of observation and expression, increasing their vocabulary and their range of ideas by giving them the name and the uses of an object at the right moment,––when they ask, 'What is it?' and 'What is it for?' And she is training her children in truthful habits, by making them careful to see the fact and to state it exactly, without omission or exaggeration." (Vol 1, p.46-47)

Detailed Knowledge of Local Flora: We've worked this past year on using a field guide to identify most of the plants in our yard and immediate neighborhood, but Mason suggests that children should be able to describe these familiar plants in detail – the leaf (size, shape, manner of growth from the stem, manner of flowering, etc.).  The goal is to have "made the acquaintance of a wild flower, so that they can never forget it or mistake it." (Vol. 1, p.52).  This year I'm hoping to occasionally use our nature study time to make a more detailed examination of some of the common local plants we have identified this past year.  
Methods of Recording Nature Finds: Mason suggests collection and pressing flowers and leaves – perhaps something we will try this year, as well as making careful drawings of those that are of the most interest, including the whole plant where possible.   We have done drawings pretty faithfully this past year, but Michelle doesn't always tend to be very detailed or careful in these drawings, something I hope to gently encourage her towards this year.   Other things that can be recorded about nature finds (with mom's help if needed): where it was found, what it was doing or seemed to be doing (for a living creature), color, shape, features (legs, etc).  We will continue to keep our "nature notes" book as we enter into our second year in this home, with the hopes of comparing things to what we saw at the same time last year and getting a better sense of our tropical seasons.

Adopt-a-Tree: This we've done the past several years, but I am reminded to choose a new tree or plant to keep track of this year.  I'm thinking maybe corn plants – there is a large corn-field near our house that we often have to pass through when running errands in the neighborhood.  Not only could we learn about the growth of the corn plants, it will force us to get out in the neighborhood more.  Win-win-win.

Teaching Children to Watch Living Creatures Quietly and Carefully, so as to learn something of their habits:  We've stuck largely to plants up until now, partially because they are inanimate. J  But there is something to be said for learning to sit still and quiet and observe what one can about insects, birds, and other larger creatures.   Mason describes how to build a simple ant farm in this section as an example.   We did keep a caterpillar and a mantis earlier this year and currently have a cage full of mice that we trapped in our house (!!), but I think there is good advantage to teaching children how to watch quietly and observe those things they come across in a natural setting too.   I'd also like to see if we can associate the bird calls we hear with the familiar birds we have identified in the yard.

Rough Classifications: While we don't want to go overboard with technical scientific explanations, Mason does encourage us to use their observations to make rough classifications of the natural objects they have observed – plants with similar flowers and leaves, animals with various body coverings or eating habits, etc.  Careful observation and classification is a great skill to develop for future in-depth science study.

Mother's Knowledge:  Mason stresses the important of the mother educating herself so she can naturally and casually impart to children the little bits that they want to know about their discoveries.    (Although she also stresses not giving too much talk!!  There needs to be a balance.)  Guess I will be educating myself about plant structures and such this year….

Outdoor-Geography: Mason gives a lengthy section on ideas for learning geography naturally during our outdoor time.  We learned how to tell directions from the sun this past year.  This year I hope to incorporate her ideas about direction, distance, boundaries, and sketching simple maps and plans.   We will be using some of the suggestions from Long's Home Geography for Primary Grades to help with this.   My idea is to either take a longer outdoor time once a week to do both nature and outdoor geography studies or else to take two shorter outdoor times, depending on how our schedule goes in a given week.   (We are committed to a Friday art class for the rest of this school year, but once that is finished I love the idea of making Friday a field day.  We'll see how we go.)

Above all, remember the point is to impart a love of and sense of wonder in nature to our children!
"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 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." (Vol. 1, p. 61)

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