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Nature Study: Keeping it Real, Making it Happen... Consistently

~As an artist, lover of nature and ardent admirer of Ms. Stacy (Anne of Green Gables!) I felt like Nature Study would be a shoo in for our outdoorsy family. Why then was it the one thing that each year I found myself screwing up my determination about? Why did our efforts consistently fail to meet my expectations?

In the Charlotte Mason milieu terms like Nature Study and Nature Journaling are often used interchangeably causing some confusion about practical application.~

Nature study is one of the most iconic hallmarks of a Charlotte Mason education. It speaks to a deep place within many people as they are forced to live in a society that is more and more detached from the rhythms of the natural world. It is simultaneously challenging, soothing, invigorating, and beautiful. No wonder a quick google of search of “Charlotte Mason” or the average scroll through CM social media influencers is full of idyllic “nature study” images. We are inspired to make this happen for our family. But does it really look like that at your house? Is it supposed to? Sometimes the question is, “Is nature study happening at all”? Consistently? If you are typical of many of the moms I visit with then the answer to some of these questions may make you feel like a Charlotte Mason failure. While we are drawn to it- and are thoroughly inspired by the idea of it- most people don’t feel like this is an area in which they are succeeding. (Which may be why everyone feels the compulsive need to snap a picture and announce it to the world anytime “it” DID happen!)

As an artist, lover of nature and ardent admirer of Ms. Stacy (Anne of Green Gables!) I felt like Nature Study would be a shoo in for our outdoorsy family. Why then was it the one thing that each year I found myself screwing up my determination about? Why did our efforts consistently fail to meet my expectations? If you can relate to anything I have said thus far I’d love to share some of the understanding I have come on this beautiful aspect of a Charlotte Mason education.

The first Ms. Mason writes about Nature is in her first book “Home Education”. In this book she devotes many pages to what she calls “The Outdoor Life of Children”. This chapter is encouragement for the simple fact that children -- need an outdoor life! They need much time outdoors in fresh air. This is not “schoolwork”, but life. There is no schedule (unless you need one to make it happen consistently) and no lesson plan. There is no objective other than to allow space for the child to form a relationship on their own terms with the natural world. Ms. Mason gives ideas for “games” to play with the children to aid in the development of the all-important Habit of Attention. But beyond that this is merely a prescription for time and space. No structured nature “study” but space for affection. This space and affection should form the backdrop of the Charlotte Mason life. When you hear talk about bulk amounts of time outside- don’t imagine the need to create lessons and object talks with scope and sequence. This familiarity with the outdoors should be the white noise our children live within. Ideally this should begin as young as possible, and we should guard against it being squeezed out or neglected during the teen years. Like white noise- this outdoor life will become a soothing buffer and context. If you are new to Nature Study or need a fresh approach- start here. Walks, hikes, picnics, blankets with books, heck, even (and especially) boredom! Let them be bored outside- there is so much more scope for the imagination out there! The basis for a healthy childhood is an outdoor life.

Once this foundation ifirmly in place you may add in some more structured study. But even here I frustrated us with misunderstandings. You see, I simply adore the idea of reading nature books AND working in our journals au plein air. It speaks to my inner artist/teacher and makes for some great photo ops (don’t act like I’m the only one!) But alas, despite many years of disciplined scheduling this approach failed to bring the kind of connection I was looking for. In truth- books are a bit hard to hear when read aloud in the open air and I’m not entirely sure that attention is as on point for reading when the wide world is living and breathing all around. Also- while making drawings into a journal with watercolors outdoors may be picturesque- it is not easy and hauling the stuff to location is just cumbersome enough to feel like work, which translates easily into inconsistency. While there is a place for the impromptu outdoor entry, we have found that often the best place for working on journal entries is -ehemm- inside at the dining table. Since my ideal proved to be less than! How have these elements found a permeant and meaningful place in our home?

First, I moved our nature readings to morning time one day per week with the clear-eyed reasoning that for us- if it doesn’t happen in the morning there is a high likelihood it will get nudged. So right up there with our Bible and devotional readings sits our family nature reading, once a week. We simply read and narrate and go on. No pressure to diagram or illustrate or identify anything with the guidebooks. Just read, narrate, and seed the idea. And you know what- it has worked… consistently. The topics that seemed disconnected from the surrounding elements, the readings that were hazed with morning grogginess were churned up later in conversations and noticings and journal entries.

Second, I classed nature journal entries as an independent activity, once-a-week, on their schedules. (Do we all really need to be journaling at the exact same time?!) Sometimes they use this for, “Time for observing outside with the goal of one entry: Note the date, temperature, cloud type & wind direction”. But sometimes they may pull out the guidebooks and look up something they saw or heard about during the week. Sometimes they finish an entry in one session – but sometimes they come back to it for several. I want to clarify that sometimes this element involves being outdoors, but sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes they need to get out and breathe some fresh air- but sometimes that is a hindrance to the flow of morning lessons, because of this there is no idealism leading to legalism. This approach to journaling works because we are operating on two important foundations, “The Outdoor Life of Children” and our Nature Idea books during morning time. These two elements directed towards the heart lead to a natural outworking of expression (journaling) and caring. While disjointed in time these three cords are woven together in the mind of the student. Charlotte Mason asks us to trust the digestion process – here is another place where I have taken the leap and seen results.

Another idealistic expectation I had to let go of was the thought that Nature Journal Entries must equal Works of Art. Just because journaling can be beautiful – doesn’t mean that it must be. From The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady to Instagram, amazing nature journal entries can be both inspiring and discouraging. For the non- artistic this concept of a nature journal seems to be beyond reach; but even for the artist, there is often a burden to perform that can be counter-productive. As I began to look at the history and function of nature journaling, I was struck by the fact that most of the entries are lists and charts and scribbles! Now that is more along our alley! Audubon and Edith Holden can leave us with the impression that we should be producing frameable works of art at each sitting - but they were the exceptions not the rule. For most working naturalists who used journaling practically the journal was simply that - a journal. A mixture of words, dates, charts, and pictures- but mostly words. It was a personal record to refer back to in order to glean knowledge and look for patterns … not an IG post. I think that if we take this more realistic view of nature journaling it becomes approachable for all. The artist is released from pressure and the non-artist is released from false expectation. This is the space where nature journaling can become authentic- can bring benefit. Of course in the pursuit of authentic there is sometimes the need for a drawing – when this arises naturally, encourage them with the thought that the picture doesn’t need to be a “frameable work of art” it simply needs to capture the subject truthfully with specific details that define this ___ from every other. I have seen images produced by 1st graders that meet this simple yet guiding criteria. Remember, this is not art class – this is observation practice.

As for more detailed watercolor work – I do believe this is a skill that deserves cultivation over the long term. It is a useful tool to wield in pursuit of nature study. At our house we set a loose goal of one, more formally developed picture of something of particular interest, per month. This has worked for us. It sets achievable expectation and allows quality space for skill to be developed while preventing burnout and discouragement.

My final real world tip relates to motivation. Perhaps you can see the benefits of Nature Study- but your kids can’t. To them this may seem like one more thing to do for mom, and their efforts show the effects of being halfhearted. Or maybe they were on board for a while but somewhere along the line lost interest. Each year’s journal is finished and shelved and something of the vitality is lost since our journals are not perhaps as necessary as they were to people in times past. From the kids’ perspective – this was work …for what. Of course we know that the benefits are intrinsic and internal- and that is what encourages us as parents to persist, but sometimes our kids need something more tangible and that is perfectly ok. This where I think community can come into play. It could be as formal as a Natural History Club or as simple as one other family with shared values. We have seen the benefit of a monthly get together where journals can be shared. Depending on the group the latter details will likely look different, but a great universal opening activity is to sit in a circle, each person (adults too!) with their journals open to their most recent entries and “pass to the right” every couple of minutes. This simple activity does many things well; It naturally creates gentle expectation: I need to have something to share; It can provide tangible affirmation: the positive comments from someone other than mom; it offers inspiration: seeing ways other people record and utilize their page space; and finally, with parents participating as equals, it shows that this is not something parents do to children- but that this is life – a shared life.

On top of creating expectation, a monthly gathering can also provide the perfect place to explore yet another aspect of Charlotte Mason nature study- The Object Lesson. This phrase is laden with traditional “teacher as lecturer” baggage but for Ms. Mason’s ideas about how this should happen check out her book “Parents and Children”. While it is sometimes helpful to plan, I have found the most beautiful object lessons have happened spontaneously over found specimens. This truth keeps me on my toes with the vital need for my own continuing education but also on my knees in the humble realization that it is not all dependent on me, I am not the showman of the universe; that nature has her own lessons she will teach in her own way if I will but allow myself to become skilled in the introductions and the art of stepping aside.

In the Charlotte Mason milieu terms like Nature Study and Nature Journaling are often used interchangeably causing some confusion about practical application. For me it is clarified in understanding the immense value Ms. Mason placed on the study of the Natural World, not as an end in itself but as a means of knowing something more about its Creator. In pursuit of this she offered several recommendations and techniques. Under the broad category of “Nature Study” you have: The Outdoor Life of Children, the practice of journaling, the development of skill for accurate reproducing (drawing!), the ingestion of ideas and the Object Lesson. These elements can happen all in one sitting at certain felicitous times - but the pressure of that ideal can also hinder. In our home I have found that identifying these elements as separate entities and tucking them in different spaces of time has made Nature Study a more natural part of our lives. My way is not the way – but only a way to help make it all happen consistently. Here is the quick overview of what Nature Study looks like for our family:

1. The Outdoor Life of Children

We try to make this a lifestyle priority. Walks, gardening, sitting in the woods, tea outside, creek time. Thoughtful application of the phrase: Why be indoors when you can rightly be without!

As much as possible.

2. Nature Readings/ Ideas

Moving this to mornings upped its priority. Loosed of any sort of follow up expectations in the moment gave it freedom to connect.

Once per week as a family.

3. Nature Journaling

Permission to be indoors and independent made this happen more frequently, which is the goal! Letting go of artistic expectations made it more approachable (and caused fewer tears!).

Once per week independently.

4. Developing the Art Part

Saving our artistic attempts for only specimens of particular interest bought time and space to develop meaningful art skills.

One per month.

5. Motivation via Community

Allowing community led peer review create gentle expectations gave our journaling a fresh infusion of interest and passion.

6. The Object Lesson

In the context of Nature Study this allowed my Mrs. Stacy to peek out! I can introduce but not define. I can point out but then must step aside. Learn the art.

These six elements form the cohesive whole that is Nature Study as Charlotte Mason described it.

Far from instituting a rigid schedule to follow I hope that this post gives you freedom to break out of preconceived (or ill-conceived) notions about what Nature Study should look like. And far from being an end in itself I hope that Nature Study for your family will create a bond where you stand as equals before the wonder of God’s created world. In the same way devotions are places of equality before God’s written word, Nature study can become a place of equality before God’s “book of nature”.

-S.Timothy 2021-


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