April 27, 2015

Nature Notebooks

I would like to show you how easy it is to introduce and integrate science, art, and literature into your homeschool curriculum through nature studies.

In the previous article, I shared the importance of establishing the habit of a daily walk with your children. I had already been walking regularly with my children for almost a decade and a half before coming in contact with the ideas of Charlotte Mason. I read a book that described many of her ideas and became intrigued by the scope of her methods. Then I acquired a six-volume set of her books, and have used the ideas with my children.

In my reading of these books, I found that Charlotte Mason did many activities in conjunction with nature studies. Miss Mason taught that children should be outside for fresh air and exercise in all seasons. Children should climb trees, run, sing, and shout. She had children explore around the yard or park.

Observing was called sightseeing. After sightseeing, the children would be asked to give a detailed oral narration of what they observed, this was called picture painting.

While outside children were also taught to sing, do roundels (singing action games), bird-nesting (identifying nests and eggs), and bird-stalking (watching birds in the habitats and observing the habits). In addition, being out in the natural surroundings made it easy to teach about geography, foreign languages, scouting, compass use, distance measuring, telling time by the sky, weather forecasting, etc. Her books are filled with detailed simple outdoor activities. Miss Mason used outdoor resources well.

One thing she had her students do was to keep a nature notebook, also known as a nature journal or discovery journal. It is this aspect of her teachings that brings us to our subject -nature notebooks. The concept of nature notebooks combines three traditional kinds of record keeping. The nature notebook is an outdoor science lab log book, an artist's sketchbook, and a writer's journal all in one. The best example I have seen in print of a nature notebook is A Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden. (I have wondered if Miss Holden was educated by one of Miss Mason's students.)

A great way to start your children on nature notebooks is to keep one yourself. Miss Mason started children at age six and they did watercolor drawings, with their notes in ink. Make a title page at the beginning of your notebook. It should include your name and the date you begin. Don't be overly concerned about how your notebook looks in the beginning. The more a person practices and observes, the more accurate their drawings and book will become. When you look for things to add to your notebook, remember some things must be sketched where they are, while other items can be collected and brought home for a later sketching time. Miss Mason did not like the idea of children killing bugs to collect them. She lived during the time when safari hunts and trophy rooms were status symbols. She respected life and taught her students to respect life also. She did not want children to develop a taste for the hunt, even with bugs and small animals. Drawing requires us to be more observant, more so than photography, hunting, or collecting. All drawings should be labeled with the common name of the plant or animal. Later when you can check a field guide, add the Latin or scientific name below the common name. Leave space on the page to add prose, quotes, or an original poem. Include observations of animal habits. Teach your children to calendar, i.e. have them include with each entry the date, time, and place of their observation. This helps us observe how things change with each of the seasons.

At the end of your notebook, make index lists—one list for animals, one for trees, and one for flowers. Each line item in a list should contain the item's common name, Latin name, and the page in the notebook where found. By checking this index before sketching, one can avoid unnecessary duplication. However, after checking the previous drawing, you may find that the current specimen adds new information or a different perspective, so you may then choose to proceed with the drawing. For instance, a live leaf compared to a dead autumn leaf or a bud and a blossom. This way we can begin to see that life has cycles. Children will be able to identify male birds and female birds (they really are different). They will be able to recognize trees in winter, without their leaves. As they look up Latin names and record them on their lists, they will start seeing how things are related to each other.

As your children become more observant of the world around them, they will also begin to recognize in great literature that other writers have seen and enjoyed the same beautiful things they are observing. They may decide to add Wordsworth's poem on daffodils into their nature notebook alongside their sketch of a daffodil, or perhaps a poem of their own creation.

Finally, another idea for a nature notebook can be focusing the entire notebook on one theme, such as "Summer 2017," "My Summer in Alaska," or "A Nature Study of my Yard," or even a "Leaf Print Notebook." For a leaf print notebook, you could teach your children how to press flowers and tree leaves and add them right into the notebook. Label them just like you would a drawing. Children can also do leaf rubbings or paint the leaf and print with the leaf.

As you can see, these notebooks can be a wonderful learning gateway and can be created easily by the beginner. Nature journals do not need to be perfect drawings and watercolors. These books can be as creative as you would like them to be.


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