Monday, June 15, 2009

Nature Study at Tyler Arboretum

My husband and I have been going on long rambling nature walks since we started dating and continued when our babies were born. These walks are mostly time for us to be together out in God's creation. We talk and enjoy each others company; we are quiet and we observe. At times it is good exercise but with little ones in tow it is mostly a time of unstructured play and interaction with the natural world.

And then last year I discovered the British educator Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) from a homeschooling family we knew and fell in love with her philosophy of education and especially her ideas of nature study. Mason insisted that children get outside every day (much like the NWF's Green hour). She believed that children had a natural curiosity for the natural world and it was a parent's job to encourage it. So in the last year, we've tried to add the element of nature study to our walks. Keeping in mind that we don't want to change the feel of our rambling walks, we let the children freely roam and become lost in exploration of what piques their interest. And usually all of us find something we can observe closely together whether through our prompting or theirs: a bug or snake across our path, the moss on a fallen tree, a stream, leaves on the ground, new buds on the trees. We share what we know of the object right there and if appropriate learn more when we get home.

For many homeschooling family, a weekly nature walk fits into their schedule with some sort of journaling on the walk or at home. Children are either taught about a subject before they enter the trail and then sent to observe that aspect or find something on the walk they want to study in more detail once they return home or a mix of both.

I had thought my oldest daughter (4 1/2) and her friend were ready for nature study and wanted to try it without the distraction of younger siblings. So on a recent afternoon I had the opportunity to take them to the Tyler Arboretum. We went through their herb garden, meandered on the lawn of the house on the grounds, sat by a creek and practiced listening.

I had a backpack filled with all the needed supplies: colored pencils, good paper, magnifying glasses, water bottles, bug spray, sunscreen, the Nature Study Handbook, and a Field Guide for Trees.

Using their magnifying glasses to study ants.

A wonderful resource for nature study.

We then came across the leaves and blooms of the poplar tree and together studied the tree until we could identify it. The girls were so proud when they could find and identify another poplar leaf as we walked.

"we found another poplar!"

The girls showed such interest that we decided to lay down our blanket right there to do our nature study. We studied and described the details of the tree, its leaves and flowers. We were amazed to learn it is one of the biggest in PA.

the poplar towering over the girls.

Then I pulled out the paper and pencils and encouraged them to draw the poplar. I was amazed how engrossed they were. As Anne B. Comstock writes in the Handbook of Nature Study,

"When the child is interested in studying any object, she enjoys illustrating her observations with drawings; the happy absorption of children thus engaged is a delight to witness…The young, untutored child seeks to express herself…" (Comstock p.17)

“making crude and often meaningless pencil strokes, which is the entertainment of the young child, to the outlining of a leaf or some other simple and interesting natural object, is a normal step full of interest for [the child] because it is still self-expression” (Comstock p. 17).

Though they were the drawings of a 4 and 5 year old, they showed the close details of their observations.

"Too much have we emphasized drawing as an art; it may be an art, if the one who draws is an artist; but if he is not an artist, he still has a right to draw if it pleases him to do so" (Comstock p. 16).

They were then ready to get up again so we headed over to the pond when it started to rain.

It was a magical time, just the 3 of us staying dry under the branches of the big tree, enjoying an apple and the pitter-patter of rain. It was an afternoon of curiosity and discovery, fresh air and exercise, friendship and self-expression.

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