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Nature Study: At Home and on the Road

One day as the kids and I were taking a break from “book work” and hiking on a trail through Monte Sano State Park in Alabama, it dawned on me that some of you may not have made a habit of nature study yet. You may even feel intimidated by the idea of a formal nature study, just as I was several years ago. Although I was very familiar with nature study in theory, I can’t say I really put it into practice until I met a group of homeschoolers on one of our travels that regularly met for an informal study of nature. By participating with them on just a couple hikes and play dates, I was able to finally understand how easy and practical nature study could be.

Since then, we have found some beautiful places to marvel at the wonder of God’s creation both close and far from home. Our country is full of natural areas to explore and it certainly doesn’t need to be difficult or take a large amount of planning or preparation to head outside and see what you find. In fact, I bet you already practice nature study in your home on some level.

Nature Study is simply the act of enjoying nature; God’s creation. Not worshipping nature, but rather learning about God through observing nature. When my husband and I first began homeschooling over eleven years ago, we attended a seminar on teaching science by the Institute of Creation Research (ICR). One of the practices they stressed was to begin a study of nature based on the attributes of God. What can WE learn about God when we observe nature?

I know I’ll never forget a lesson I learned while standing on a rocky beach one spring day in California. The sky was overcast and the wind was beginning to pick up; a signal of the coming storm. The waves were choppy and white tipped as they crashed upon the shore. My boys were in preschool and I had just helped them to memorize their weekly Bible verse which was taken from Mark 4:41, “…even the wind and the waves obey Him.” It was a very powerful moment for me as I gazed out over the ocean and became aware of the power and force of the ocean and yet knew that no matter how powerful the crashing water was, our Creator, the God of the universe, is mightier! As that verse sunk in, I saw God as sovereign, omnipotent and incomprehensible.

We have enjoyed nature in a number of ways, not realizing that we were actually studying nature. The kids have each had pets that we have observed and learned from; tree frogs, anoles, Betta fish, hamsters, gerbils, cats, and a puppy. We’ve had “temporary” creatures that we kept only to observe for a short time before releasing them. This has included many insects, a praying mantis, mice, a box turtle and snapping turtle. We’ve gathered tadpoles from a nearby pond so we could watch them grow into frogs; only to be disappointed when our cat decided to eat them for a late night snack! The kids have saved a snapping turtle from being eaten by a snake. We’ve found wild mushrooms and made spore prints, gathered plaster casts of deer and raccoon tracks at a nearby nature center in the early morning. We’ve explored a cave at a local state park, marveled at the changing colors of leaves from atop the highest point in our county. We’ve watched a lunar eclipse from our front porch and meteor shower while laying on the trampoline in the back yard. We have gone seining in the ocean, hiking through the mountains and have enjoyed many programs that have been offered at the state parks we’ve visited where we’ve tasted wild blueberries, spotted wild horses and photographed feral pigs. The kids each have their own nature study notebook where they can sketch whatever interests them while on a nature hike, trip to the zoo or while watching the squirrels scampering around our back yard.

The best part about studying nature is that you don’t have to own hundreds of acres in the country to enjoy nature. We have enjoyed nature from our hotel window, watching two squirrels fighting over the same tree, or from a camper, watching a tiny muskrat appear each morning to swim in the channel beside our camper before disappearing in the lake beyond.

Nature study at our home has always been pretty informal. We try to go for a walk sometime during the week and the kids will find something that they find interesting and sketch it. It could be a flower, a tree, a bird or even my grandmother’s goat, Otis. Sometimes they find something that they are really unfamiliar with and will look it up in their field guide if they are curious. They may add an entry to their sketchbook that includes the date, what they found, where it was found, the scientific name of their find and any other information that they think is important, but I don’t make them do all of that all the time. I don’t want my children to detest nature study, but rather to enjoy their surroundings and enjoy all that God has created. My children love to draw live specimens, but I’ve found for them that it is best to snap a picture for them to draw from. A copy of the photo is then added to their sketchbook.

Some resources to help you get started:
A Pocketful of Pinecones by Karen Andreola- This book is hands down my favorite how-to nature study storybook! Written in story form as a mother begins her homeschool journey and introduces her young child to the marvels of nature. This book is wonderful if you have young children, or you want to “see” a picture of how to painlessly incorporate nature study into your normal routine.

Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock- This massive book is my favorite intensive nature study reference book! This resource will pay for itself over and over again and something you will utilize for years! You can check it out for free here.

Christian Liberty Nature Reader Book 1 (Christian Liberty Nature Readers)

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden- A beautiful example of a nature sketchbook and journal.

Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You by Clare Walker Leslie & Charles E. Roth- This resource includes examples as well as some drawing exercises. You can find an online sample here.

Nature Study the Easy Way by Cindy Rushton

The Nature Study Idea Book Ideas for all Ages, Even Your High Schooler by Mary E. Woodis

Young children will enjoy reading and being read to from the Crinkleroot books and others by Jim Arnosky as well as books written by Thornton Burgess.

Helpful tools for nature study:
A sketchbook
Sketch pencils or colored pencils, watercolor pencils are nice
Field Guides
A compass
Magnifying glass
Insect nets
Bug cages
Binoculars
Camera

Helpful websites:
If you’ve decided to jump into nature study, this blog, The Handbook of Nature Study is a great place to begin and is my favorite online resource.

This post has 25+ nature and wildlife apps that are perfect for nature study. 

Now you know what we’re really up to when we are going on all those hikes! I hope you’ve been inspired! So next time you head out-of-doors, won’t you “….Stand still and consider the wondrous works of God?” (Job 37:14)

Suggested Resources for Nature Study

How do you incorporate nature study in your home? What is your favorite resource?

Karen

Thursday 11th of February 2010

Wonderful post! Our favorite resource is definitely the Handbook of Nature Study. We have also used some of the regional Audobon field guides.

Jen Wells

Monday 8th of February 2010

We really enjoy nature study here! We live in town and have limited access to a vehicle, so we have to be creative with the nature available to us, which usually includes taking "one more look" at something or other, maybe in a different season. Even with the limitations there are so many amazing things to learn about God's creation! You can view a slideshow of our recent nature outing at my Living Homeschool blog.

www.livinghomeschool.blogspot.com

Jenilee

Monday 8th of February 2010

thanks for this detailed post! I want to do that more in the spring!

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