Jul 13, 2011

How to do nature study with kids

We live in the middle of the rainforest, 350 metres above sea-level, in Eastern Australia, at the top of NSW. With a National Park backing onto our land we are living with nature not just on our doorstep, but inside the house at times.

In our bath tub (like the goanna who fell into our bath from the roof space through the ceiling fan),

in the dining room (many many micro-bats over the years, and the occasional swallow down the chimney),

snakes in the music room, a bush rat down the kitchen stove vent, and legless lizards in the laundry.

We have had koalas fighting and growling two steps from our back door, wedge-tail eagles in the chicken pen (see our 22 second youtube movie here), and watched generations of tiny wallabies emerge from pouches to then grow up and have their own tiny young.

When November was a toddler, we even had an echidna waddle through the front door on a hot summer day. And this young male orphaned Bobuck possum came to live with us for a while to be re-introduced into the wild.

(Warning - dead animal photo coming up)

Yet, we have only just started "officially" doing Nature Study.

Lesson plan for Nature Study
Here is an outline for our current method. This can be broken up into 3 or 4 sessions if needed.

  1. Philosophy: what do you want to accomplish? For our family, we really wanted time together in the bush, and the girls often choose nature study as part of "You Choose Tuesday". I think it is a great way to show children the wonder and fragility of our environment and the positive and negative aspects of human interaction in the natural world.
  2. Gather field resources relevant to your location and quest: solid sketch book (we like a spiral binding, acid-free pages, heavy weight pages), 2B pencils and eraser, coloured pencils, magnifying glass, lidded containers for scooping specimens, camera, tweezers, net, binoculars, and anything else you are prepared to carry! Can be as simple as the first 3 items only.
  3. Go outside and find something interesting! Look, smell, listen, be still, draw, photograph, enjoy. Collect if practicable - and be sure to return live specimens to the same area as soon as possible.
  4. Back home with your specimen or images of your specimen: gather reference books, posters, classification keys and internet resources.
  5. Identify your specimen. Measure it - length, height, weight if practicable.
  6. Map your specimen's range.
  7. Research using web based and workbook resources. Really get to know as much as you can, as long as this holds your interest. Nature study is meant to be fun and educational with the emphasis on interesting.
  8. Document your findings in your nature study sketch book or separate book. We use the sketchbook, gluing in sections of lined paper as needed, and print-outs of photos or relevant items. Our aim is for each girl to have created her own "reference book" that she can refer back to over time.

Why explore Nature Study?
I tracked down "The Handbook of Nature Study" by natural historian and illustrator Anna Botsford Comstock (written in 1911 and revised in 1939)  because I was curious with how to turn out everyday bush life into a homeschool subject. I found Anna Botsford Comstock's arguments for taking children outside to learn very compelling...

"First, but not most important, nature-study gives the child practical and helpful knowledge. It makes him familiar with nature's ways and forces, so that he is not so helpless in the presence of natural misfortune and disasters.
Nature-study cultivates the child's imagination, since there are so many wonderful and true stories that he may read with his own eyes, which affect his imagination as much as does fairy lore; at the same time nature-study cultivates in him a perception and a regard for what is true, and the power to express it. 
All things seem possible in nature; yet this seeming is always guarded by the eager quest of what is true. Perhaps half the falsehood in the world is due to lack of power to detect the truth and to express it. Nature-study aids both in discernment and in expression of things as they are."

Good stuff. 

Here is a real life example of nature study in our homeschool...

Unexpected arrival of a subject
A male bandicoot drowned in the pool. After all standing around its poor forlorn still-wet body and thanking it for allowing us to learn from its death (yes, while a science-mad homeschool, we are still very tender hearted with our subjects) photos were taken, sketch books fetched and many drawings were made.

Afterwards his body was dispatched to the bush to become food for ravens, goannas, insects and assorted microbes. Then the photo was loaded onto the iPad. 

I love the iPad for sharing images like this. You can zoom in for closeups, as an aid for drawing, and to double check features when doing animal classification and identification.

Our "Field Guide to Australian Mammals" reference book was consulted, and I went and gathered resources. (While our specimen was a Northern Brown Bandicoot, I was only able to source web resources on the Southern Brown Bandicoot. You will find them listed below.)

Distribution is an important factor in species ID. The girls took turns to read aloud the possible bandicoots and they studied the book's maps for clues. I had them draw the distribution for our specimen on the huge laminated maps we use as desk mats. July did our specimen, November drew all three species' location in different colours on a world map. Love to include geography wherever we can!

Next session we explored the web resources...

Write it down, remember, retention, and pride of work
Then it was time for book work. 

I realised some time ago that part of Mike and my criteria for "good education" is retention of learning. I am quite happy to spread out a nature study project over several sessions a few days apart as I find it really helps the girls remember details and think things through in between physically working on the project. Mental casserole time...

Each time they add to their nature study sketchbooks the girls are freshly enthused looking through their past work. This is great for morale building with reluctant writers.

Each girl decided what information she wanted to include. Here are some pages from July's sketchbook:

 and some from November's:

Do you "Nature Study"? How do you do it? 
Please add a link and share your work in the comments!

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