Monday, February 29, 2016

How to Do Nature Study when Mom Doesn't Like Going Outside

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Nature study is an integral part of Charlotte Mason's philosophy. It was, in fact, one of the main tenets that drew me to shaping our school around her philosophy of education. Then, as my children grew and we dove more deeply into formal schooling, it became clear that nature study rarely happened for one simple but overwhelming reason.

Though I loved reading about being in nature with my children and the idea of being in nature with them, I dreaded going out in nature with them.

Partly it was the hassle of getting everyone out the door, partly is was the lack of proper gear, but mostly it was my own disinclination to leave my snug little house.

Nature study was on the schedule, but week after week, I just crossed it off and we stayed home. Determined to address what I saw as potentially the most serious problem in our education, I declared 2015-2016 The Year of Nature Study and discussed with a dear friend all my thoughts on the matter. I invited her and her family, also homeschoolers, to join us on this quest. She accepted.

We are now within a few months of the end of our school year and I am declaring The Year of Nature Study almost entirely a success! So far we have gone on 18 nature walks with our coop (more on that later), visited new baby lambs, camped at two state parks and one national park, and spent a day at a preserve.

How to Do Nature Study when Mom Doesn't Like Going Outside

First, convince your spouse to make nature study a priority.

This isn't really a step, but I wanted to give Kansas Dad his due. He has supported my efforts to better our nature study time immeasurably. He borrowed equipment and arranged camping trips for our family last summer. The Great Sand Dunes was amazing and the kids all loved Roaring River State Park. When I suggested taking a day our first week of school to explore Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, he took the day off work to join us (and drive - I hate driving).

Whenever he's with us for a hike, he's encouraging the kids and pointing out all sorts of interesting plants, fungi, and rock formations. He leads by example and my family especially loves it when he comes with us. He doesn't draw in a nature journal, but he keeps an eye on the kids so I can draw in mine when we're out with our family.

Second Son bundled up for freezing rain
Next, gather the equipment.

Clothing - The exact needs here will depend on your climate and personal preferences. The most important thing I needed was shoes for myself. I had only one pair of old exercise shoes, a size too big and with "breathing" openings which meant if it was chilly or damp, my feet were cold or wet (or both). Knowing I didn't have good footwear gave me too easy an excuse to avoid nature walks. So I invested in a quality pair of hiking shoes. You may not need something as expensive, but since we were planning on camping and hiking as a family quite a lot, it seemed a wise investment for me. (I love them, by the way, and now wear them almost exclusively.)

learning about ice ("Let's hit it with a rock!")
We have had an unusually mild winter with lots of lovely nature study days. On one day, it was sleeting rain. Though I had said we wouldn't go out in such weather, we did. I joked with my friend that we were either an example of supreme dedication to Charlotte Mason's philosophy or an example of women who had taken it a too far and neglected to use common sense in our nature study. (We lasted about 20 minutes that day, but the kids did have a grand time trying to beat through the ice with rocks.)

Water bottles - I firmly believe in avoiding plastic bottles. It may be unreasonable, but that's just how it is. I grab the metal ones just about wherever I find them for a decent price because we lose them all the time. All the time. My favorites are Klean Kanteens, but I rarely buy them. You know, because we lose them. Ideally, we have one water bottle per person, but we can't always find enough of them (because we lose them) and so must share.

Backpacks - In honor of a camping trip we were taking last summer, my mother-in-law bought us some backpacks like these. They're light and perfect for the children to carry their own notebooks, pencils, and snacks. I also keep my bag stocked with a mini first aid kit, Neosporin spray, wipes, old grocery bags to use for wet things or garbage, bug spray, sunscreen, and a whistle.

Having dedicated nature study bags is a tremendous asset: they're always packed and ready to go. We just throw in a snack and toss them in the van.

Notebooks - We have Moleskin extra large notebooks, but regular old lined notebooks work, too. Saint Nicholas brought each of the kids a pencil kit last December. He found them on clearance at a local hobby store, but something like this pencil set would work, too. Ones that snap or zip close are nice because the pencils don't get lost or jumbled in the bag.

We've added lots of fun things to our bags over the past year: a pocket microscope, binoculars, a small ruler, magnifying glasses, and identification books, but these are all just extras. (Make these things inexpensive because the children will drop them, step on them, leave them behind, bury them in sand, splash them in the water, and generally have a marvelous time.)

Once you've got the equipment, make the time and get it on the schedule.

Here's where the coop comes in. My friend organized our coop with an intricate time table and children moving between three different locations (before we even begin nature study!). Our coop day includes piano lessons, speech class, and some church classes. My job is to drive kids back and forth to classes, supervise speech class, and decide where we're going each week for nature study. (I got the easy jobs.)

In retrospect, it's amazing how combining nature study with other activities was essential in making sure I got it done every week. I don't have to motivate for nature study because we're already in the van with our bags packed.

There is also nothing like twelve children from two (three now) to thirteen, waiting eagerly in two vans, to make you realize nature study better happen.

Then, choose the locations.

I brazenly asked friends with river-graced property to allow us to tromp along their paths about once a month this year, and they said yes!

I also selected one other location we would visit about once a month through the year.

Those two locations became our backbone. Visiting often throughout the year would allow the children to become familiar with the changing of seasons and weather in a particular place.

Then I did some research and online searching for other natural places or parks we could visit sporadically through the year. Kansas Trail Guide was really helpful for me. You don't need much or a "serious" nature trail. Our second backbone location is a city park with a paved trail. Three of the other locations we visit regularly have playgrounds; they are city parks and not wild nature trails.

Finally, set the ground rules.

Taking twelve children anywhere can be overwhelming and I knew I could only handle a weekly excursion if I wasn't anxious about someone getting hurt every week. I established some ground rules to allow us to keep a semblance of order and get everyone home safe and sound.
"icky water" (an honest display of a nature journal)
  • If you hear us call or blow the whistle, stop where you are and look for one of the grown-ups.
  • Children who do not respond appropriately will spend the rest of the nature walk holding one of our hands. (The big kids are horrified by this possibility.)
  • Respect personal property and water safety.
  • Be kind to God's plants and creatures.
  • No sharing snacks. (We have severe allergies in our group.)
  • You must draw in your journal before you eat your snack. The location and date should be included. (Later we added a requirement for a sentence or two about the day or the drawing, but even so, nature journal entries will need some bolstering next year.)
For the most part, we try to allow the children free rein to explore, climb, and wander. Therefore, we spend a lot of time counting to twelve.

In our family, we also needed to institute immediate showers for First Daughter when we get home. She has extensive allergies and has more than once developed a serious rash after our nature study walk. We just recently discovered Zanfel, which seems to help a lot (as it should, given its price).


I joke all the time that our nature study is much more Last Child in the Woods than Handbook of Nature Study. With twelve rambunctious children as excited to be together as to be outside, it's difficult to maintain peaceful contemplation of nature. As a first year, it's been a success and I'm hoping we can build on that next year and in the future to improve our nature journal skills and actually learn some names of plants or something. (It's the blind leading the blind, folks.)

We had some breaks during the year. Because we follow our church's class schedule, breaks for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Ash Wednesday, and such, are built into the year. We also took advantage of time together to do a few other activities. In December, we spent one coop day caroling instead of doing nature study. We're also having a little concert one week this spring. Though we focus on nature study, it's convenient to have that time available for a few special things we can still all do together.

Be sure to share in the comments any tips on getting nature study done. I definitely need help on the nature journal and identification skills.

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