Charlotte Mason wrote extensively on various educational philosophies and she held to an unusual emphasis of taking children outside every day to be in direct contact with nature. She really means every day, and she lived with the less-than-perfect weather of England. The objective is to help the child learn to be observant. The parent can relax, sit on a blanket, bring a project or a book along, and make this a leisurely outing, casually point out scenery around your children. Charlotte suggests we ask them “Who can see the most and tell the most about . . .” any plants, insects, or anything nearby. This appears to be a form of narration to me. With as little talking as possible and absolutely no lecturing, attempt to have them notice the geography of the area, the position of the sun, the weather, and the clouds.
In order to foster the power of observation you need to take your children to places where they will find things worth observing. Charlotte wanted children to have beautiful memories of their childhood stored for their old age and thought too many of us have blurry memories due to the fact we did not slow down and really look at things. To remedy this, she suggests that on rare occasions we have the child take a mental photograph of some scenic landscape. Have the child look, then shut their eyes and describe the scene. If it is too blurry in their minds, have them open their eyes, look again, and make a second attempt.
Getting outside this often can be difficult, I know. I live with rainy coastal conditions, and I tend to not be an outdoor person. However, there is refreshment and a literal re-creation involved that makes this worth the effort. Living in an urban or suburban area is going to make finding a natural setting more difficult. Our family has done a fair amount of nature observation in our cultivated suburban yard, and one advantage I can think of is that I know the names of the trees we’ve planted. If planning regular trips out of the city seems impossible to you, start small, and don’t be discouraged. Cities always have parks and arboretums. Maybe you can plan a family vacation with a new outlook of getting to more natural places.
A side benefit of observation is recognition. Charlotte Mason wrote, in “science or rather nature study, we attach great importance to recognition.” Some examples Charlotte provided are plants, stones, constellations, birds, field crops, and leaves. On the other hand the schools using Mason’s philosophy say they were “extremely careful not to burden the verbal memory with scientific nomenclature.” How then does the recognition process develop? By being careful to “teach the thing before the name” as an article in Charlotte Mason’ periodical put it. Children easily learn the name when the item is present and they need a name for it. So we teach them the correct term like pollen or antennae instead of “sticky-up-thing.”
One afternoon a week take the children out for a nature walk. These are not instructive walks because we want them to observe with very little direction from us. One reason is that science should be studied in an ordered sequence, which is not possible with the randomness you will encounter out walking. The parent may be asked questions, and it is permissible to answer; that’s why it is recommended we adults work on our nature knowledge somewhat. There is nothing wrong with not knowing and looking it up at home in a field guide. You can invite a naturalist to come with you, provided you can locate one and they agree to follow the Mason’s method (e.g. not lecturing the children) to some degree. I have used private property for these walks, with permission, and often the owner enjoys supplying a little information about the plant life or animal life of their area. Try to visit the same area quarterly to note how the seasons have altered the life.
A good time of year to begin observing trees, according to Edward M. Tuttle, is in the winter when the trees are bare. He wrote an in-depth article for Charlotte Mason on how to study trees. This approach could be used on trees in your yard as well as trees in the forest, I believe. You can sketch the tree, noting the branches and the bark. Mr. Tuttle also wisely suggests we observe what birds and insects live in the trees we are visiting. He suggests we find out what purpose trees are used for, such as syrup, nuts, or the wood.
Mr. Tuttle also suggests getting sample pieces of woods in lengthwise and crosswise cuts and then comparing the natural state of it to the “finished” state of being oiled and polished. You could try collecting samples from your local lumberyard. One source I’ve found for mail-order wood samples is a company called Woodcraft. They offer a Wood Identification Kit that includes fifty 4x9 samples (for under $30.00). It comes with a list of species, botanical names, and country of origin. You can write for their catalog at 210 Wood County Industrial Park, P. O. Box 1686, Parkersburg, WV 26102-1686 or call them at 1-800-535-4482. They have retail outlets in various major cities throughout the country, which you’ll find listed in the catalog.
Some other science ideas are pressing and mounting flowers on cardboard. Write their names and where and when you found them. I recently saw a photo-album used to store pressed flowers. Having a field guide to identify flowers and flowering trees is very helpful. A calendar devoted to nature observation could be kept with simple entries on when the leaves first fell or the fruit tree in your yard first ripened for the year. Children should know the leaves of their neighborhood. For example they can begin to notice that some leaves are heart shaped, some are divided, and some fall off in the winter. With time they will be able to distinguish between petal, sepal, and other flower parts. They will see on their own that some creatures have backbones and some do not. Give them a pocket compass and possibly a microscope. We like using the magnifying glass better. Buy the best one you can afford and check it at the store — they seem to vary in how they focus. Charlotte says to teach children to notice winds and tell them the wind is named by what direction it comes from; for example, yourself being an American because you are born in America — you do not become a Canadian when you go to Canada. Have them walk a distance and then measure how far they’ve walked.
City children can try to feed and observe city birds such as sparrows. They can place a caterpillar in a box with a netting over it and watch it spin. Keeping an ant farm is suggested, and we had a good one this past winter. Have them go to the pond, gather some frogs’ eggs, and place them in a large glass jar. After the tadpoles begin to form legs, take them back and release them at the pond. It was suggested children keep silkworms but I have no personal experience with that. The point is, even in the city, they should get their knowledge of nature first hand and get into the habit of being in touch with nature.