We wandered down the gravel road, past the fields that were so familiar to my dirt-stained hands. Past the first irrigation pond, then more crops, then a small forest. At the back pond, we stopped and watched the tadpoles resting quietly beneath the surface of the water. This—all of it—was why we had come to my mother’s childhood home.
Many times, as a child, teenager, and even young adult, I traced this path with my mother. It was she who first taught me about animal tracks, different plants and trees, birds. It was my mom who shared her knowledge with us, and now it’s me sharing that knowledge with my children.
Nature study is a lifestyle.
Some people bring their sketchbooks or watercolors outdoors and create beautiful images of plants, flowers, birds and animals. Others have a formal curriculum that they follow. As much as I wish I could do that, it’s a much more fluid and informal process for us.
If I had to break it down, nature study for our family is three things:
1. It’s as simple as we need it to be on any given day.
Nature study doesn’t have to consist of driving four hours so you can hike to a specific beaver pond, although we’ve done that. You don’t need to have a car. You don’t need to live in the country. Even in the middle of the city, it’s as easy as stepping out your front door. There are insects, flowers, the sky. Richard Louv refers to the sky as a wild place that is accessible to everyone. There are hundreds of things to see right in your own backyard! Some of our best lessons have come from standing on our front walkway and looking at the stars at night, or impromptu walks to the park where we learned about Kentucky coffee trees, sycamore trees and male and female pine cones. Nature study doesn’t have to be complicated.
2. We take a camera and something for collecting small things (usually the camera case and our pockets).
We don’t take field guides. As much as I love books, I don’t lug them on hikes. Ever. I have my hands full enough with kids and snacks. I have one app on my phone that helps identify birds because those are hard to photograph. And one for stars and constellations. Both apps are free and don’t require wifi or data. But other than those, I take a camera and backpack. While we’re hiking, my girls will point out things of interest: mushrooms, plants, insects. I take a photo so we can look it up later. We also collect things. If you look in my van, for example, you’ll find Canada goose eggshells in the glove compartment and a bag of fossils under the seat. We collect feathers, nuts, leaves, etc.
3. We research.
When we get home, we look up the things we’ve seen/collected. We learn about them. To me, this is the most crucial part of nature study because it’s a fundamental skill that my children will use all their lives. By teaching them how to research, I’m teaching them how to learn. And, in my opinion, teaching a child how to learn is much more important than what they learn. There will always be gaps in a child’s education, no matter where they go to school. As educators, we need to give them the tools they need to fill in the gaps.