Charlotte Mason and Richard Louv: Nature Study and the “Powers of Observation” (Thoughts on “Home Education”)


Charlotte Mason and Richard Louv: Nature Study and the Powers of Observation

“Mom, look!” She stoops beside a rotting log, her voice loud with excitement. “Look at the way this fungus is growing — it’s shaped just like a rose!”

We stop in our tracks, all four of us. Even the littlest one bends low to look close.

I’ve been asked before just how it is that I’ve taught my children to notice. It’s something that I assumed came naturally to them — the ability to see the little miracles of creation. I believe that every child is born with an innate sense of wonder.

But why do only some retain it?

I’ve recently begun reading Home Education, the first volume in a collection by Charlotte Mason, a late nineteenth century English educator. Although her tone is often condescending and some of her beliefs outdated, many of her ideas are quite wonderful and have had long-lasting influence. If you’ve been homeschooling for any length of time, you will have heard of her. In fact, several of her ideas have inspired my own teaching methods.

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I’m particularly interested in how Charlotte Mason’s ideas about nature intersect with those of Richard Louv. A journalist and author, Louv has written several books about the relationship between children and nature — and the need for this relationship to be nurtured. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Louv coins the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the results of society’s move away from outdoor activity.

“Never Be Within Doors When You Can Rightly Be Without”

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a big proponent of nature study — not just nature study, but getting outside in general. Perhaps this is why I’m such a big fan of Richard Louv, and perhaps it’s why one of my favourite quotes from Mason’s Home Education is the famous, “Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.”

But what does this look like in an educational setting?

Outdoor Education

Anna Botsford Comstock, an early 20th century conservationist, was one of the first educators to bring students outdoors to study nature. According to Cornell University Press, “Anna Botsford Comstock very appropriately took the view that we should know first and best the things closest to us. Only then, […] should we journey farther afield to learn about more distant things.”

When I first read about Comstock’s influence on the public education in a picture book, I fell in love with the idea of nature study as a formal part of education. We had already been incorporating outdoor nature study into our homeschool day, but this year, it has replaced science almost entirely.

In Last Child in the Woods, Louv says, “An environment-based education movement — at all levels of education — will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world” (p. 226).

This is the kind of education I want to give my children: an experience-based appreciation for the beauty that God has created.

Charlotte Mason and Richard Louv: Nature Study and the Powers of Observation

Exercises in Observation

In Home Education, Charlotte Mason talks about the importance of exercises in observation. She suggests asking children to observe then describe in great detail the things around them.

“This is all play to the children, but the mother is doing the invaluable work; she is training their powers of observation and expression…” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, Part II, Section II, p. 46-47).

I’ve unknowingly had my girls doing exercises in observation for as long as I can remember. When heading out on a hike, I will often ask them to find interesting things for us to learn about later. In his book The Nature Principle, Richard Louv says, “When truly present in nature, we do use all our senses at the same time, which is the optimum state of learning” (p. 25). When children notice creation, they begin to learn.

A few weeks ago, my daughter spotted a little brown bird flitting around our back deck. “What kind of bird is that?” she asked.

“Just a sparrow,” I replied absent-mindedly. We rarely see birds other than house sparrows in our yard.

“No, Mom. It’s not,” my daughter responded. “It flies differently. It’s also bigger. And the markings on it are different.”

As it turns out, she was right. The bird in question was not a sparrow, as I thought, but a hermit thrush, the first we’ve seen in over eleven years of living here. My daughter’s keen powers of observation, developed over time and with a little help when she was younger, have served her well.

Learning the Names of Plants and Animals

“The child who describes, ‘A tall tree going up into a point, with rather roundish leaves; not a pleasant tree for shade because the branches go all up,’ deserves learn the name of the tree, and anything her mother has to tell about it.” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, Part II, Section II, p. 47)

I’ve described before how I teach my children about nature a little bit at a time. When they discover something that captures their interest, I’m more than happy to teach them everything I know about it. And when I don’t know? We bring it home or take a photo so we can look it up. My purse, backpack and camera case often hold little pieces of our walks. In this way, my children and I have slowly been increasing our knowledge of the world around us.

Richard Louv writes, “One of my students told me that every time she learns the name of a plant, she feels as if she is meeting someone new. Giving a name to something is a way of knowing it” (Last Child in the Woods). I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. This type of experiential learning cements knowledge. My children don’t readily forget the plants and animals they’ve met and named.

Charlotte Mason and Richard Louv: Nature Study and the Powers of Observation

Impacts on Behaviour

“The woods were my Ritalin. Nature calmed me, focused me, and yet excited my senses.” (Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods)

Time in nature positively impacts behaviour. In Home Education, Charlotte Mason cites the Reverend Charles Kingsley, who says, “I have seen the young man of fierce passions and uncontrollable daring expend healthily that energy […] upon hunting out and collecting, through rock and bog, snow and tempest, every bird and egg of the neighbouring forest” (p. 71).

There have been many times over the last four years that I’ve closed up the school books mid-lesson and taken my children outside. When attitudes are turning sour and the day feels irredeemable, we go for a walk and then try again later. This might sound like I’m encouraging lack of discipline, but more often than not, an hour of outdoor time resets our day, and we’re able to finish our work afterwards with few problems.

Making Spiritual Connections

“Nature offers a well from which many, famous or not, draw a creative sense of pattern and connection.” (Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods)

Something important happens when children are immersed in nature. They become more spiritually wise. Romans 1:20 says, “For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.”

There is a quote commonly attributed to Martin Luther that puts it this way: “God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars.”

Recently, my eight-year old remarked, “Mom, I think following God is like leaves on a tree. We’re the leaves and He’s the tree. Sometimes, we forget to pray and we start following the wrong path, and then we fall down like the leaves fall from the tree. Sometimes, I feel myself starting to fall down and then I pray and it’s like I’m grabbing on to a branch.” Such wisdom in those words! And how beautiful that observing nature gave this little girl a context in which to express her feelings.

The Bible contains many analogies about our relationship with God which are drawn from nature. He is a tree and we are branches; as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are His ways higher than ours; His love is like an ocean and His righteousness like mighty mountains; those who wait on Him rise like eagles; He makes our feet like hind’s feet on high places; etc. There are many comparisons drawn from the natural world to help us better understand the spiritual.

The sense of awe and wonder we develop when observing the natural world, when directed upwards, becomes a form of worship. We know the Creator through His Word first and foremost, but also through the world He has created.

Charlotte Mason and Richard Louv: Nature Study, Observation and Their Effects



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