Friday, February 3, 2012

The Object of Nature Study

Someone recently asked a question about Nature Study in the AO Yahoo group and after looking into it more, I posted a response, which I'd like to post here for the sake of sharing and also to be able to refer back to again in the future.

I don't know that my answer is 'correct' at all, it's just what I found in reading about it, and I continue to be a work in progress, so if you have anything to add or an observation to make, please do so in the comments section.

The question was basically this: Is it enough for our kids to just be out in nature? What if they don't naturally grow into curiosity and scientific observation, should we direct them?

Based on CM's writings in Vol. 6 on Science, it seems we are definitely to
direct them in their Nature Study (see below at the bottom***).

The Handbook of Nature Study also has a great section in the beginning titled
'The Teaching of Nature Study' that is helpful in how to do that. Comstock says:
"Nature Study ... consists of simple, truthful observations that may, like beads
on a string, finally be threaded upon the understanding and thus held together
as a logical and harmonious whole. Therefore, the object of the nature-study
teacher should be to cultivate in the children powers of accurate observation
and to build up within them understanding."

In the section titled "The Field Excursion", she basically says the child's 'seeing nothing'
can be avoided if the teacher plans the work definitely before starting and
demands certain results.

She says if it's well planned it shouldn't take more than ten or fifteen

"Certain questions and lines of investigation should be given the pupils before
starting and given in such a manner as to make them thoroughly interested in
discovering the facts."

"...the pupils must know that certain observations are to be made or they will
not be permitted to go again. This should not be emphasized as a punishment; but
they should be made to understand that a field excursion is only, naturally
enough, for those who wish to see and understand outdoor life."

In the section preceding this titled "The Field Notebook", she says the notebook
is the child's property and we are not to criticize it or correct any English in

So... I translate all that to mean that we require the observation and
notebooking of the observation, and then trust that the interest will develop
and learning occur without checking up on their work.

Comstock does say the notebook is useful to the teacher in learning what the
child sees and cares for, helping us know where to find the starting point for
"cultivating larger intelligence." So, maybe peek at it when they're not looking
if they don't want you looking, or maybe they will naturally want to show you at
some point.

I used to have the kids just pick something and draw it, but then I saw a
friend, Shannon's nature journal. She did things that called for observation -
like drawing the scene across the street from her window and drawing in where
the sun set in the summer. Then returning to the same picture and filling in
where the sun set in that picture in the winter, you can't help but notice - it
moved! She drew the moon every night before bedtime for two weeks along the
edges of her notebook.

Some other things I read about on the Handbook of Nature Study blog or somewhere
else - collect six seeds that fly and draw them. Draw six different types of beaks on birds (Jen's idea). Draw six types of leaves including pine needles. Draw where the water level is in the spring and in the fall. Pick a tree and draw it once in the spring, summer, fall and
winter. I'm sure you could come up with more of your own ideas here.

So, specific and firm in what they are to do, then giving lots of freedom in the
doing, and not checking up on their work, is what I think I'm getting from
my reading. (In hindsight, I might have better said here not 'correcting' their work)

***Here are CM's writings from Vol. 6, I added the corresponding years in

We find an American publication called The Sciences (whose author would seem to
be an able man of literary power) of very great value in linking universal
principles with common incidents of every day life in such a way that interest
never palls and any child may learn on what principles an electric bell works,
what sound means, how a steam engine works, and many other matters, explained
here with great lucidity.

Capital diagrams and descriptions make experiments easy and children arrive at
their first notions of science without the verbiage that darkens counsel.

Form IIA (5th & 6th grade) read Life and Her Children by Arabella Buckley and
get a surprising knowledge of the earlier and lower forms of life. IIB (4th
grade) take pleasure in Kingsley's Madam How and Lady Why. They are expected to
do a great deal of out-of-door work in which they are assisted by The Changing
Year, admirable month by month studies of what is to be seen out-of-doors. They
keep records and drawings in a Nature Note Book and make special studies of
their own for the particular season with drawings and notes.

The studies of Form III (7th & 8th grade) for one term enable children to––"Make
a rough sketch of a section of ditch or hedge or sea-shore and put in the names
of the plants you would expect to find.

"Write notes with drawings of the special study you have made this term,"

"What do you understand by calyx, corolla, stamen, pistil? In what ways are
flowers fertilised?"

"How would you find the Pole Star? Mention six other stars and say in what
constellations they occur."

"How would you distinguish between Early, Decorated and Perpendicular Gothic?
Give drawings."

Questions like these, it will be seen, cover a good deal of field work, and the
study of some half dozen carefully selected books on natural history, botany,
architecture and astronomy, the principle being that children shall observe and
chronicle, but shall not depend upon their own unassisted observation.

The study of natural history and botany with bird lists and plant lists
continues throughout school life, while other branches of science are taken term
by term.

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