The Delightfully Casual Element of Nature Study - In Memoriam

Did you know that after Charlotte Mason's death in 1923 there was a tribute written by her students and colleagues? In MemoriamBrandy at Afterthoughts has just made it available to us all in book form with a beautiful cover by local CM mom/artist/graphic designer, Alissa Clark. She also designed the beautiful new AmblesideOnline logo some of you saw at the Heart of AO conference last year.

One of my favorite pictures of Charlotte Mason's practice of nature study is in In Memoriam in a section titled The Nature Walk at the House of Education by A. C. Drury. You can read it online on page 105 at: The House of Education was a teacher training school. If you ever visit the Lake District, you'll want to read her inspiring nature-filled description of the area.

A.C. Drury describes the Nature Notebook used by the students at the House of Education in two ways: it is "the symbol of their knowledge," and "the peculiar privilege of the student."

Isn't that interesting to think of it as a privilege?

Here are some other quotes from her section that made me think about the way we approach nature study.
Miss Mason loved to see what "finds" the students brought back from their expeditions and to hear what birds they had seen or to tell what she had seen.
Out of doors the students learn to look and to watch that they may know creatures and plants by sight as they know friends
The Nature Note Book becomes increasingly valuable when the records of one year and one locality can be compared with another; and a student generally feels that she is making more progress in her second year though she was unconsciously storing up first impressions in the early days of her training.
There is a delightfully casual element in Nature Walks. We simply choose which way to go and then "Nature" does the rest because Ambleside is an unrivalled spot to learn in. We like to be teased when the Nature Walk lingers to watch a dipper or a grey wagtail...
...the fact is that we take whatever comes, and the unexpected almost always happens.

The Rev. Alfred Thornley, who examines the "Seniors"' Nature Note Books, testifies to the freshness and pleasure which this mode of Nature Study secures, and this spontaneous enjoyment was provided by Miss Mason when she taught us to gather the materials for science by studying Nature out of doors for ourselves and adding to our knowledge year after year.
What's interesting to me is how different this sounds from the nature study lesson I watched on the Eve Andersen DVD on nature study. That lesson was much more structured and teacher led. Everyone was told to get a leaf and they all returned together to draw it. Had it changed over the years and become more structured? Is it a difference between teacher training and elementary education?

Here's another quote that struck me:
We get a tremendous stimulus and answers to many of our queries when Mr. Thornley comes for his annual visit. A day spent out of doors with him acquaints us with many kinds of insects, their haunts, their food. We see an astonishing "number of things" in a few hundred yards of wood or of lakeside, and time passes like magic. To arouse wonder and admiration must be one of the teacher's principal aims.
I love this because it shows there were many unanswered questions in the students' minds. "Many of our queries..." They were wondering and had many questions. This confirms an important point made in the PR article "Elementary-Science Teaching" by Mary Everest Boole. Unanswered questions are a necessary part of the process in scientific education. To have a question in mind based on an observation, is more desireable than to be provided with facts that were never asked for.

The child who discovers a paper-thin, outer casing of an insect stuck to a leaf will wonder what it is and care more about the fact that it is a molt when he finds out *after* he spends some time wondering about it. He has time to think about it and roll it around in his mind. He'll likely come up with his own guesses as he tries to figure it out. He may even have a conversation about it with someone else. Contrast to the child who is told what it is before he ever wondered at all. Something in the wanting to know, I believe, causes it to become more personal and memorable. Just like the thing you had to save up for and wait before buying - it somehow became more valuable to us in the waiting and thinking about it.

In Parents and Children Charlotte Mason said it is important that we "offer real seed to the mind of a child, and do not make him a priggish little person able to tell all about it." I love her way with words.

Time in nature naturally (with freshness and pleasure) leads an inquisitive mind to observations. Observations naturally (with spontaneous enjoyment) lead to questions. Questions naturally lead to a desire to know. And this desire, in my opinion, is what Charlotte Mason invested her life trying to convey to us; that it *matters* in educating a child. Remember our favorite quote?
“The question is not, -- how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education -- but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” 
Do read the full article for yourself and get the book too, she discusses lectures and books and much more. It will give you an idea what a comprehensive understanding of the area nature study provided - how synthetic her knowledge was - and what we might consider incorporating through nature study.

Did you wonder about the images in this post? Here's what they are in order:
- Crystalline Ice Plant - a jeweled plant that grows by the sea.
- Empty aphid caracasses that were inhabited by a parasitic wasp implanted into the healthy aphid.
- A skeleton shrimp, the tiniest, most interesting creature sometimes found on holdfasts that wash up on the shore.
- A praying mantis molt. Look close you can see even its antennae and eyes molt!


  1. The publishing issue has resolved, and the book will be available very soon. Hooray!!

    Naomi, I love the way you dig deeply into "the source" - whether that be CM's volumes, Parents' Review, etc. - to illustrate the point. It is enormously helpful. Thank you!

  2. Thank you Dawn! I updated the post and added some pictures for fun too.

    1. The pics are so cool! Is that a praying mantis skin?

    2. Yes it is, antennae and eyeballs and all!

  3. This is fantastic, Naomi! As someone who mostly does nature study "delightfully casually," these descriptions really resonated with me. :)

  4. Hi, I just came across this website as I search the web for introducing Nature Study to my kiddos this school year. I first read your post on Nature Study Groups and followed the link in hopes of finding one near me. The post is from 7 years ago and the link no longer works. I am wondering if you can help me find a new resource. I live in San Bernardino County.

    1. I'm so sorry! Try the website I unfortunately don't know of any groups out in San Bernardino County. It really only takes one other mom to start one!


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