Nature Study
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Nature Study: Q & A by Deborah and HollyAnne Dobbins

Nature Diaries-As soon as he is able to keep it himself, a nature-diary is a source of delight to a child.  Every day’s walk gives him something to enter: three squirrels in a larch tree, a jay flying across such a field, a caterpillar climbing up a nettle, a snail eating a cabbage leaf, a spider dropping suddenly to the ground, where he found ground ivy, how it was growing and what plants were growing with it, how bindweed or ivy manages to climb. Innumerable matters to record occur to the intelligent child.  While he is quite young (five or six), he should begin to illustrate his notes freely with brush drawings; he should have a little help at first in mixing colours, in the way of principles, not directions.  He should not be told to use now this and now that, but, ‘we get purple by mixing so and so,’ and then he should be left to himself to get the right tint. As for drawing, instruction has no doubt its time and place; but his nature-diary should be left to his own initiative.  A child of six will produce a dandelion, poppy, daisy, iris with its leaves, impelled by the desire to represent what he sees, with surprising vigour and correctness.  An exercise book with stiff covers serves for a nature-diary, but care is necessary in choosing paper that answers both for writing and brush-drawing. (Charlotte Mason; Home Education, vol.1, 54-55.)

HollyAnne and I received many questions at our nature study workshop last June, so we are taking this opportunity to address some of them.  We love questions because we want to help you feel comfortable doing nature studies with your students. Nature study gives us an opportunity to spend time in wonder and admiration of God’s creation.  Charlotte Mason says that the habits of observation students acquire will form capital groundwork for scientific education. (vol. 1, 63)  Here are some of your questions:

Do we ever tear out pages in the sketchbook or let students start over?
If we allowed students to tear out pages or start over, the habit of completion would be greatly hindered.  We prefer that students understand that God’s creation cannot be reproduced perfectly. Students may become frustrated with their work, but a moment of problem solving together helps them get back on track with the size or shape of the specimen that they desire to produce.  Our experience has shown that once they figure out how to proceed then they are able to continue their work.

What if a student doesn’t finish?
Students do not like to be hurried while painting.  As students finish they may choose a nature book to quietly read while others are painting.  If a student is still painting when the class time has ended, we give the option to continue while the next nature study class begins.  As a 2nd grade teacher, I planned nature studies before an activity that would allow flexibility for a student to continue if needed.

Can you paint two specimens on one page?

No, only one specimen should be on each page in the sketchbook.  We use the Canson Field Sketchbook with 80 sheets which allows students to use it from first through eighth grades.

How many nature studies do we plan each year?
As a classroom teacher I planned a monthly nature study activity.  Now that we teach Friday Enrichment Nature Study to all 1st and 2nd graders at PCS, each class is assigned 7 nature studies per year.

Do students have to paint the entire specimen?
This is a common question that students ask in our classes. For example, the wild onion has a bulb, roots, and stems which won’t fit on the 7×10 page. We like for students to observe the entire specimen.  We tell students to choose the bottom or top portion to illustrate using the actual size of the specimen.  While studying the dandelion, students may choose one leaf from the rosette and the flower to illustrate.

Which specimens work best with younger students?
We prefer our younger students to have flat specimens for dry brushing. If a specimen is multidimensional, it helps for the child to focus on one angle while painting.

How do I find the scientific name?
Using the internet makes this task an easy one. Simply Google search the common name of the specimen. You will find a variety of sources listed with information. I find it helpful to write down the pronunciation of the scientific name to aid me during classroom instruction.

HollyAnne will continue by answering your questions that pertain to the watercolor aspect of nature study.

What colors should our children learn how to mix?
In our class I teach the children the colors they need to use in order to paint our specimen that week. They usually learn to mix green first. I ask to see if anyone already knows how to make green then explain that to make it “lighter” you add more yellow, and to make it “darker” you add more green. Throughout the year they learn other colors such as pink (red and red-violet), a variation of purple (violet and red-violet), orange (red and yellow), and charcoal grey (blue and brown).

How do you make colors paler?
Our students make colors paler (lighter) by adding a drop or two of water to make their colors more translucent.

What size and shape should the painting be?
Nature studies should be as close to the same size and shape as the original specimen.

Do you ever sketch in the nature journals?
Our nature study books contain only painted nature studies. However, if the children finish their painting early and so desire, we give them a separate sheet of paper where they may capture their nature study specimen with pencil sketching.

What type of paints do you use?

Prang semi-moist (8 or 16 count) with round, removable tubs. One note, because the paints are semi-moist, be sure they dry completely before the lids are closed and the paints are stored. If they are not dry, they will become gooey and messy.

What type of brush do you use?
Any nice, round watercolor brush size 0, 1, or 2 works excellently (do NOT use brushes with plastic bristles). My personal favorite is the Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor brush, size 2. It has an excellent point for capturing detail, yet holds a good amount of paint.

What colors do you use to outline your painting?
If the specimen is green, a pale yellow works excellently and will not be visible once the painting is complete. However, for any other color specimen, use a very pale version of the subject’s main color. Using yellow in these instances may result in unexpected and undesired brown edges.

Do you tell the students what part of the specimen to paint first?
The only suggestion I make to the students is to consider beginning with an outline. However, for complicated subjects such as the strawberry plant, I suggest that students start with the vine, and then add the roots, then leaves, then flowers, then strawberries.

What if students use too much water?
It can be a challenge to teach students how to use the right amount of water. Often, our students lean toward the extremes—too little so that they cannot get nearly enough paint or too much such that they make a mess. When students struggle with using excess water, I remind them not to make “puddles.” If I see a puddle in their paint lid, I use a paper towel to mop it up. I then ask them to remix the color while I observe the amount of water they use.

How do you clean the paint tub if another color mixes in?
This issue most commonly arises when students are mixing green and forget to rinse their brush before going back into the yellow. Using a clean paintbrush, remove all the “dirty” yellow (or whatever the color may be). Rather than simply rinse the brush out and lose all that valuable paint, I deposit the color in the paint lid to be used for mixing later. The brush can then be rinsed again and the process repeated until the tub is clean.

How should I clean the lid?

We leave the lids of our students’ paint sets “dirty” from lesson to lesson. The paints can be reused by simply adding a few drops of water. If a student needs a clean area to mix a new color, however, we wipe out part of the lid with a damp paper towel.

How do you position your specimen?
In a lot of ways, this depends on personal preference and the specimen. I usually place mine beside my nature study book while I’m working with it positioned, however, I desire to paint it. Mom prefers to hold her specimen so she can see it more closely. Specimens like flowers may be in a vase, and plants may be in a pot. Really, anything goes; I just suggest keeping the position the same once you start painting, or you might accidentally depict things you could not actually see from the original angle.

It has been an adventure putting these methods and ideas into words. We hope and pray that they will be helpful as you discover God’s creation and seek to instill wonder in your children and students. May this and all things be for His glory!

©2008 Deborah and HollyAnne Dobbins

Deborah and HollyAnne Dobbins teach 1st and 2nd grade nature study classes at Perimeter Christian School in Duluth, GA.  This is Deborah’s 8th year as a teacher at PCS.  HollyAnne is a homeschooler in her junior year of high school.

This entry was posted in: Nature Study


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.

1 Comment

  1. I’ve noticed in later posts, some of the information in this particular Q&A has been altered, or at least rethought. Could you do an updated Q&A? I’m trying to put together a nature study group for the fall and am still a CM baby. The age range of the group will be young (toddler) through early middle school. Thank you!

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