First Lessons in Nature Study: a CM inspired class for first graders in a homeschool co-op setting
First of all I must confess to borrowing the first part of my title from a very old book by Edith Patch who was a student of Anna Botsford Comstock of the Handbook of Nature Study fame. It is a daunting challenge to introduce very young children to the whole area of nature study. In planning my class I felt keenly the weight of knowing that, even though children in the primary grades have a built in affinity for nature, it might hinge on me whether or not this was nurtured in such a way to set them on a life’s course of appreciation for God’s creation. OK, so maybe I do have an issue with putting too much pressure on myself!
I have taught nature study to my three older children in various formats: keeping a nature journal, walking often through the woods, following years of the Ambleside online nature study curriculum, being part of a nature club and at a co-op for older students. This past year I joined a large co-op just so my oldest son could participate in its science class and lab. As providence would have it, his schedule changed and he could not take the coveted science class. By the time I realized this, I had already committed to being part of a co-op of around 150 children and was given the responsibility of the first grade science class as the lead teacher. I was rather surprised to learn that I had 17 first graders in my class with over half being boys including my own 6-year-old son who had the attention span of a typical boy his age. I knew I was in for trouble!
The first few classes were a bit of a disaster. A snack time had been built into the class time which was completely disruptive, not to mention all the children needing to use the restroom at any and all times. I have no teaching background or knowledge of the finer points of classroom control so I relied on my two assistants, one of whom was an elementary teacher in her previous life. We finally hit upon a winning formula. We divided the class strategically into two, evenly distributing the really vocal children and neatly separating the ones who caused trouble together. My two assistants would take half the class for half the time and let them have their snack, take them to the restroom, share the devotional, read the poetry for the week and also the read aloud. Meanwhile I would have the other half of the class for the teaching time. At the halfway point we would switch classes. We alternated each week which group had the all important snack first!
I decided to divide our year up into three terms. Term 1 in the Fall would be on trees, Term 2 in the Winter on birds and Term 3 in the Spring would focus on wildflowers. My desire was to pick one main topic and one or two specific trees or birds each week. I also wanted to incorporate a meaningful devotion, some delightful poetry and perhaps even some dry brush watercolor. Like I said earlier, I do have high expectations!
Each week in the part of the class with the assistant teachers, the students heard a devotion which provided for them an illustration from Scripture and focused on the topic for the week. They also heard up to three poems on that same topic, as well as a well-chosen storybook with lovely art. These activities would be concurrent with the snack time. Then they would come to my part of the class. I found it more conducive to dispense with the desks and instead gather the children around me in a circle on a blanket on the floor. This allowed for eye contact as well a creating a feeling of all of us learning together. I would open with prayer followed by the question of the week. This question was carefully chosen to pique their interest in our teaching time and challenge them to tell me what they knew, or thought they knew. The question of the week became the most popular part of the class. This was followed by selections from a variety of living books. For the tree study we looked at basic tree structure, function of roots, trunk, leaves, buds, fruits just to name a few. For the bird study we highlighted different stages in their life cycle, feathers, flight, bird watching, bird feeding, migration and others. For both the tree and the bird study, one or two specific types of trees or birds such as the willow or chickadee would be chosen as illustrations of the topic of the week and to introduce the children to new friends. I also tried each week to bring a real example of what we were studying such as bark or feathers so the children could examine it with their jeweler’s loupes or other hand magnifiers.
Of course I know that our dear Charlotte would be tut tutting me for not having this study out of doors in the fresh air and, believe me, I feel keenly her disapproval. In my defense I will say that when the weather was nice, especially for our tree study, I took the children outside so they could meet the trees on the property up close and personal. Unfortunately they also met the bugs and these encounters were just too distracting to continue meeting there. Several of our plein-air sessions had to be cut short.
For the third term, the wildflower study, we only had four weeks and I wanted to introduce them to five to seven different wildflowers each week so we kept the class together. We largely stuck to the same format of devotion, poems, read-aloud, question of the week, living book excerpts and hands on examination time. In order to have some real samples to look at with our loupes, I included many green flowering plants such as daisy fleabane or henbit which might have been called weeds by lesser informed folk. As I told my class many times, a weed is just a wildflower which is growing where you do not want it to grow! The delicacy of these wild green things growing so abundantly provided their own lessons in not judging by appearance and also the importance of noticing the beauty of what others may call common. For the wildflower study, I emphasized the stories behind their name, their lore and description and function of their distinguishing characteristics. To provide some competition, we used a Power Point visual presentation for our quiz time at the end of each class.
As for handouts, I gave each child a copy of the main idea of the devotion along with accompanying scriptures, the poetry, the read aloud title and the question of the week. On a separate handout would be labeled black and white illustrations of the characteristic we studied that week along with other illustrations, also labeled, of the specific trees or birds or wildflowers that had been introduced. Most of the children could not read but I wanted
to give the moms of the students a springboard for at-home narration. I heard from several of the moms that they used our topic of the week as their topic in their own science class at home.
Oh, and about the plans for dry brush watercolor? Even though I have seen the inspiring Eve Anderson video of her teaching young children how to accomplish this, I never did quite manage it. I did try watercolor during one class and it took nearly all the teaching time and most of the children did not have the fine motor skills needed for this type of painting. Not to mention it left the room rather in a mess!
All in all, however, I was delighted by the spark I saw in many of my students’ eyes as we learned together of the intricacy, wisdom and wonder of God’s creation. And that, in the words of several of my students, was truly cool!
Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Botsford Comstock
Little Nature Library: Trees, by Julia Rodgers
Birds Every Child Should Know, by Neltje Blanchan
Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Birds, by Rebecca Rupp
Burgess Birdbook, by Thornton Burgess
Wildflowers and the Story Behind Their Names, by Phyllis S. Busch
Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles: the lives and lore of North American
wildflowers, by Jack Sanders
Burgess Wildflower Book by Thornton Burgess
© 2009 by Jeannette Tulis
Jeannette Tulis lives near Chattanooga where she and her husband, David, have always homeschooled their four children. Although she has a B.S degree in home economics, her real education has been learning alongside her children, especially in the areas of art, poetry, music, literature and nature study.