Curriculum, Nature Study, Students with Special Needs
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Nature Study with Max: A Boy with Learning Difficulties by Deborah and HollyAnne Dobbins



Max's daffodil he painted during Nature Study Class

Max's daffodil he painted during Nature Study Class


“Then the flowers come, each shut up tight in the dainty casket we call a bud, as cunningly wrapped as the leaves in their buds, but less carefully guarded, for these ‘sweet nurslings’ delay their coming for the most part until earth has a warm bed to offer, and the sun a kindly welcome” (Charlotte Mason; Home Education, vol.1, p.53).        

“Energetic, talkative, and likable” are words that have been used to describe Max. He is also humorous, affectionate, curious, and struggles with a number of learning difficulties. “His talents and gifts are hidden,” his teacher, Patricia Anderson, wrote, “and by the Lord’s direction, they will be brought to light.”

Max’s father offered insight into the first few years of Max’s life: “When Maxwell was two years old, we were told by our family pediatrician that he was likely to have developmental differences from other children. Maxwell was missing milestones, and this pattern continued as he progressed to an age where we expected him to begin communicating verbally. He rarely spoke, and his vocabulary remained very limited. Maxwell showed social ability around other children, but his speech, verbal, and academic ability lagged greatly.”

HollyAnne and I met Max this past fall when we had the opportunity to teach him in our Friday Enrichment Nature Study classes.  He seemed apprehensive during his first nature study class on caladiums until we started mixing colors.  His excitement was evident to all as he mixed yellow and blue to make green. Max was thrilled to see even the water change colors in the jar.  It was a challenge to direct his attention away from the water jar to begin his watercolor painting in his sketchbook.  We knew there was something uniquely enchanting about Max who wore a glove throughout class.  Then one of the teachers shared with us that Max has a history of autism. I wondered how we could instruct Max to comprehend the nature study process. HollyAnne tried a technique that she found helpful which may benefit others as well.

 “It was his second nature study class before I really worked with him one on one. Within just minutes, I was delighted by Max and was genuinely enjoying helping him learn. Afterwards, I jotted down some reflections:

“I worked with Max for the remaining 15 or 20 minutes of class. Due to his former lack of understanding, even I had trouble making sense of all the places where he had begun to make an outline of his strawberry leaves. Poor Max, between the general hum of the classroom, the leaves in front of him, and the plentitude of marks on his paper, was struggling to process so much information. I remembered an idea a friend gave me about 2 years ago.

“Asking Maxwell to wait just a moment, I grabbed a handful of small pieces of scrap paper. With several of these, I covered up about ¾ of the specimen in front of Max, leaving only a portion of one leaf visible. I did the same on his nature study book so that the two uncovered areas were corresponding. With the amount of information to be processed thus limited, Max and I began to slowly work on the outline—he painted, I guided.

 “It took the rest of class for him to complete his outline, but it looked quite good when he finished. More importantly, he was pleased and happy, I was relaxed, and we’d both learned a great deal. As the painting process had progressed, he and I began to talk a bit. He even commented on the tone of voice I was using. It occurred to me that body language is even more important when I’m communicating with him because he is quite intuitive.”

Max painting his caladium during Nature Study Class

Max painting his caladium during Nature Study Class



 As the year has progressed, Max has grown to love nature study and is always excited to come to class. His work has improved, and he is continually fascinated by the “magic” of mixing colors. He now eagerly seeks to do as much of his nature study on his own as possible and is more able to focus on his work. I love watching him paint! This spring, we studied daffodil buds in class, and his joy extended beyond the hour in the classroom.

 “It was a Friday afternoon,” Max’s mom shares, “and I was waiting for Max in the carpool line at school. I saw him approaching in my review mirror, and I could see that he was holding what appeared to be a flower in a water bottle. Before the car door was even open, Max was telling me about the daffodil his nature study teachers had given him and how it would open up and be so beautiful.

 “Max explained to me about how to take care of the daffodil by placing it where the right amount of sunshine would touch it and making sure it had clean water. On Saturday he excitedly told me the flower was about to open. On Sunday morning, my husband and I woke to Maxwell’s screaming, ‘It’s open; it’s open! Look how beautiful it is!’ He burst through our bedroom door with the daffodil and a smile as big as his heart. He cared for the flower all week with such pride.

  “Think about all the seven year-old boys you have taught or have known. How many do you think would see the beauty of a single, yellow daffodil in a plastic water bottle? God gives everyone unique gifts. Max may never know what it is like to read a classic work of fiction, however, he can explain to you why he loves God and about the beauty of a single daffodil.”

  “To me,” Susan Crist, Max’s principal, wrote fondly, “Maxwell is the embodiment of Every Child is Born a Person. His honesty and innocence and joy of life are inspirational! The fact that his parents see him for who God made him to be means that we can all be successful in teaching him. In some ways, we all need to be a little more like Maxwell!” 

Charlotte Mason asks, “What is knowledge? Some one will say, and there is no pat, neatly-framed answer to be given; only this we can assert,-Knowledge is that which we know; and the learner knows only by a definite act of knowing which he performs for himself “ (A Philosophy of Education, vol. 6, p. 254).

©2009 Deborah and HollyAnne Dobbins

Deborah and HollyAnne 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 finishing her junior year of high school.


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. mrsucci says

    Thank you for this beautiful story. I have a son we suspect has Asperger’s. He to has come to life with nature study!

  2. I just read this post and love it. I love how Deborah and HollyAnne guided Maxwell and carefully scaffold him through nature study. What a beautiful testimony to Charlotte Mason’s ideas for special needs children!

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