Beauty, Curriculum, Narration, Philosophy, Science
Comments 18

Is Your Nature Study Living or an Educational Activity by Carroll and Andra Smith

Most of you know that there is a group of individuals working on developing a Mason curriculum.  I work with that group and find that our group discussions constantly make me grow and learn, pushing me into a richer and more thoughtful understanding of Mason’s educational principles and practices.  A recent discussion about avoiding behaviourism creeping in the door of Mason’s work challenged and changed my thinking about one aspect of Mason’s curriculum, Nature Study.  Avoiding behaviourism is difficult because we are all saturated with it.

Behaviorism is rooted in matterialism (as distinguished from materialism which means a person who likes many possessions) which is a philosophy of life embedded in much Western thought.  It is the view that all of life is only matter and there is nothing truly spiritual. I once read in an encyclopedia (can’t remember which one, I think it was Compton) that Dewey switched his belief from children as spiritual beings to children as behaviourial beings.  In my opinion he essentially extinguished their spiritual natures by making this switch in his thinking.  Matterialism shows up in education in various ways, one of those being behaviourism.

Behaviourialism in education is the process of teaching a skill and then looking for changes in behaviour because only behavior is what can be observed and therefore acknowledged.  One group of college students defined it as “The learner uses low level processing skills to understand material and the material is often isolated from real-world contexts or situations. Little responsibility is placed on the learner concerning his/her own education” ( Thus in a behaviourial approach to education, the classroom can become technique oriented and a place where the routine of “educational activities” is followed without much regard for contextualised or real-world learning, i.e. learning in relationship.

As our group discussed how behaviourism is hard to avoid because it has so permeated our educational culture (other manifestations of it are:  prizes, rewards, grades, treats, smiley faces, etc.), it occurred to me that I was thinking behaviouristically about Nature Study.  That is, Nature Study is done as a class activity once a week.  Either the adult or the children choose a specimen to paint.  Specimens are gathered, brought in from home or brought back from a nature walk.  Watercolours are retrieved from their places and the children dry brush their specimens.  Or, as I did one year with students, we weekly went to one spot and noticed the changes over the period of a year.  The children chose something to paint and back to the classroom we went to paint the specimen. I had mistakenly confined Nature Study to a class activity and a routine outdoor activity; it was not a way of living.   As with all subjects in a Mason curriculum, observation is a key point and is certainly very important in Nature Study so that even in a technique-ized way of teaching Nature Study, I am sure children observed and learned a lot and thus benefited from it.  Benefiting from Nature Study done this way is not the point however.  Education, including Nature Study, as Mason told the young lady whom she interviewed to attend her college, is about living.  I have thought about it and I have asked myself the question, “Are these (mentioned above) ways of teaching Nature Study more about “doing” Nature Study weekly or are they about “living” Nature Study. We are to develop the habit of living fully and part of that living is relating to nature and knowing the places where we live, not just doing activities, even Mason inspired ones!

Two situations come to mind to illustrate this. One happened this week at our Mason study group meeting where Cheri Struble shared how she frequently goes with her 7 or 8 children to the Broad River Greenway or South Mountain State Park so they can know the nature and place around them. They take pencils and nature notebooks so they can readily sketch plants or specimens, and then try to find the names to record. She explains that sketching helps attend to detail so the specimen is really known, but what struck me was that she prefers sketching to watercolours because it can be done more frequently and fits into everyday life easier.  She found that having to get out the watercolours EACH time made Nature Study too cumbersome and less frequent.  Cheri had managed to keep Nature Study living so that it was a constant part of life, not relegated to “an educational activity.”  By interspersing Nature Study with sketching, she kept if from being a forced or contrived event, “educational activity” that makes one think something “educational”  has been accomplished.  Even Nature Study can become contrived and falls into the construct that we call school.  School is not a bad construct necessarily, but a Mason education is about living so Nature Study should be taught in a way that encourages children to see nature as part of living, as part of their day to day practice.  The other situation was seeing Ivy Young’s nature classroom at Red Mountain Community School.  It was filled with so many interesting and wonderful things from nature.  It wasn’t just a place to pull out the watercolours and paint a specimen but a room to inspire awe and wonder of the world around us.

Even in a city like Atlanta where cement is everywhere, one can inspire an approach to Nature Study that is an attitude towards living.  Deborah Dobbins and HollyAnne seek to inspire wonder in their students even though their school is surrounded by parking lot.  They take advantage of the plants around the building, the pond and brings in various specimens from other places.  Even in less than ideal circumstances, one can help children develop an attitude towards Nature Study that is living.

Am I saying one shouldn’t use the once a week or once every two weeks approach to Nature Study through painting a specimen with watercolours because it turns into a behaviouristic approach to relating to nature?  If this is the only way one does Nature Study, well yes, I am saying that. Nature Study cannot be confined to an educational activity. The point with Nature Study is to think of it as “living,” as something one does day to day.  It is a habit and an attitude that we form as we observe and study the world that has been created for our enjoyment.  It isn’t just a classroom activity shut away in a school building or in a house.  Nor is it a behaviouristic activity.  No, Nature Study isn’t just about retrieving the watercolours from their places and painting a specimen.  It is about living–  living in relationship with nature, God’s gifts to us.

The moral of this story:  Get out there, be in nature, observe, feel, touch, then narrate by sketching it with a pencil.  But don’t forget occasionally and systematically to pull out the watercolours and intensify your observation.

© 2011 by Carroll and Andra Smith

This entry was posted in: Beauty, Curriculum, Narration, Philosophy, Science


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. recnepsrefinnej says

    I have been reflecting on this, too. In looking at Eve Anderson’s nature notebook in the digital collection (, I was stricken by the ratio of text to illustration. While each page does include one or more stunning watercolor paintings, most of the page is filled with text. It looks very much like a diary, with several entries per week where she describes weather conditions, what is blooming where, and where she sees birds, animals, and insects. It certainly appears that nature study was a way of life for her.

    “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.” (vol. 1 p. 54)

  2. One thing I’ve learned along the way is that nature study takes time. All learning takes time, really. It’s the one commodity that’s in short supply in this country. We rush through life at top speed, not stopping (literally) to smell the roses. It takes all my strength not to hurry my students along so we don’t get behind. I wonder what would happen if I simply stopped doing that? What might they see? What connections might be made if I took that extra few minutes to let their minds focus in and make connections?

    When I send my youngest son outside to “mess around” in the woods behind our house, he finds all sorts of interesting things to do as he forms a strong relationship with his world. He decided to measure the creek’s height after a heavy rain and again after a long dry period, to bury some things in the ground and come back later to see how much they had decomposed (wanted to do this with a cupcake), to go out immediately after a storm and see if any of the branches on “his” trees had fallen. This was all the nature study I managed to fit into his life with three older siblings preparing to get into college, etc. He basically did his own version of nature study, in other words. All I did was send him outside. This totally flawed educational approach of mine ended up reaping great rewards. He took ownership of his own nature study education, for one thing. He learned about his personal plot of land and grew to love it and feel like it was his. He began talking about his woods at dinnertime, telling us what was going on out there — narration. This was important to him. We could tell because he kept bringing it up. He doesn’t have a spiffy nature notebook like I’d like him to have, but he loves the world God has created. Overall, I’m pleased!

    • What I would suggest is that you have described masterly-inactivity and all the richness therein as you have described. Clearly it promotes self-directed learning. While I am sure Mason would appreciate the enjoyment of nature through play which I believe is fundamental for children, I believe her thoughts about Nature Study were more than just play. It is important then not to confuse the pedagogical tool of nature study as Mason used it with masterly-inactivity. Nature Notebooks begin the process of thinking like a scientist and a deliberate effort at observation and recording those observations. Nature Study really begins a life long scientific inquiry and has to have a regularity to it as well as a love of place. So, what I was trying to advocate for in this blog is to promote Nature Notebooks done in a living way not a contrived way but nonetheless Nature Notebooks which should also include the watercolour work. Maybe we have focused too much on the weekly or bi-monthly watercolour work, but nonetheless it was still periodically done. It shouldn’t be neglected because “a nature-diary is a source of delight to a child.” So, I am delighted to hear of his outside adventures which we hope all children could have opportunities, however, I am promoting the use of Nature Study notebooks as a tool for living. Educationally it increases a child’s powers of observation and develops systematic scientific inquiry.

  3. Yes! Living vs. task. Relationship vs. facts. Getting to know, communion, appreciation in our daily lives for creation all around us. Not an academic subject to check off once a week in a fixed routine.

    “Out of doors the students learn to look and to watch they they may know creatures and plants by sight as they know friends; to recognise the birds by their song, flight, feathers and nesting places, and their time of arrival and departure; to observe the flowering seasons of all trees and herbs and the ripening of common spore-bearing plants…”.

    Does this sound living! (and thanks recnepsrefinnej for the original nature journal view. That speaks volumes of the life of nature study!) Loved the post, Smiths!

  4. Today, I noticed three wisteria seeds we put in seed starter pots made their appearance. Within hearing of my daughter I gasped and brought the tray of pots to her. She peeked at our little sprouts and smiled broadly, “It’s growing!” The look of joy on her face expressed more than a narration of a hundred words could have.

  5. We haven’t been able to function the way we’d like educationally for the past two years or so due to some extenuating circumstances. Yet, the Lord still gently nudges my son and he follows up with nature study on his own. Not ideal, but I’m thankful he took ownership. Something else we instituted this past year was nature reading. We had let those books that inspire a love for the natural world fall off the list, thinking it more important to cover the literature of the great authors — there are so many of them and so little time! But bringing back books that inspire a love of nature but were easier reads for him — like Bambi’s Children and Gentle Ben — fed his desire to know more, get outside more. We now take long nature walks, and he much prefers doing his school reading up in a tree. That is a huge change for this city slicker family! I’m hoping over the next couple of years we’ll incrementally grow in this area and soon have evidence of his scientific inquiry in the form of a nature notebook. How great that would be. Baby steps, one after the other.

  6. Today I was much more relaxed and mindful of the need to simply be outdoors.

    We found two branches that had fallen from the pecan tree in last night’s storm. We spent time observing it a la picture painting because I realized we have not laid that important foundation well. We noticed some brown gelatinous gunk on the branches, and Pamela became quite engrossed in picking it off. When she was finished, she did her picture painting (describing without looking at it). I told her it was a fungus–a new word for her.

    Later, she sat down to work on her nature notebook. As she was writing about the branches, she asked me how to spell fungus. I could not believe she remembered it five minutes after first hearing it because of her language delays.

    Then it struck me–here again the outdoor life’s bounty provided free therapy for her. Picking off the fungus worked on her fine motor skills, the domain of occupational therapy. Learning a new word in a contextualized way was speech therapy. Touching this squishy gooey stuff–something she could not do fifteen years ago because of her tactile defensiveness–would fall under sensory integration therapy.

  7. Rachel says

    I really resonated with this article. The whole idea of making nature study “living,” has mostly eluded me. I’ve recently begun integrating the Grinnell System of field journaling, and this method has so far, more than any other I’ve tried, lent itself to being easily incorporated into daily living. I would be interested in any thoughts about the Grinnell System if you’re familiar with it.

    Below is a link to a wonderful site a young woman has created to share her interest as a naturalist.

    • One of the major learning tools that we humans have is our imagination. This is one tool, according to von Rad a writer of a Genesis commentary that Adam was using in the process of naming the animals. The use of pencil drawings or watercolour painting requires a use of observation skills, language and the imagination. Of course observation skills strengthen our ability to see details, our imagination strengthen the ability to use our minds and language use increases vocabulary along with other language skills–all of which enable us to know a thing. So, I would not encourage the use of photography in nature notebooks because it reduces opportunities for observation and can create a passiveness on the part of the observer. Nature Study for young children is paramount because it improves their language abilities which is important for reading, writing and all the content areas. So, I would not use photography in a nature study notebook. However, I am sure there are occasions for photography that would be enjoyable and useful.

  8. Carroll, I have a related question for you. It isn’t only related to nature study, but a co-op here in town has been using the Private Eye curriculum with great success in developing observation skills in their students. I haven’t seen it yet, but we’re considering implementing it alongside nature study in the fall. They use a hand lens to observe items from nature in the classroom, then answer a series of questions that seem more like narration prompts according to those who have seen it. (I’m sort of at a loss, having only seen the website — )

    The brochure says:

    They use metaphors and similes to help children explain what they’re seeing. “It looks like… a bent bottle cap or a king’s crown after it’s been stepped on.” That sort of thing. I’m intrigued, but I thought I’d ask your opinion.

  9. From the brochure:

    Peer through The Private Eye loupe into the face of a flower, its leaf or hairy stem. It’s like landing on another planet! Loupe-study rocks, strawberries, popcorn, even your own hand. Concentration soars. Why? The loupe cuts out the rest of the world so it rivets the eye and the mind.

    As you explore, ask The Private Eye’s simple questions.
    Your loupe-observations (in the form of metaphors and similes) become “bones for poems,” clues for hypothesizing, theorizing, invention, design — an approach simple but sophisticated.Your loupe-drawings are investigations that move equally toward science and art, and inspire language development, math, and more.

    Indoors or out, leaf by leaf — fall in love with the world.

  10. I have not had time to look at that program and probably will not have time. My first inclination is that the fewer programs you can have the better. Programs tend to move us away from “living” and thus seeking our own understanding. Programs also tend towards technique and I don’t think that is what Mason was after.

  11. Thank YOU for your comment Carroll on not using photography for Nature Study. Different skills.
    My kids wanted to bring their nature study notebooks on vacations! That’s when I knew it was becoming”living”
    and I knew CM was right. ( smile!)

  12. Just came upon your post today. I will likely read and re-read it. Thank you for sharing your perspective and valuable insight!

  13. Lani says

    Thank you thank you! Our nature notebooks have faltered although we do spend lots of time outdoors. I am reinspired to focus on them, especially as my youngest is nearing 3yo (the youngest of 6). I think I will also reread “Pocketful of Pinecones” which always ignites my fire to truly live nature study daily.

  14. next year I am implementing the nature notebook into our daily learning. Thus, I am so grateful for your post. It is so easy as you mentioned to think we know what CM was after by following the general movement of others around us doing nature study and simply veering a few degrees off course. In this way we often miss the intentions and the results CM was after. The more I know of CM the more I am convinved she was particular and intentional about her methods. Each one had a purpose and was clearly defined. I have learned soooo much by reading this. I am also much more excited because the course CM followed seems much clearer to me now. Thank you.

  15. Thank you Sarah for your comment! Mason’s paradigm is quite different than the modern educational paradigm. It really requires that we think, as you indicate she did, carefully about life and living.

  16. Pingback: Homeschooling Articles / Resources « The Pantry Book

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