Habit Formation, Observation, Technology
Comments 5

Reflections on Observation, Farm Life, and Technology by Carroll Smith

According to Mason, children have a high capacity for observation and a natural propensity for details.  She told the story of the father and son who, immediately after passing a store window, would take out a pad of paper and pencil and write down all the things they remembered seeing in the window.  The father could get up to about thirty and the young son could get up to forty.  She seemed to believe that children have a natural ability for observation and details that can become lost over time.

As children grow and build life habits of careful, consistent, and intentional observation, they take in and appreciate fully what is around them.  This enables them to carry the beauty of those moments to nourish them for a lifetime.  Mason said in Home Education (p. 47), “The miserable thing about the childish recollections of most persons is that they are blurred, distorted, incomplete, no more pleasant to look upon than a fractured cup or a torn garment; and the reason is, not that the old scenes are forgotten, but that they were never fully seen.”

So when I set out to write this blog, I intended to deal with more of what Mason said about observation, but soon found myself reflecting on my own lack of careful, intentional observation skills, my incomplete recollections, and the missed opportunities to have appreciated so much more in my childhood. I started pondering my growing up on a farm and found myself lamenting that, even though we were constantly out in nature, how many opportunities I let slip past me. If only I had understood what Mason so adequately teaches us about learning to observe and to “fully see” what is around us.   Then pondering my own experience jumpstarted my thinking about the kinds of opportunities many children in today’s digital world have to observe and appreciate the natural world.  So this blog grew to reflections about observation, farm life and today’s child in the world of technology.

I grew up on a farm in eastern North Carolina where we grew and canned our vegetables, raised and ate our own chickens, put up tobacco, and the list could go on.  LIfe was hard on the farm and although I don’t remember day dreaming about leaving the farm, I had no great love for it. There was frequent drudgery and much hard work, and the outdoor farm life does not automatically produce keen powers of observation and appreciation of the natural world. I think I rather fit Mason’s description above, because although some scenes I remember well, others that still could be my possession are regrettably lost to me because I did not exercise the level of observation and attention that Mason encourages.

Even if I did not understand and treasure what a gift my outdoor life was, I nonetheless learned much that still nourishes me, just by my being IN nature so much.  I will share some of those with you.

1.  I remember walking out to the clothes line where we hung our clothes to dry and being stung by bees about four different times before it occurred to me to put on my shoes.  I loved the cool feel of clover and grasses under my feet.

2.  One of my fondest memories is walking through the woods to the creek to play in the water and feeling the cool shade, the cool sand, and listening to the birds, although I could not identify any of the bird calls.

3.  I watched the crops grow year after year and understood how we measured time, not abstractly on a clock, but organically by the seasons, or the rotation of the crops or the months of blooming: daffodils in February, the crêpe myrtles in July, the pumpkins ready in September.

4.  I watched and participated in the planting, growing and harvesting of crops that helped to create a rhythm of living and that provided food for the table and money to buy clothes.

5.  I experienced the joy of planting seeds, watching them sprout, grow and present to us their beautiful blooms.

6.  I know the hard work of keeping wiregrass out of a flower bed and a vegetable garden.  I know how deep in the ground it can grow and yet, pop its head out just when you think you have conquered it.

7.  I know the taste of new potatoes, how they smell in the ground, and how incredibly dirty  you get from crawling along the row while digging them, and having so much dirt under your finger nails but really not caring.

8.  I also know the pleasure of staking tomatoes and harvesting them, and though as a kid I did not like to eat them myself, I enjoyed watching my mother and sister eating their juicy tomato sandwiches.

9.  I remember the time after my dad died that my mother bought a calf to raise to slaughter for us to eat.  When we kids all became too attached to the calf, my mother realizing this attachment could spell problems in the future, got permission from a neighbor to pasture the calf on his farm which was far enough down the road that we would forget about it.

10.  I remember playing hide-and-seek, hiding behind tobacco or straw in the packhouse and seeing the mules below.  It was really fun playing hide and seek.  There were so many barns, bushes, farm equipment–all wonderful places to hide.

11.  I remember walking through the cow pasture and being struck by the piles of cow dung.

12.  I can still see in my mind’s eye the old log smokehouse where country ham was preserved.  And, the corn barn was the place where piles of corn were stored and we used to slide down the big piles of corn like sliding on a sled down a hill of snow.

My cousin in front of the old smokehouse.

My cousin in front of the old smokehouse.

13.  I remember as a child watching the bushes bud out every spring and watching the new biddies with the mother hen clucking and clucking, warning us to stay away from her babies.  (Biddies is a good old southern farm word; you might need to look that one up.)

As I was pondering the things I learned inadvertently just from growing up on a farm, it occurred to me that so many of our children today, whether they are poor, middle class, wealthy–it really doesn’t matter, have little to no opportunity to be outdoors, much less to develop their powers of observation of the natural world.   As I said, I didn’t learn to increase my powers of observation, even growing up on a farm, but I did still gain from the unstructured experiences of just being outside, breathing the country air, running in the dirt, seeing and feeling and hearing the seasons change.  I wondered how would I differ from a child who had never had the advantage of living on a farm.  I was outside; I was IN nature but it seems so many children today spend much of their lives INSIDE: inside their schools, with instructional days packed even tighter to ensure high test scores; inside apartment buildings where there are not enough safe outdoor play areas or nearby parks; inside malls shopping for the latest item promoted on TV; and inside their homes in front of electronic screens.

As I pondered the question, “Where are most children today naturally and organically involved in the natural world?” I thought of all the things children are not doing when they are in front of their electronic screens. They are not running with friends in the chilly autumn air, crunching the leaves of the maple tree that fall earlier than those of the pin oak. They are not poking around with sticks in the mud, figuring out how to build a dam for the mud puddle. They are not preparing the flowerpots for summer herbs or investigating places of maximum sun. They are not laying on their backs looking up at the clouds pointing to the ones that look like a ship or a cat.  It seems to me that children today, especially those outside of a Mason education, have such few opportunities to experience nature that my life on the farm gave me, let alone to develop those observation skills to “fully see.”

But children today have a double whammie:  not only is there less time outside in nature, but electronic screen experiences readily substitute for real life experiences in the natural world.   A breathtakingly beautiful screen saver of a mountain or ocean scene awaits us when we turn on the computer.  We are thrilled to see our favorite reality TV people trudge through the forest, or jungle on their latest wilderness survival. We can even watch educational lessons on our screens about the life cycles of the bark borer beetle or the woodpecker, but never experience the smell and feel of the silver maple, never poke our fingers over the holes in the bark, or never feel its rough textures.

I still have a long way to go in learning to be more observant and learning to pay attention to details, but I suppose I learned a lot by just being in nature.  Let us think about how we can care for the children in our families, in our communities, in our cities and in our nation by promoting opportunities for all children to have access to nature.

© 2013 by Carroll Smith

This entry was posted in: Habit Formation, Observation, Technology


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. Caralee says

    This article stirred both wonderful and concerned thoughts within me.

    Like you, I began to remember the memories I have of my life on a farm for the first 5 years of my life. After we moved, I have sweet memories of returning to my grandparents and cousins farms time and time again, having many fun times playing in the sun, seeing the beautiful views of wide open, wheat fields and other crops, and enjoying the taste of homegrown raspberries freshly picked off the bushes and other wonderful tasty delights. We moved to a town that was small and closely connected to the country. I spent many hours outside in all seasons playing hockey and tag with friends, playing in the park across the street, and having picnics. Along with this, I spent many hours on my friends’ farms, playing in the barns, making mud pies, catching frogs, sliding down snow hills, playing hide and go seek, and so much more. I have wonderful childhood memories. I had a wholesome childhood full of beauty, health, and enjoyment.

    This brings me to the other side of my thoughts, the concerned side. My children have very limited experiences of these types of things. We have lived in the city since they were born. They don’t get outside much because I have succumbed to stay inside the house much of the time myself, thus they learn from me to do the same. Also, due to the change in societal values, the community that once had many children playing in the streets and parks are disappering at an alarming rate. Neighbors no longer know one another and are very unfriendly, thus, chidlren no longer play together. We make an effort to visit friends on a farm every two weeks, but it is not always consistent due to schedules, weather, etc. We have limited video games greatly and tv time and influences, but it still seems to influence them more than I desire.

    I must purpose to do what I can to recreate what I had as a child for my children as we live in the city. It will take hard work, but it will be worth it. It is vital to their life.

    Any ideas on how to do this?

  2. Kendra Barrow says

    I, as well, grew up on a farm… literally a hundred acres wood. Those 5 years have shaped my life and my love of outdoors. I still consider the woods to be the place where I am most myself. However, I am like Carroll in that I didn’t pay much attention. I would have described places on the farm with imaginary names, like The Enchanted Forest, or non-descriptive names such as that big pine tree over by the pond. I certainly would have failed Mason’s “test” where the child must give a clear and full description of a tree before mother gives her affirmation.

    Unfortunately, my children are growing up in an urban environment. We try to get outside every day and go to a park (by which I mean actual woods and trails, not a playground) on a semi-regular basis. But I know that they will not have the depth of experiences that I did, spending my summers climbing trees and reading books with my toes sticking in the creek.

  3. Dick Myers says

    Dick Myers February 13, 2013

    Oh did this article ever stir up memories of my growing up on a farm in central Minnesota ! I was born in a two room log cabin near Remer and was delivered by my own daddy because the doctor didn’t arrive before I did ! Of course I can’t remember that event but about 30 years later I returned to see the old log house still there which had become a refuge for farm animals!

    Oh but growing up on a farm has packed my life with a value system of caring for God’s creatures like I could never have attained in another environment. Well I remember the sand pile in our ditch where the rain would deposit the eroded sand from the gravel road that came down the hill past our farm house, and the Killdeers that would so boldly nest within feet of where the passing automobile tires would leave flying gravel ! And still these little birds would display the broken wing act to lead anyone away from there not hidden nest.
    What a lesson of courage and bravery to protect ones family.

    Our family grew huge potato patches. I learned about cutting up the potatoes always being sure to have a sprouting eye on each piece, planting them deep, and the impatiently waiting for the green little leaves to poke through, barely thinking about all the work that would follow as the competing weeds would spring forth as if it were right to do so just because they were there first !! And of course the potato bugs that were to follow and finally the harvest with all the digging and hauling to be done. But guess what, the following spring we would anxiously start the process all over again !

    We had milk cows to be milked, which dad always did, but as a young boy he trusted me to properly feed them their hay and tend to the calves and feed the work horses. I learned from the start that they counted on me. I loved it and in my imagination they loved me back. To this very day I am extremely bothered by the mistreatment of farm animals.

    The baby pigs would get out of their pen and go into the neighbor’s woods to eat acorns, which they loved. We would send our old farm dog after them to bring them back and he would run with them but would not bite them. Instead he would bump them with his shoulder! Amazing! Some lessons are to be learned from our animals.

    Oh, by the way I’m now over 70, retired, and still have a small functioning animal farm. Why? You ask. Because of the things that I learned growing up on the farm.

  4. O how I loved reading this post, Carroll, and the comments! I so deeply agree with you and Miss Mason, and see the incredible value of providing a full life out of doors for my kids. I feel so blessed to have ‘found’ Mason early on in my mothering journey!

    God, in his intricate ways, despite my saying I’d never marry a farmer, has placed me on a farm in southern MN just at this time when I have 2 little boys of my own to raise. (Some of Rick’s farm recollections are very familiar to our current observations!)

    I have never experienced raising children in a city, but can imagine the difficulties it presents would seem insurmountable at times. So, I just want to encourage Kendra, and Caralee and any other moms who might read this to really take the time and get their kids out daily. It is SO worth the effort! Seeing the satisfaction on my kids’ faces and watching them discover and learn is better than almost anything! It is also incredibly refreshing for mom to get out too! I too have written about this topic: http://wheretheblacktopends.weebly.com/1/post/2011/08/the-great-outdoors.html

    Thanks for a great post!

  5. I have loved the comments to this blog. I have been pondering them now for several days. So sorry, it takes me a while. I thought it might be helpful if I posted another blog in the future with some suggestions for how to deal with providing children in suburban and urban areas more opportunities in nature as well as pulling children away from technology. If you would like to offer a suggestion, please go to our website http://www.childlightusa.org and send a message to me with your thoughts and ideas and I will include them in the blog. Thank you to Bobby Jo, Caralee, Kendra and Dick for your thoughtful comments.

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