A Charlotte Mason Education, Beauty, Culture, Nature Study, Observation
Comments 4

Nature Study in the City by Carroll Smith

The focus of my last blog began with the importance of observation in the Mason educational paradigm.  However, it quickly evolved into the natural, organic way that observation can occur while growing up on a farm.  Eventually, I would like to get back to the topic of the power of observation and why it is so crucial in the Mason paradigm, but first I think it would be helpful to respond to some of the comments that were posted by readers of my previous post.

First, let me say how much I appreciate those comments and how helpful it is to all of us that people are willing to post them.  I think it is particularly helpful when individuals mention concerns or problems they are having that we can all respond to.  It can sometimes feel easier to refrain from commenting out of fear that other people will think that we are not “Mason” enough, but that shuts down the conversation.  I do not have all the answers.  I don’t even know all the questions.  The benefit of a blog goes beyond existential writing about a personal experience; it is a means of building the community and relationships for which we are made.  The dialogue created by comments helps build the community.

After my last post, several readers asked questions about what they could do to help children who have not had the opportunity to grow up on a farm develop an interest in nature.  Or, how can they help children who may seemingly have no interest in nature.  What kinds of experiences can be provided in urban and suburban settings? To answer this, let me begin by describing an activity I did last year with college students who were learning about the arts in elementary education.  One evening, we went outside with paper and a pencil.  The students were asked to sit, listen for sounds, and make a list of sounds they heard.  We were on campus near parking lots, buildings, and people, so at times it was hard to hear sounds of “nature.”  It was surprising to them that the longer they sat, the more sounds of nature they heard.  It was also interesting to hear the sounds of nature combined with the sounds of the nonliving world, such as a car door shutting, a building door closing, or a car passing in the parking lot.  It was surprising to me that the students expressed hearing sounds that they had never paid attention to before.  In the midst of all the sounds one hears in a parking lot, they heard bird sounds, insect sounds, people’s voices, the breeze in the bushes and many other sounds of nature.  The students then had to turn the sounds they heard into a poem.  This is called sound poetry (You can Google that and get more information).

This is a far cry from being so close to nature that you experience it intimately, but it is certainly a place to begin.  In an urban setting, the sounds of nature are probably going to be mixed with the sounds of the handy work of humankind.  Maybe sometimes that handy work is not very pleasant (such as urban sprawl). But the point of this activity is that, in order to develop a love and appreciation of nature, we all must begin somewhere.

There are other ways to begin, such as sitting in a park or at the window of an apartment and listening for sounds. You could also hang bird feeders from apartment windows and/or balconies and learn to identify the birds that come.  Start a container garden in which to grow plants that interest the children.  Learn to identify which ones must grow inside the apartment versus those that can stay outside on the balcony even in winter. You can learn which plants need more sun and where they must be placed in the apartment to get that sun.  Observe the plants with a magnifying glass.  Painting the leaves and stems of the potted plants for nature study can be helpful in learning to pay closer attention to details.

Studying trees in winter is another interesting quest.  You can study their bark, paint that bark, and learn to identify the trees in your neighborhood based on the their bark.  Learning why those particular trees were planted in your neighborhood is another interesting study of nature.  Contact city officials who care for these trees to find out why they were chosen over other types of trees.

This is a maple Andy and I purchased at Biltmore House.  We grow it indoors for the fun of it.

This is a maple Andy and I purchased at Biltmore House. We grow it indoors for the fun of it.

Kerri Forney reminded me that Mason suggests studying a spot of nature for a year to observe the changes.  I did this once with a group of children who are now young adults.  It would be interesting to know their memories of that experience. This could easily be done in an urban setting in a park, nature trail or other nature reserve.  If a park isn’t available, have children clock the rising or setting (or both) of the sun for a year, keeping up with the time and the path of the sun.  Use this knowledge to then learn north, south, east and west. Transfer that understanding to learning directionality on a map.  Also use this knowledge to help make decisions about what kinds of plants can be grown in your urban or suburban area.

Of course, caged animals, such as birds, hamsters, and gerbils, can also provide opportunities for observing nature.  Study their habits.  Use feathers that naturally fall from the cage to paint as nature study, paying close attention to the colors and other details.

One key component to this endeavor is that the adult must show interest.  If you are just beginning this endeavor, you as the parent and/or teacher must take the opportunity to grow with your children.  You don’t have to be an expert naturalist; rather, assume the stance of learning with the children about things that you don’t know.  Learning together is exciting, and it provides a powerful model for children, who see that people continue to develop and expand their interests even into adulthood.  Even those adults who have never really had any interest in nature can say to themselves, “I have no interest in this endeavor, but I am going to give it a try.”  Once you begin you may very well find that your interest develops along with the children’s.

Grandparents can provide another whole range of experiences that relate to nature.  They can be yet another example of how we never stop learning. I remember reading in Mason’s books that she believed that we should be learning as long as we have a mind, and since we always have a mind, then we should always be learning.  In addition to visiting the homes (or farms) of the grandparents, technology provides a means for grandparents to share their interest in nature. Grand parents now have the ability to share an exciting new plant with their grandchildren through venues like Skype, FaceTime, and Facebook.  Sending grandchildren pictures of favorite plants encourages children to be involved in nature in whatever way they can.  Maybe grandparents can send the grandchildren the funds to purchase a new plant that they themselves have purchased.  The grandparents teach the children how to care for the plant, talk about the plant, learn what it needs in terms of light, water, fertilizer, etc.  With each household growing the same plant, it can provide many opportunities for conversation between grandparents and grandchildren.  It can also provide an opportunity for purposeful writing.  That is, children can share back and forth in letters (I know, whoever even thinks about letter writing these days!) with grandparents what they are learning about the plants they are growing together.

We frequently are so disconnected from nature that we are not aware of all the many details that are occurring in the growth and development of a plant.  We need to encourage children to pay attention to those details.  How?  Measure a plant once a week to determine how much it has grown.  Put a plant in light and another where it is darker.  Measure them over the course of a month.  See which grows faster.  Discuss why.  Do the same with water.  Water one plant correctly, and then over- and under-water others. What happens?  Why?  Put one colorful plant in a window.  Put the same plant in a place where it doesn’t get as much light.  What happens to the colors in the plant in these two situations?  Why?  Sprout various seeds and after several weeks of growth, take out the plants, clean off the dirt and do drawings of the root systems of each plant.  How are they the same?  How are they different?

The point that I wish to make here is:  Plan nature study where you are, not where you wish to be.

I have only mentioned a very few possibilities in this blog.  The opportunities for nature study even in an urban setting are many.  Here is what I would encourage for parents:

1.  Don’t assume that you need to know every thing about nature.

2.  Don’t assume that you have to have a great interest in nature yourself.

3.  Begin small so that you and the children enjoy the small steps that you take.

4.  Let the children’s natural curiosity and interests and yours help guide you.

5.  Keep it affordable.

6.  Look for opportunities that involve family and friends or an older adult.  (I am making the assumption here that anyone you are willing for your children to be around is safe and sound.)

7.  Join with another family.

8.  Involve other family members, when you can:  grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.

9.  Keep it simple.  Begin with what you can manage, not only in terms of time, finances, and interests, but emotions as well.

10.  Don’t take the “take away” stance.  That is, if your children have spent their free time playing video games, don’t take that away and declare that the family will now do nature study.  Add nature study, slowly but steadily.  Their and your interests will grow.

11.  Nurture your children and yourself with nature.  We are all persons.

I hope the comments in this blog are helpful and encourage all of us, no matter where we live, to explore in our own situation, whatever or wherever it is, the nature that is available to us.  And, if nature isn’t available, to use pots, contains, bird feeders, seedlings, caged-animals or any other morally right way that we can find to learn about nature.  BUT, keep it simple, fun, and satisfying so that the next time you can go even deeper in your discovery of nature.

© 2013 Carroll Smith


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. It may be reassuring to reflect that Charlotte Mason was an idealist, borne, perhaps, from the need to hide her childhood secrets from the world. Because of this we can only surmise that she was first introduced to the joys of observing nature in the urban setting of Birkenhead, Did her hafl-brother-in-law, Edwin Birchall, later an acomplished naturalist & discoverer of new butterfly species take her out into Birkenhead Park to show her how to observe birds, flowers & wriggly things. I do hope so but we will never know!

  2. Very interesting point, Margaret. Thanks for sharing that with those of us who do not know as much about her personal history yet.

    I often feel the need to remain quiet, because I am one of those mothers of young one who lives on a farm and has direct access to a small diversity of natural habitats right out my front door, and mom’s who don’t have that might automatically think I cannot truly relate. I do, however, know some the difficulties of self-motivation that are common to all humans, especially to often tired mothers of little ones.

    I think, in the post above, the most important points to bear in mind when beginning are the words SIMPLE and FUN!🙂 This is a great post. Thanks for all the ideas.

  3. Jennifer T. says

    Thank you for this post, Carroll. Once again, you’ve hit the point dead on.

    I particularly like the list at the end which gave application points to what I consider my ‘new jumping off point’: “Plan nature study where you are, not where you wish to be.” It’s easy to get discouraged when, after 12 years of CM education in our family, I’m not at all where I want to be – not in Nature Study, nor in many other areas.

    For all you do, thank you!

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