Friday, May 9, 2008

Using the Comstock Handbook of Nature Study

I have a favorite quote from The Handbook of Nature Study. It's on page 177 and is a quote from L.H. Bailey, the woman to whom the handbook is dedicated. It reads as follows:

"In the early years we are not to teach nature as science, we are not to teach it primarily for method or for drill: we are to teach it for loving - and this is nature study. On these points I make no compromise."

Nature study, then, is for the purpose of bringing our children to a love of nature. In our family it is also to bring them face to face with the realities God has revealed through His creation. It is for loving :) How precious!

I highly recommend the first section in Ms. Comstock's book - The Teaching of Nature Study. It is on pages 1-23 and, toward the end, she details how the book is intended to be used. The handbook is really more for you than for the children. It is a tool to educate the teacher so that she can wisely lead the investigations and observations of her children. I think this may be the part that gets many mothers intimidated about nature study. "You mean I have to learn everything beforehand?! There's no way!!!" It's been so encouraging for me to remember back even just four years ago to how little I knew about the natural world around me. I have so much more to learn, but I have come along gradually. We can all learn little by little :)

I hope to encourage you with two little stories from our week that might help illustrate how we carry nature study out in our family. The first shows just how easy nature study can be. We were playing outside at a local park and, eventually, walked over to a large field of grass covered in violets. The children got so excited picking them! I was sitting in the grass with the baby and they were bringing handful upon handful to me (there were plenty left, believe me!). Finally, I had the idea of taking some home to press them. We brought some home and pressed about 15-20 of the nicest ones. They are still pressing between two paper towels with several heavy books on them. While we were in the field, I had the older children (7 and almost 6) take the time to really look at each violet. Where do you think the pollen is kept? How do you think the bees get it? What does the flower look like to you? Having read the Comstock section on violets to myself one evening prior (not planned - just providence!) I could remember just a few things. I pointed out how the lines on the flowers led the way for the bees to find the pollen and I showed the children the leaves and asked them to describe them for me (they are heart-shaped). Then, we thought of the little poem about roses being red and violets being blue. I never thought they looked blue; they always looked purple to me. So, I had the children describe the colors they saw in the violets.

That's all! :)

Even if we hadn't pressed the violets, it was still a very good time of observation and description. My oldest daughter could have drawn a violet for her nature notebook at home, but, since we were pressing them, we decided to just wait and arrange the pressed violets into pretty shapes for cards instead. If we are not going to draw something, I spend extra time having the children verbally describe it and closely observe it. We do not come anywhere close to drawing all of our nature finds. That would be impossible! If I had not known the name of the violets, we would have still done the same observation and description "lesson", but then we would have spent some time at home with field guides, trying to identify the flowers. We basically did this with an unknown weed we found last week. It turned out to be Wintercress. We had a simple study with a cutting of it in our kitchen, and we've been seeing it everywhere since! Now the children "know" violets and wintercress :) Nine times out of ten our nature study is simplistic and unplanned. More than anything, plenty of time outside is the number one requirement. Once you get outside more with your children, the number of interesting things to observe far exceed the time you have to study them! From dandelions to clouds, you're never at a loss for something to study.

Now, for a more "serious" example. This has been one of our very coolest nature study endeavors :) We were out in the backyard on Monday when my five year old yelled out that she found a toad... a big toad. (Two years ago when we had toads I could barely bring myself to touch them, but practice makes perfect, lol). I carried it inside to the basement and brought up an empty 10 gallon tank. The only thing I knew about toads was that they like to burrow in the dirt, so I instructed the children to fill the aquarium about 4" deep with garden soil while I quickly Googled "toad aquarium" online. I read some useful instructions and we finished making our little toad home. We watched the toad, held the toad, and took a really, really good look at the toad. What do you notice about the toad's feet? What color are her eyes? Can you describe them? Basically, we were taking mental pictures of the toad and narrating her appearance and behavior. We washed our hands when we were done ;)

During the children's rest time, I read the Comstock section on toads to myself. I really knew nothing about them! Armed with new toady knowledge later that afternoon, I could lead the children through a few more observations, telling them a little here and there while encouraging them to make guesses all along. We plan on letting our toady go this afternoon (Wednesday), but first we'll draw her into our nature notebooks while the littlest ones nap. I draw along with the children; they seem far more interested this way. We'll take a few pictures and then let her go. They will, no doubt, remember some things about toads from this study. I suspect, though, the most educational aspects have been their deepened interest in toads and a desire to take care of them as stewards of God's creation. I knew nothing about toads three days ago!!! Thanks to observing and caring for Cleopatra (our toad) this week, now I know a ton! Well, comparatively anyway ;) The most it took from me was a 10 gallon aquarium, the guts to catch the toad in the first place, and one afternoon with The Handbook of Nature Study.

Again, I really recommend reading the front section of the Comstock book. It helps show how nature "study" should and can be very natural. We just need to get outside more! Little by little, truly, it's not overwhelming :)