How to do Nature Study (when you don’t have a clue)

how to do nature study when you're not an expert | nature study resources and tips

I love nature study, but please don’t read that and think I’m an expert. I can’t identify every plant and mushroom or tell you the name of every bird by listening to their song or even identify tracks and burrows. I don’t know all the answers to my kids’ questions, but I love studying and observing nature. Over the years, I’ve gotten more comfortable with not knowing everything, and I’ve accumulated some favorite resources that help us study and identify our discoveries. I’ve learned how to do nature study, even when I don’t have a clue.

We started nature walks when my kids were very little. Gradually, we identified some favorite birds and plants common to our area. Then we moved from the east coast to the west coast. It was like moving to a different country! The birds are different, the plant life is different, the climate is different. The knowledge about nature that I had gained did us no good on our nature walks in our new tromping grounds. But we still loved nature study, and gradually we are discovering and learning the nature of our new home. My point is—you don’t need to be a nature expert to do a nature study with your kids. Instead, model the learning process with them.

nature study resources & tips | how to do nature study when you aren't an expert

Simple Steps for Nature Study

  1. Discover. Nature is all about discovery. It’s perfect for every age because there is always something for everyone, your preschooler to your high schooler. Sometimes I offer the kids a specific theme. Find signs of spring. Find signs of animal life. Find different leaf shapes. Kids are natural detectives, and mine have always craved a mission of discovery.
  2. Observe. Every nature walk, we take at least two items: our nature journals and a camera or my phone. (We also bring magnifying glasses, a field guide, and water bottles.) We choose “mystery” creatures and observe them closely, taking pictures and sketching in our journals so that we can go back later and research what they are. On our latest nature walk we had a journal full of unidentified discoveries—tracks, holes in the ground, two mystery birds, etc. We photographed each item and researched them in field guides, our local park and wildlife resource websites, and my favorite bird identifying app. Eventually, we identified nearly all of our mysteries, with lots of surprising results: cougar tracks, red-eared slider turtle nest, and a couple of new birds. The process is half the fun!
  3. Learn. I think the best part of nature study is that my kids see me learning beside them. I’m modeling with them what it means to discover, observe, and learn. I keep a nature journal and share my pages with them. I spend my birthday money on nature books and guides and studies. We read about it together. We learn how to keep a journal together. We enjoy and marvel at God’s creation together. They learn that it’s okay to not know the answer. It’s okay to be excited about a new creature or plant that we haven’t identified yet. And over the years, our repertoire of what we can identify is growing.

Below are a list of some of our favorite nature study resources. But I encourage you to find what you love, resources that work for you. As I followed nature study blogs and tried out different resources, I discovered that what many homeschoolers loved I absolutely hated. Handbook of Nature Study was a resource touted by many. I own it. I never use it. It just didn’t work for me. These are the books and nature studies we’ve used and loved, but you may have your own favorites (list them in the comments for us!)

steps to nature study | nature study resources & tips

 

Nature Journal resources

(Note: Some of these links are affiliate links. That simply means that when you click on the link and make a purchase, I get a small fee that helps me offset my blog and homeschool expenses. It doesn’t cost you a thing, and helps me a lot! For more info, feel free to read my disclosure.)

My nature journal

Oldest’s nature journal

(My daughter has nature study pages in her “Fun-schooling” journal, and my youngest just uses a spiral notebook.)

Nature Connection (I love all of Clare Walker Leslie’s books, but this one is my favorite.)

Nature Study Books and Guides

Discover Nature series (another author I love, Elizabeth Lawlor)

Book of Nature Projects

Clara D. Pierson’s Among the People Series (A living book at it’s finest, this fictional story provides lots of information about the lovable animal characters.)

NaturExplorers are another of my favorites! I love the nature walk ideas, the printable notebooking pages and scavenger hunts, the book recommendations, the art and music suggestions, and the emphasis. There is a ton to learn in these studies, but the emphasis is beauty and wonder not merely scientific observation. I love bringing the joy and wonder of nature into our nature walks and times together. While the ideas given are perfect for lower elementary, additional suggestions are provided for including the older student. When we first moved to the Pacific Northwest, we did a study on Remarkable Rain. I loved it! I loved the poetry, fictional tales, and art that rounded off our nature study. Currently, we are using the Animal Signs study, and loving it equally as much, especially the nature study notebooking pages provided in the study.

Nature study does not have to be intimidating. It doesn’t require a ton of research and preparation. It just takes opportunity. Take a walk in nature and notice what’s around you. That’s it! And chances are, your kids will do the rest for you.

Our Journey Westward

(Note: This post contains affiliate links. For more info, feel free to read my disclosure.)

Nature Study: Leading by Example

Art and Nature by example

I love nature study. I love teaching the wonder of God’s creation to my kids. I love trying to learn about what is around us. I love the skills of observation that it teaches.

It thrills my soul to see the kids with their nature notebooks and colored pencils. But lately, I feel that I’m having to coerce them more. Perhaps because it’s been a little while since we’ve studied nature; we’ve been all wrapped up in earth layers and volcanoes. Perhaps it’s because we’ve moved from 25 acres of country to a backyard in the city.

As I was mulling over this problem (and reading Charlotte Mason’s thoughts about children learning from an atmosphere, the ideas that rule MY life), I decided that maybe they would do better with less coercing and more example. Confession: I had not yet started a nature notebook for myself.

And so, with much trepidation and embarrassment, I began. I pulled an unused journal from my shelf and started. I can’t tell you how hard it is to share these pictures. They are not nearly as splendid as I’d like them to be; a fourth grader could probably do better. But my one consolation is that perhaps I will encourage another untalented mother to step into an unknown realm for the sake of her children.

My nature journal

 

The result of leading the way? It’s worked!

The kids are now eager to see what I have in my notebook, eager to copy what I have drawn and discover for themselves, eager to bring in the outdoors for more study.

Even Littlest grabbed a book and “pen” the other day for his trip outside.

Littlest's "nature journal"

Getting our Summer Groove

We’re several weeks into our new routine now, and loving summer! Nature walks, art, some music theory, poetry—summer school is in full swing. And thankfully, it’s all that I’d hoped and intended it to be.

I get a lot of questions about our summer school schedule, so I thought I’d share what our day looks like right now.

First of all, I’ve split our subjects and assigned them on different days. For instance, we do art and nature study one day; we do music and perhaps some poetry on another day; we do Life of Fred everyday. In all, we do our activities for roughly an hour a day. Nothing heavy, and lots of fun mommy-time with the kids.

music theory and music appreciation
music theory and music appreciation

Every day looks a little different. This is summer. This is our break. And while I want something to structure our days, I don’t want to be so regimented we’re not getting our breather. So first thing in the morning, I send them outside to play, to take advantage of the cool mornings before everything heats up. After playing for a couple of hours, they are usually ready for some structured activities. Oldest is still doing his Reflex Math everyday, usually while I shower and finish up with Littlest. Our “summer school” usually gets started around 11 a.m. and finishes up when we get hungry, around noon-ish.

Oldest's rendition of our dog at sunset
Oldest’s rendition of our dog at sunset

One day, we took a walk and did a nature scavenger hunt  (something taller than you, something smaller than your thumb, something that needs air, etc.); we also talked about the anatomy of trees and the different kinds of trees (deciduous/broadleaf and conifer/evergreen). Then we came in, cooled off, and did some art, learning to sketch with an ebony pencil.

art and nature study
art and nature study

On another day, we read Life of Fred on the front porch and then did a read-aloud together.

Another day, we practiced music together, learning notes on the scale using Lady Treble and the Seven Notes and Oldest’s recorder lesson book and Middlest’s Dora piano.

We added some extra stickers from "Lady Treble" to her Dora piano.
We added some extra stickers from “Lady Treble” to her Dora piano.

On yet another day, we went for a walk to pick different kinds of leaves, we read about the different leaf shapes and why plants need leaves, then we did leaf rubbings in our nature notebooks—and watercolored.

summer school schedule

It’s a little structure and a lot of fun. It’s learning in a casual setting. It’s creating and exploring and enjoying summer.

Summer Unschooling

We’ve got a tradition at our house that is now 3 years in the making. Summer school is absolutely the highlight of the year. All of us can hardly wait to close the textbooks and start summer.

I started summer school at the end of Oldest’s K4 year for a few different reasons. First, we love the structure that school brings to our day. Too much unstructured play breeds chaos and bickering at my house. We’re a family that loves a routine and a regular schedule. Second, I didn’t want to spend three months forgetting what we’d just spent months to learn. I wanted something to hold it all in their little heads and to keep it growing.

Thus, summer school was born, but not an endless rhythm of the same lessons: even we need a break. Summer school is our time for nature walks, nature journals, and nature study; science and discovery; messy art and picture studies; classical music, water parties, and mud pie bakeries. It’s not at all “school” in the traditional sense. It’s not even school in the classical sense. It’s more a mixture of Charlotte Mason and unschooling, nurturing a fascination for the beauty of creation.

Summer School

And our summer studies have been some of our most memorable. Middlest, who was 2 when we had our first “summer school,” loves Handel’s water music and often asks when we will have another water party. Both of the kids light up when they see a waterlily painting; it’s Monet! And the nature journals are close-companions all summer long, including on vacation trips.

So what’s on the agenda for this summer?

Let’s break out the swimming pool and turn up the Mozart. It’s time for summer!

Study of a Bug’s Life: Praying Mantis

I love the Lord’s impromptu appearances into our lesson plans, His provision for up-close observation in His always perfect timing. Just before our bug study, we were fellowshipping with friends and happened upon the largest praying mantis I have ever seen.

The children were a little intimidated (I honestly don’t blame them; this was a mammoth insect—and this incident occurred before my kids had been introduced to the plastic variety). I didn’t have my camera with me. But my friend was most obliging and took photos of the giant for me.

insect study for young children

insect study

 

After we finished our Week of Bugs, I showed the pictures to the kids, and we talked about this event. The kids had warmed up to the mantis, or at least, he wasn’t as intimidating in a photo. They had fun counting his legs and naming his body parts.

The Lord is so good to us, taking notice of something as small as a five year old and a nearly-four year old studying bugs.

Study of a Bug’s Life: Insect Life Stages

The next stop on our Week of Bugs tour was a study of the insect life stages. I read in God’s Design for Life: World of Animals book about complete and incomplete metamorphosis and the different stages of the process. While I was reading, we illustrated the whole process with our very cool plastic insect life stages.

study of insect metamorphosis

As we read about eggs, I had the kids find all of the eggs from each of the different insect sets. We had a butterfly egg, ant eggs, beetle eggs, praying mantis soft and hard egg cases, and ladybug eggs.

We looked at the praying mantis nymphs and talked about the three stages of incomplete metamorphosis.

When we read about larvae, the kids found all of the plastic insect larvae and lined them up for me. Then, we talked about pupae and the chrysalis.

Last, I had the kids each choose two insects and take me through the complete (or incomplete) metamorphosis. Once again, the plastic insects made teaching and drilling so much fun!

study of insect life stages
Metamorphosis of a Darkling Beetle

 

study of butterfly life stages
Metamorphosis of a Painted Lady Butterfly

We wrapped up the week with a look at arachnids (spiders and scorpions) and, on the last day, a video about the monarch butterfly.

It was absolutely as much fun as I had hoped it would be. And really, though I had originally planned for our lessons to be once a week for a month, I think it turned out even better to have done it all in one week. Now to go catch some arthropods!