A few things first:

Nature study is foremost about experiencing the world around us, it is not the same as natural history, which involves learning the names and classification of the natural world. Nature study is more about finding a place in your surroundings, enjoying the sights and smells of nature and appreciating the whole of what makes up an environment, whether it is a shoreline or streambed, a sunny hill or shady forest grove. Learning the names of things is secondary to learning to love the plants and animals that live around us, to appreciating the diversity and scope or our natural world and most importantly, learning to respect each living creature as a life, whole and complete where it lives and leaving these living things behind, undisturbed.

Beware of too many ’how to’ nature study books. These often have busy work and loads of ’ideas’ that quickly become more work for the parent and just another series of worksheets for the child. This is not the point of nature study!

You could spend hundreds of dollars on nature study do-dads and kits, books and equipment. However, nature study is one of the few areas your entire family can immerse themselves for very little cost. Start simply, take books from the library until you find one that you can’t do without and then buy it used. For equipment, start with a good magnifying glass (and please do go over safety and responsibility, setting fire and burning insects is not a goal of nature study) and a notebook and pencil for record keeping and sketches. From this humble start, whole worlds will open up.

Start simply in your studies as well, don’t imagine any end result such as your darling child wandering about the botanical gardens chanting lovingly the names of every flower, insect, tree and cloud. Chances are, they will remember the names of the flowers they particularly like, insects that are somehow scary or perhaps beautiful and a few trees like the giant Sequoia, will capture their interest.

Don’t limit them to an area. If you headed out to do a stream survey and they are off counting rings on a tree someone cut down near-by, then go count rings too, or stick your feet in the creek and stare at the rocks along the bottom, watching for potential crawdads. Or go it alone, there is nothing saying YOU can’t learn a thing or two. They will ask questions and if you can answer them, you are an asset to their learning. If not, provide ways to record finds to learn more about them together. A photo or sketch, a jotted description and a few notes will allow for later identification.

When you are on nature walks, the younger the child, the more they will want to squat and look at everything along the way. This is the time to let them. Don’t set out for more than ½ mile and be prepared to take half the day. They want to look at bugs, at leaves, at sticks, poke at puddles and holes. They may want to pull up flowers and give them to you or take home a small creature they have found. This should be discouraged, the flowers need to complete their life cycle to ensure more will grow there next year. Animals need to stay in their own world and not in cages in our homes.

If your child is adamant about having an animal to observe, raise tadpoles and set the frogs free or order butterfly cocoons to watch and release. You can also set aside part of your yard to watch wildlife up-close. Plant food and cover for small animals, set up a pond, birdfeeder, birdbath or put out birdhouses and bat houses. Bringing in a turtle or frog from your yard to observe and set free after a few hours is fine, keep them in a naturally landscaped terrarium set up for this purpose. Do not bring home creatures from hikes, as your neighborhood is not their natural habitat and you are sentencing them to a frightening, lonely and often painfully slow death.

A child who crashes through the woods, ripping off a handful of leaves here and there, smashing mushrooms and snails in the path, who picks wildflowers, captures lizards and spiders to take home and let die, who hits trees with sticks to watch the bark fly off is a menace. These are the children that will grow up shooting birds and strays with pellet guns, who feel that anything smaller than themselves is fair game and that nature is meant to be conquered. This is not a healthy child, and ‘boys will be boys’ is a load of bull. A child who is properly instructed and introduced to nature by a loving and interested person will not want to damage or destroy all the wonders surrounding them.

Nature Study at Home
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