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Nature Study

By Melissa Morgan
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #83, 2008.

Enjoy nature with your preschooler
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Melissa Morgan

Homeschooling and hands-on nature education go together naturally. After all, why stay indoors at a desk and study nature in a textbook, when the real thing beckons, just outside the door? So, grab your nature guide, and let’s go adventuring! You can find nature opportunities all around you, in your own backyard, community centers, nature centers, community gardens, and universities.

Nature Service Projects Consider planting a community garden for the hungry in the public area by the street. Borrow books from the library about edible gardens. Check with local zoning and parks officials to see what your community allows and needs. Find out how to start a small nature sanctuary in your yard, and attract beneficial insects, birds, and wildlife. You might even wish to make a rustic sign for your sanctuary.

Going Wild (and Tame)

Connect with friends and relatives, and you can find a variety of natural habitats to visit. Visit a zoo, aquarium or even just a pet shop, and study animals from near and far places. Check to see if you can purchase a reciprocal membership; where available, they allow families to visit zoos or natural history museums in other cities for no additional cost. Also, inquire about “free days,” club membership discounts, or special homeschool family events. Programs such as 4H (4-h.org), scouting (scouting.org), and Junior Rangers (nationalparks.org/who-we-help/ youth-engagement/?fa=junior-ranger) offer inexpensive, hand-on nature activities for kids.

Plan a nature vacation, studying God’s creation in places that you don’t usually go, such as a desert, jungle, arctic area or wetland. For longer excursions, pack essential supplies, such as plastic gloves, plastic bags for storing finds, binoculars, bug nets, magnifiers, camera, and first aid kit, including a pocket guide to first aid. (Remember to always ask permission before removing or even touching natural items.)

Homeschooling offers many families the oportunity to visit our national parks and other recreational sites at unusual times, eliminating crowds. You will also pay less, by traveling out of season.

While traveling, learn how your ancestors survived, in a wagon train or living off the land. You will need to provide food and shelter. You might enjoy making a small tepee, or just putting up a tent. Learn how to find your way, using a compass, or just the stars.

As you drive or walk, talk about how you can stay safe outdoors. Learn to identify dangerous animals and poisonous plants. (Remember, “Leaves of three, let them be, it’s poison ivy!”) Before your trip, check with local extension agents for free plant or animal guides and materials. Then bring your nature guides with you and study them together. You can also locate free information from the Native Plant Information Center, wildflower2.org/index.html.

Hands On Nature

Hands-on learners will enjoy playing games and creating natural gifts and special keepsakes. Try these:

  • Paint a large coffee can and create a planter (get an adult to drill drainage holes in the bottom
  • Pick a basket of fruit or vegetables to keep or give away (go to a pick-your-own farm)
  • Make a nature scrapbook or lapbook, and illustrate it with natural items
  • Create natural jewelry from stringing small shells, polished rocks, or dried flowers
  • Make a recording of animal or bird sounds
  • Make rubbings of natural items, such as leaves; put the leaf under paper and run a crayon over the bumps
  • Run earthworm, frog, or ladybug races. Make small houses for your tiny contestants out of peanut butter jars or tin cans. Teach your youngsters to be gentle, and release their critters—usually within 24 hours
  • Go fishing
  • Tracking contests—find and identify tracks, either in mud near a body of water, or in fresh snow
  • Map reading and drawing
  • Play “What if games,” while you’re driving. Ask “What if you got lost in the woods,” or “What if you saw a wild animal?” “What if someone got hurt—do you know how to call for help?” “Do you know your name, address, phone number?”
  • Gather natural items, such as pine cones, leaves, and seeds. Put them in a shoe box with a small hole cut in the top. Can you identify the items, just based on touch?

Nature at the Library

Collect natural items for your local library display case, or for displaying at a homeschool event. If your local homeschool group doesn’t already offer a science fair, consider organizing one. It can be informal or highly structured. Ask a librarian to help you pick out topical books to feature with the items. Dress up as a Native American, Bible character, or pioneer. Read stories about how people used natural items to make things that they couldn’t buy. For instance, try making your own soap, dyes, paper, or clay pots. In our area, clay is heavy, gray, and only a few inches below the ground. Wash it—a lot—to get rid of the dirt. Form it into shape, and dry in the sun. Then find natural items to make colors to paint designs on your pots. Of course, learn which natural items are toxic and supervise small children carefully.

Ask your local librarian to help you locate materials for a nature unit study, including identification books, historical books, fiction books about nature, audio and video resources. Sharing nature books outside can be a relaxing way to take turns labeling animals and objects in alphabet and word books.

The Bible and Nature

Snuggle under an inviting tree, or on a blanket outside, and look at books such as It Couldn’t Just Happen: Fascinating Facts About God’s World, by Lawrence O. Richards, Janice VanCleave’s Science for Every Kid series, and Considering God’s Creation from Eagle’s Wings Publications, eagleswingsed.com. Consider watching nature movies together on family nights, such as City of the Bees and other Moody science video classics. For free materials about God’s creation, see answersingenesis.org/kids. Find projects such as the Magnificent Tiger Bookmark and articles from Kids Answers magazine.

Study the life cycles of frogs and butterflies, to demonstrate resurrection. Like St. Patrick, you can teach about the Trinity with a shamrock, which shows three in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If you carry a pocket Bible on your nature adventures, you can read appropriate scriptures. Later, have your child copy Bible verses and illustrate with nature drawings. Take pictures and videos to document what your child learns through your nature studies, and ask your child to narrate.

Gifts of Nature

Watch to see what your child likes best. Consider buying gifts to nurture the current interest. Consider purchasing prisms, tornado tubes, binoculars, compasses, maps, magnifiers, books, fossils, gems, microscopes, ant farms, a nature magazine, sea monkeys, volcano kits, crystal growing kits, rock tumblers, butterfly garden, or glow-in-the-dark stars and planets to recreate your own indoor night sky. American Science and Surplus, sciplus.com, offers resources such as The Field and Forest Handy Book, in print since 1906. Learn woodland lore and how to stay safe and comfortable in the wilderness. Also check yard sales, as you’ll often find inexpensive science kits, often with all the components intact, or at least replaceable. Be careful about dangerous or toxic substances, however.

Write About Nature

Keep a portfolio, including mementos such as booklists, photos of projects, journals, and drawings, to document your child’s learning adventures. Find free information, such as booklists and suggested schedules, about how to use the Charlotte Mason nature study methods at amblesideonline.org or squidoo. com/cmnaturestudy. Consider these unit study topic idea starters: spiders, birds, the human heart, butterflies, bees, the moon, the seasons, classifying animals and plants, water, light, forest fires, earthquakes, volcanoes, pond life, caves, squirrels, weather, animal genetics, bats, dolphins, oceans, the night sky, rocks and fossils, logging seasons and weather, and studying life science/biology of animals, humans, plants and seeds.

What to Teach When?

You may want guidelines, on what your child needs to know, and when. Try these free Typical Course of Study guides for basic subjects, including natural science:

Every week or two, notice what your child has already learned, and simply check off those skills. Look for hands-on opportunities to acquire new skills on your list. You and your family will be amazed at how quickly your child gains science skills and knowledge, as well as essential life and career skills. Who knows, maybe a budding natural scientist lives in your house?

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