A natural nature study summer of fun
Yay, school’s out! No more workbooks for a while. Time to relax, let the boys play, and give this over-worked mom and teacher (me) a chance to unwind and shift gears …
So went my usual reflections upon reaching the end of another homeschool year, though that particular summer we accelerated our busy lifestyle and moved from the faraway Northwest to a new state—Arkansas. I had much to do, setting up house with my husband and our four sons aged 11, 8, 5, and 2.
I fondly recall that exceptional season of our lives. It was an introduction to our new Ozark Mountain home, as well as the summer when I embraced homeschooling as a way of life and smiled widely at the natural progression of child-generated and Spirit-filled studies that pumped vigor through our veins.
Let your world be your inspiration
Most boys love critters, even the creepy ones, and my young nature enthusiasts were no exception. Arkansas, known as “The Natural State,” brought with it an exciting panorama of God’s creatures: armored (but not tire-proof), burrowing, bushy-tailed, flying, furry, glowing, howling (as in the middle of the night), rabid (as in raccoon), scaly, slimy, stinky, stinging, toxic (the eight-legged kind), fascinating specimens.
Simple prayers had brought few turtle finds in our old terrain, but our fresh aquatic stomping grounds delivered to us a variety of bathtub treasures. Friendly Ted awarded the Reynolds boys with hours of activity and entertainment. The natives they encountered, such as armadillos, groundhogs, slugs, giant beetles, cicadas, snakes, opossums, and skunks were eagerly sought after through our illustrated animal encyclopedias. Crawdads (aka crayfish) were creatures to be savored in their own sweet realm during each trip to the creek but savored by many Arkansans piled high on a platter at the annual Crawdad Days Festival! Have you ever opened a jar of fireflies in a room with a ceiling fan? Do you know what lizard earrings are? How many brown recluse spiders can you spot on the floor with a flashlight in the middle of the night?
Of course, we got to be buddies with our exciting new library! Eight-year-old Gideon learned to use the card catalog, where he found a field guide to identify his beloved turtles and snakes. Since he was not yet a fluent reader, 11-year-old Josiah or I read aloud passages of interest to the family, and the boys copied specific information and picture tracings to their hearts’ content. Map work became common as states where the different species lived were identified. The younger boys became enthralled with Dad’s 25-foot rule as they figured out just how big that python was if it was completely stretched out, and they played and measured, inches to yards and centimeters to meters. Have you ever lost a snake in the bathroom?
Our library trips acquainted us with some amazing creatures through videos and special book discoveries. The cover and interesting marginal drawings throughout the delightful book Minn of the Mississippi1, where we accompanied an endearing snapping turtle on her travels, caught Gideon’s attention. Out came the map as we tracked the geography and history of the Mississippi River. It was neat in that we had just crossed the famous river on a trip to Florida a few months prior. What a great read-aloud, but I don’t recommend a snapping turtle for a pet—read Pagoo2 and keep hermit crabs instead.
During the months that followed, Gideon sketched numerous pictures of insects, turtles, and underwater scenes that encouraged his brothers’ attempts to do the same. I suggested they make a scrapbook for their nature drawings, with titles and captions to explain them. An enticing seashell collection on display at the library led to identifying and drawing their favorites. Measuring ensued: “Wow, look how big the Giant Conch gets!” Dad divvied up his old seashell collection, adding to the delight of the occasion. (Seashells go great with hermit crabs!)
Real-life topics of interest are motivators for meaningful learning. I don’t know who coined this phrase but it fits … A child learns what he digs for himself.
A glossy photo book from Aunt Jean, The Practical Entomologist3, arrived in the mail unexpectedly, which further excited curiosity. The antics of backyard insects kept the boys occupied as they held captives in a makeshift aquarium/terrarium. How many ants will an ant lion trap? How many rolly pollies can a big frog zap? Gideon and 5-year-old Benjamin dictated their bug and nature findings to me and copied the dictations for themselves. There were written submissions, including some composed for our self-published Homeschool Gazette newsletter, and pen pal requests were answered, filled with tales of explorations and adventures. I was thrilled!
Want rocks? Arkansas has them—diamonds too! So, naturally, rock collecting (requiring lots of digging) became a hobby. Dad and Grandpa also took the boys shopping for rocks and accumulated new roadside stand additions to their growing collections. They eventually got good at recognizing which purchases were honest rock specimens and not the colored glass imitations. We “ooohed” and “aahed” during our visit to Hurricane River Cave4, which motivated mastery of a whole new vocabulary and excitement for exploring the dazzling underworld wonders of the Arkansas Ozarks! Growing our own stalactites and stalagmites solidified our understanding, and bat guano held a certain interest too.
In early summer, we got to know our neighborhood, walking almost every day, hand in hand. What were those new trees and blossoms? Wildflowers graced our humble abode, we learned some identifying names, and we made nature note cards from our dried flowers and leaves. Another library display showcased wild Arkansas flowers painted by a local artist. Out came the watercolors. There was just so much to learn!
While axing our way through the woods, an excited outburst directed us to the gnawed-upon skeleton of a large animal. We pretended it was dinosaur bones. Knocking out a large tooth from the menacing jaw with a stick, we noted the protruding roots of the tooth. We examined the exquisite structure, identifying what parts we knew, aided by my memory of college anatomy and physiology. What a discovery!
Each day can motivate excitement for learning
Our oldest and youngest sons participated too. Josiah, a budding computer whiz, was involved in self-study, but he was in tune to all the fun and adventure going on. He was the one who lit the fires, whittled the marshmallow sticks, carried necessary tools in a pouch on his belt, and kindled much interest to light up our discussions. Little Jeremiah participated as well, wide-eyed, following close in the footsteps of his mentor brothers.
Inherently, we compared ideas on everything. We held Bible study, prayed, and sang praises to God. His story of creation formed the framework for our scientific discussions. Our Creator’s fingerprints and beauty were evident as we examined clean and unclean animals, food chains, taxonomy classifications, animal reproduction, and other topics. Our hearts and minds connected.
Realizing all that had taken place that summer with almost no planning from me, I wasn’t amazed. God designed each of us with a hungry curiosity that hadn’t inadvertently been quashed. I was reminded of the Bible verse and motto of our homeschool: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” (Psalm 1:3)
Although I had a tendency to push my agenda, I desired to listen and let God lead us. He was capable of nurturing His saplings and causing them to thrive—and He had included me in the process!
When September came, I used many of the interests of that summer to fashion in-depth unit studies of our own in the years that followed: animals in our neighborhood, creationism vs. evolution, reptiles, the skeleton and human body, Arkansas history, rocks and gems, the metric system, caves, insects, flowers, seashells, etc. At the center was at least one exciting read-aloud book on each topic, along with fun, hands-on activities. The boys weren’t interested in poetry but I included it anyway, and many math lessons were still a struggle to fit in. Studying the same topics, though, with different ability levels, linked us together in a wonderful way. Everyone’s input added to the whole.
A love for God and nature, a thirst for knowledge, a few supplies, and a shared enthusiastic interest from my husband and me led to an amazing natural nature study summer of fun for our homeschooling family. God’s agenda to introduce us to our new home was better than anything I could have planned!
A simple approach
I appreciate Charlotte Mason’s love of nature study and her teaching philosophy, ‘Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life,’ and also her encouragement toward the use of living books: ‘We trust much to good books—once more, we know that there is a storehouse of thought wherein we may find all the great ideas that have moved the world.’†
Some of the best studies we have done came about as we read great books with captivating subjects and then chose topics as jumping off points. There literally are hundreds of outstanding book choices that would make great studies.
Here are a few simple ideas and thoughts to consider implementing in your homeschool:
- Having ‘nothing to do’ can develop creativity.
- Don’t turn every interest into a unit study!
- Ask your children to form a list of ‘things I’d love to do and learn,’ marking them off as they get done.
- Find worthwhile lessons everywhere—seize and provide opportunities to learn the things that matter.
- Involve your children in the things you do and enjoy.
- Encourage the older kids to share their passions with the younger ones.
- Brainstorm about a service-oriented project—perfect for your family.
- Use the scientific method to ask and answer questions about your observations and experiments.
- Fill up on inspiring, true-life stories.
- Employ a growth mindset—you can learn what you put effort into learning!
- Encourage real writing experiences and participation in a homeschool newsletter/publication, or start your own.
- Keep a journal with a goal of reflecting on the wow insights discovered each week.
- Exercise the freedom to choose what is meaningful and suitable for your children.
- Pray together, teaching about God and relating His Word to your daily lives and the world around you!
‘For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4:6)
† Charlotte Mason, Charlotte Mason’s Original Homeschooling Series, Tyndale House (1989), Vol. 2, pg. 231.
Copyright, 2011. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Summer 2011.