Our family’s nature study journey

by Natalie Feener

The Luther Burbank Gardens, Santa Rosa, USA
“Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water-bugs, tadpoles, frogs and turtles, elderberries. wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, water-lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pine cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries, and hornets. Any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education.” ~ Luther Burbank

I saw this quote while visiting the Luther Burbank Gardens in Santa Rosa, CA, when our family was just beginning to homeschool. Luther was a botanist and pioneer in agricultural science in the early 1900s, developing more than 800 strains and varieties of plants over his 55-year career. The quote reminded me that exploring the outdoor world should be an integral part of our children’s education. Now, mind you, our family didn’t need much prodding to spend time outdoors. Both my husband and I have our college degrees in the life sciences, and we first met on a bird watching trip. We took our sons camping before they could walk. Still, that quote inspired me to add Nature Study to our family’s “three R’s” of homeschooling.

The quote also reminded me of the beginnings of my own fascination with nature in the 5th grade. My teacher that year had a classroom full of plants and animals. I especially loved taking some of the creatures home for the weekend, much to my mother’s dismay. Thus began my study of all things related to the life sciences. If it was alive, I wanted to know as much as possible about it. I later discovered that God was also revealing more of Himself to me through the intricate designs of all that He had created. Yes, there is a theological reason to study nature. God reveals Himself (His character, law and wrath) through the natural world that He created.

“For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

To study nature is to begin the study of life sciences—man’s observations about his natural world. Children have a natural curiosity about living things around them, so that’s where I began. We started small with what was in our yard: the plants, animals and insects that made their home near ours. I tried to create a sense of wonder and asked the questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How?

Reading the Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andreola, inspired me further, as she talked about Nature Notebooks, Unit Studies by Beautiful Feet Books, field guides and other resource books. I particularly liked the idea, “If we give our children regular opportunities to get in touch with God’s creation, a habit is formed which will be a source of delight throughout their lives.”

A bird who awakened us with its singing at 4am became our reason for studying local birds. We finally saw it singing in daylight and identified it as a mockingbird. Why is it called a mockingbird? How big is it in relation to other birds? What does it eat? What does its bill tell us about its food? What do its feet tell us about where it lives? Does anything eat it? Where does it nest, and what kind of nest does it build? How long does it incubate its eggs?

A friend in the neighborhood found an alligator lizard living inside his sprinkler control box. He asked, “Would your boys like to come and catch it?” Thus began yet another pet adventure. Shall we keep it? What kind of animal is it, reptile or amphibian? What does it eat? What kind of habitat does it like? Does it need a heat lamp?”

An inch-long insect landed on the screen of our patio door one June evening. “My, what is type of insect is this? Go get the camera to take a photo. Why would God give it all those lines on its back? What kind of wings does it have? I can’t get it off the screen, so what is holding it there? Go get the magnifying glass, so we can look at the legs. Oh my, it just hissed at me. How did it do that?”

One day while learning about owls at our local nature center, I spied a flier about a Nature Bowl Team Competition for children ages 3rd-6th grade sponsored by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The coaches’ workshop was inexpensive and fit in my schedule, so I attended. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that our classroom was picnic tables under oak trees, where we had a great view of a deer family eating the acorns. I love learning by application, so this method was my kind of classroom.

As our sons outgrew the Nature Bowl competition, they continued to help with setup and design of some of the weekly Nature Study co-op activities for the younger students. They and other alumni accompanied our group on field trips, and I was delighted when they occasionally shared some of their own knowledge with the younger students.

During the junior high years, our sons’ science curriculum involved the physical sciences, much of which they explored on their own. As they transitioned from Cub Scouts into Boy Scouts, Dad participated more in their nature education, as they spent weekends on Scout outdoor adventures. Their Scout advancement pursuits included such nature related Merit Badges as: Environmental Science, Tracking, Reptiles & Amphibians, Wilderness Survival, Wildlife Management, Forestry, and Oceanography. Their awareness of the difference between evolution and Creation theory also awakened, so we became subscribers to the Creation Illustrated magazine and the Acts and Facts magazine.

As high school loomed ahead for my oldest son, friends began to ask, “My child loved your Nature Study class. Why don’t you teach a biology co-op?” After surveying several biology textbooks and hearing Dr. Jay Wile speak at a homeschool conference, I chose the Apologia Biology curriculum. Knowing that their future college classes would require skills in note-taking, chart-making, and lab report skills, I added these requirements to the curriculum.

Creating a sense of wonder is more difficult in the teen years, so finding fun activities became more challenging. We still did most classes outside, as I prayed for real life biology to happen during class. The Lord provided: a tree frog started living in our garden; hummingbirds constantly visited the patio feeder; and a dragonfly buzzed around the containers of pond water. Vocabulary words were reviewed with Bell Ringer games, where the students divided up into teams with a Call Bell for each team. I read the definition, and the teams rang the bell as soon as they knew the word. Thankfully, chocolate as an incentive to the winners still works with teens. We played a Jeopardy type of game where the students were sometimes required to make up the topic questions. For example, if the module was on the different types of worms, question topics might include: characteristics of segmented worms, characteristics of flat worms, characteristics of round worms, benefits and diseases caused by each, etc. The more difficult the questions required that more points be awarded for the correct answer. Dissection experiments required lab reports that included photos, drawings and labeling of body parts.

The module covering environmental science became a science fair project. We took three hikes along a local river and documented the various types of plants and animals, as well as man’s impact during three different seasons. Photographing the various types of trash on the trail made them more conscious of not leaving any of their own behind. For the modules on microorganisms, we didn’t just look at prepared, stained slides; we also collected water from various ponds and rivers to view under the microscope. Initially, these living creatures were more challenging to view and photograph through the microscope lens, but it definitely created more excitement when unusual organisms were found. A student’s laptop computer and another’s smartphone became valuable aids for research and identification.

A chemistry co-op came next for my older son. I supervised the module experiments at my home, while the classroom lectures were taught by an aerospace engineer. Of course, as the lecturer talked about his time designing rocket fuel, the boys in the group dreamed of making explosives. Not wanting to be tagged for the FBI’s Terrorist List, the students and I became adept at discerning which chemistry explosions on YouTube might be safe enough to do in my backyard. We settled for explosions using dry ice, vinegar, or model rockets.

Two years later, I taught both the chemistry lecture and lab for my younger son and his friends. To help the students realize the prevalence of chemicals in their daily life, we investigated the chemical preservatives used in the food industry, the difference between various stain removers, the pH of popular teen drinks, and the effect of pesticides on the environment. The students created even more Jeopardy questions, played several games using the Periodic Table of Elements, and reported on common uses for the more unusual elements. Of course, the vinegar explosions, a smoke bomb, and model rockets were still popular activities.

As our sons’ science studies matured, so did their knowledge and willingness to defend Creation as an explanation for how the universe and life began. I was surprised when our older son chose to explain the holes in evolution theory for his Expository Speech during his junior year’s speech competition. It’s not an easy topic to understand or explain to others, but he showed himself worthy of the challenge. Both sons now attend seminars by notable Creation scientists, and they have added to our family’s library of Creation science books. So you need not diminish your family’s study of the sciences due to fear over the evolution debate. There are many resources available to assist you from Christian educational publishers and science organizations.

We begin the 2015 fall semester with my older son starting his second year of college as a science major. My younger son is a senior in high school, and we are excited that I will be teaching a new co-op on marine biology. Once again the idea started with another parent asking, “My daughter wants to do marine biology next year. Wouldn’t you like to teach that?”

Yes, our classroom will still be outdoors on my back patio surrounded by God’s creation, and we shall do some familiar activities which began with Nature Study: Bell Ringer & Jeopardy. I will also be praying for our Lord to provide even more nature adventures on our field trips to the California coast, as we explore tide pools, estuaries, and several marine science museums.

As you can see, our family’s study of nature has evolved over the course of our homeschool journey with many God-ordained opportunities for educational adventure. I hope that you are inspired to get outside and study nature with your children. Maybe a friend will suggest that you teach a new subject that didn’t occur to you. Perhaps our Lord is leading one of your children to be a scientist for His glory. May your family enjoy your time learning about our Lord and His creation.

Biographical information

Natalie Fenner is the homeschooling mother of two teenage sons, who she has homeschooled from the beginning. She and her husband, Marc, love spending time in Nature and sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm with others. Natalie continues to enjoy teaching a Nature Study class in her home in the Sacramento area, even though her sons have long since outgrown the Nature Bowl competition. She also continues to teach high school co-op science classes.

Copyright, 2015. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, Fall 2015. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.comor read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.