Those new to a Charlotte Mason style education may wonder why the words "Nature Study" are so often used in connection with her work. What is Nature Study? What is Natural History? Why is it important? How does the study of nature, or Natural History, connect to Science?
What is Nature Study? What is Natural History?
Nature Study, according to Merriam-Webster, is "a study of the objects and phenomena of nature, usually on an amateur or superficial basis", but it can be a difficult phrase to define. Among Charlotte Mason circles, it is known as the study of the natural living world, specifically to the observation of it through object lessons, outdoor walks and other activities which allow children to see and connect with it. Children observe nature in its natural setting or in its natural form and record their observations in a nature sketchbook or other type of notebook.
From "How to Best Study Nature":
"Its aim is to bring the child into direct relation with facts, to lead him from the abstract to the concrete, and to stimulate him to investigate phenomena for himself. This is to promote that process of self-instruction which is the basis of all true education" (Medd).
Nature Study was also a popular educational movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s which carried with it the hope that it would encourage children to take a greater interest in caring for Earth. In "What Early 20th Century Nature Study Can Teach Us", "The nature study movement in the United States reached its zenith at the turn of the 19th century. Its adherents believed nature could be studied to discover scientific truths and to create within students affection for nature and an understanding of nature’s ability to bring joy in an industrialized world. Further, nature study pedagogy stressed the importance of knowing “the nature encountered in students’ day-to-day lives” and that such knowledge would result in concern for nature which would result in greater interest in conservation" (Lorsbach and Jinks).
Natural History is "the study of natural objects especially in the field from an amateur or popular point of view" (Merriam-Webster). Natural History includes ecology. Its focus is the study of objects in their natural setting. As you can see, both Nature Study and Natural History are almost the same. In fact, in Charlotte Mason circles they are often used interchangeably.
Importantly, a category of living books of and by scientists and naturalists, especially those who have made a significant study of some aspect of the natural world, from which students read, study and learn should be added to Natural History. Their work can inspire students as well as provide them with the proper language of that which is studied.
Why is it Important?
G. Dowton from the Parents' Review "The Charm of Nature Study" gives us several reasons.
1. A reverence for the natural world and for life.
"The secret of having reverence in all branches of Nature Study lies in reverence for Life in any shape or form."
2. The study of nature calls on and builds a child's skills in attention, discrimination and classification.
"Let us consider for a moment what unequalled training the child naturalist is getting for any study or calling-the powers of attention and concentration, of discrimination and patient pursuit, and growing parallel with his growth, what will they not fit him for?"
"The power to classify, discriminate, and distinguish between things that differ is amongst the highest faculties of human intellect, and no opportunity to cultivate it should be allowed to pass."
3. A sense of what is beautiful and true.
"The sense of Beauty comes from early contact with Nature."
How is its Study Connected to Science?
Nature Study is a natural arena from which to begin the study of the scientific method. It was from this platform of poetic knowledge that Miss Mason felt that the understanding of our world and its natural laws could best be built.
From Telford Petrie's "A Note on the Teaching of School Science":
It was our knowledge of this wealth of nature which Miss Mason felt was the due of all children. It supplied a framework of "natural law" into which detail could be fitted according to individual tastes and pursuits. This combination of detail with general principles, the former gained by personal observation as far as opportunity served, was Miss Mason's method of approaching science (bolded word emphasis is mine).
From J. Arthur Thomson's "The Study of Natural History as an Educational Discipline":
The second claim on behalf of the Natural History discipline is that it tends to educate many faculties at once,
(1) of careful observation, for there can be no progress nor satisfaction apart from some power of psychography, ie, of registering impressions so that recognition is easy;
(2) of aesthetic emotion, for all wild plants and animals are artistic harmonies;
(3) of inquisitiveness as to causes, for every living thing has idiosyncrasies which raise problems;
(4) of reasoning, for it is easy to anyone with an instinct for teaching to lead on the pupils to solve problems; and
(5) of relating science to life, for if Natural History once grips, inferences from animal life to human life are inevitable.
In "General Principles for Science and Nature Study", four major acts which make up the overall base of this curriculum's study for science and natural history are described. Each of these actions: observation, documentation, verification and experimentation, are also the core principles for any study of science and it is the first two of these which begins a young student's introduction to science. Interestingly, these two actions are also significant acts in the study of nature. These first two components are the foundational blocks upon which the latter two: verification and experimentation, layer upon.
Natural History not only introduces a student to the first two of four major principles of science study, but also brings forth the interest, excitement, attention and wonder of children as they exam the natural world. Rarely do children have trouble finding something in nature which will fascinate. Allowing children to bring forth their own discoveries and unraveling nature's secrets relatively independently will garner and maintain their attention as well, all of which underscores a main theme for Charlotte Mason: letting children own their education.
As the children grow only a little older, verification is soon added as they begin to make comparisons between their known knowledge and their new discoveries. Lastly, experimentation will be added. Natural history has not only been the backbone of their growth in science principles, but also remains, going forward, a continued source for reference; a template on which science can be built.