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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Nature Study

by Mrs. Brightwen
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 578-584


"Children should be taught to admire and learn about everything in nature, but there should be such a reverent feeling mingled with the admiration, that no thought of destroying a beautiful insect or tearing up a rare plant could be anything but painful to a right-minded young student."


A paper by Mrs. Brightwen read by Lady Campbell [with listener comments following]

Nature Study is so wide a subject, and is capable of being treated in so many ways, that I shall confine myself to making some definite and practical suggestions. I shall merely endeavour to indicate some of the simplest ways of making such study interesting to young people. It is probably that all the members of the Parents' Educational Union will agree that Nature Study should be begun in earliest childhood, and carried on with ever increasing earnestness as time or opportunity may permit. I have found that when this is done in wise and pleasant ways, even quite little children enter into it with keen enjoyment. All living creatures seem to possess an inherent attraction for the youthful mind.

Looking back through a long experience I see that the love of nature has been, to numbers of young people I have known, a never failing source of pleasure, providing delightful occupation for leisure time, exercising mind and body, and tending materially to educate the senses and bring out the power of intelligent observation.

I feel somewhat diffident as to suggesting methods of study because it is probable that I am addressing those who are far better able than I am to direct young people how to learn nature's secrets.

For this reason I am gong to ask your attention to an extract from the life of the late Mrs. Sewell, authoress of "Our Father's Care," and mother of the writer of "Black Beauty." My friendship with her taught me much that has proved a life-long value, and I would strongly recommend her biography as an extremely helpful book, full of suggestions to parents and all who have the training of young minds. ["Life of Mrs. Sewall." One volume, published by Nisbet & Co.] Speaking of the cultivation of the mind in earliest years Mrs. Sewell says:-- "I should be glad to see the art of drawing from nature more systematically and thoroughly carried out in the education of young girls. I have often thought if half the time were given to that which is now all but exclusively devoted to music, it would prove, if not a more valuable acquisition, at any rate to the full as valuable to those who are likely to have the care of children, which all may expect in some way. A lady who has a free use of her pencil, and is able to make a ready sketch of any living thing she sees, is sure to attract a group of delighted children round her.

"Scarcely anything pleases children so much as to see graphic sketches of men and animals growing under the pencil of a lively artist. A mother who has this facility would have her slate and pencil and sponge attached to it as constantly on the table as her work-basket.

"I will just give a practical sketch of its use. A little boy, we will say about four years old, runs from the garden to his mother, 'Oh, mother! Do come and look at this beautiful thing on the rose-tree. I want to know what it is.' 'I am busy now, Charles. Tell me what it is like. What colour is it?' 'Oh! I think it is red.' 'Oh! I suppose it is a ladybird.' 'Oh, no! it is a great deal bigger than a ladybird.' 'Well, perhaps it is a tiger-moth, that has two red wings.' Look--like this?' and the mother slightly sketches the tiger-moth on the slate. 'Oh, no! it is not at all like that.' 'Is it this colour?' (holding up a piece of ribbon). 'No, it is not so red as that.' 'Perhaps it is the colour of this mahogany chair?' 'No, not just like that.' 'Perhaps like this nut.' 'Yes, it is very much like that.' 'Well, this is light brown, not red. But what shape is this beautiful creature?' 'Oh! I think it is round.' The mother draws a round figure on the slate. 'Is it like this?' "No, not so round.' The mother draws a thing in the form of a long caterpillar. 'No, it is not so long. The mother then draws an oval. 'Yes, it is very much like that.' 'And has it no feet?' 'I think it has some feet.' 'How many?' 'I suppose two feet like the birds.' 'Are they like these?' 'Oh, no! I am sure they are not like those.' 'You have better go and look at it again and come and tell me.' 'Mother, it has six legs.' The mother then draws two on one side and four on the other. 'Is that right?' 'No, it has three on each side.' The mother corrects it. 'Is that right?' 'Yes, that is really right.' 'And what sort of head has this wonderful creature?' 'Oh mother! its head is like the branches of a tree.' The mother immediately attaches a small branch of a tree to the body with several twigs, not forgetting a few leaves. 'Is it like this?' 'Oh, no! it has no leaves.' She rubs out the leaves. 'Like this, then?' The child looks at it intently. 'It has not so many little twigs.' 'Perhaps you had better go again and see how many twigs there are upon the branch.' 'It has two branches and one little twig on each.' The mother then carefully sketches the stag beetle and a rapturous burst of applause follows; and the mother turns to her natural history, shows the delineation, and ends its history.

"You will see by this example how much of accurate observation this lesson will have taught the child. Children never weary of this sort of instruction, and it is impossible to calculate how much the child will gain; very soon he will endeavour to guide his mother's fingers to the correct form, and next he will endeavour to form the figure himself.

"The value of the habit of accurate observation is not to be told, nor the unceasing occupation and interest it has given to children. In this way, a child obtains the power of using his own mind, and he learns the value of correct language and description. There would be no end of lessons of this kind, including all natural and artificial objects, each one bringing fresh knowledge, and, if the teacher be skilful and cheerful, both moral and spiritual instruction. Had the mother simply complied with the child's request, and gone into the garden and said, 'This is a stag-beetle,' the subject would have been closed and the child's interest quenched. Had a servant been with the child, she probably would leave the question thus--'Oh, that's a nasty beetle, don't touch it or it will kill you with those great nippers, come away from it:' then the child would not only have its interest quenched, but fear created, and the creature would become an object of disgust. Children led on in this manner will daily become less troublesome and more interesting; they will find their own amusements, and the more they learn, the more independent they will become of toys and nursemaids. Do not help too much. If they are utterly at a loss, suggest and hint and furnish a clue which, through their previous knowledge, you believe they will be able to follow; but let them come to an end of their capacity before you give direct information: this will teach them their own ignorance and increase their sense of your superiority and their confiding trust in your wisdom."

I am tempted to go on quoting from this delightful book, for it is full of wisely thought-out advice on a variety of subjects.

If it is possible to arrange a daily natural history lesson, it is, I think, well to limit the subject to one specimen at a time, so as to avoid confusing a child's mind. The insect, plant, or whatever the object may be, should be examined, questions asked about it and information given, then perhaps books may be referred to, and, still, there may remain difficulties unsolved which can be entered in a note-book. On visiting a museum or meeting some scientific friend the required information may finally be obtained.

As a case in point, I may mention that I had to wait for fifteen years before I could discover a specimen of the Cedar of Lebanon cone as it exists when first formed on the branch. The fruit is usually most abundant upon the upper branches where the cones are invisible until they are nearly full grown. Still, I watched and waited, and at last I found the small green cone, and this enabled me to complete a drawing of the fruitage of the tree.

Although I do not think it is well to encourage quite young children to make collections of insects, since it is apt to lead to much unintentional cruelty in killing and pinning out the specimens, yet I do strongly advise the study of such creatures as can be kept alive and happy for a few hours, or in some cases, for a day or two, so that their curious habits may be observed. In this way I kept a female earwig for three weeks, and saw her brooding over her nest of eggs and finally hatching out a vigorous family of about forty infant earwigs, which were snow-white when born and soon turned light-brown, and appeared to be well able to feed and take care of themselves. I found the insect early in May under a piece of clinker. I removed her with her eggs and a little earth, and placed the insect mother under a tumbler on a saucer, where she soon made herself at home. I could thus easily watch her from day to day. A drop or two of water, a slice of pear and a morsel of raw meat afforded her suitable food, and a few days after the eggs were hatched, I set the whole family free, having learned far more by this insight into earwig life than I could have gained by book study.

The Rose-beetle is another interesting creature which can be made happy for months in summer by supplying it with a fresh rose in its cage every few days, and a lump of moistened sugar. Stag-beetles, drone-flies, hornets and many other insects I have found well worth studying in this way; food, water and air must, of course, be carefully supplied for the short time that the captive is detained, also shelter from the direct rays of the sun, so that we may not in any way lay ourselves open to any suspicion of cruelty in our pursuit of knowledge.

I would conclude, with an earnest protest, against any thoughtless waste of either insect or plant life. It grieves me to learn how rare specimens are, every year, becoming more rare through the wanton destruction wrought by wholesale collecting. Of this I can give a local instance. Some years ago I sound sundew growing on Stanmore common, it was a pleasure to know that this charming little plant was flourishing so near London, and I need not say that I left it untouched. Unhappily the fact became known, and some men came from town and dug up every specimen, and, I believe, sold them in Covent Garden Market.

Children should be taught to admire and learn about everything in nature, but there should be such a reverent feeling mingled with the admiration, that no thought of destroying a beautiful insect or tearing up a rare plant could be anything but painful to a right-minded young student.

In every plant, and bird and insect there is a life-history to be learned more interesting than any story, and I would urge parents to make themselves acquainted with these life-histories by obtaining and studying some of the many admirable books on Natural History which abound in the present day. They will then be enabled to pass on the information in happy talks with their children till they become eager little naturalists, loving the book of nature and seeing in it, not only endless things to admire and wonder at, but evidences, on all sides, of the works of an all-wise and kind Creator, Who has so marvelously fitted each living thing to fill its appointed place in creation and fulfil the duties assigned to it as a part of a great harmonious whole.



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Lady Campbell said: It is hardly necessary to speak of the value of Nature Study both from a spiritual and a mental point of view. It is beautifully summed up in Mr. Ruskin's words, which are the motto of the Reading Natural History Club: "Seize hold of God's hand and look full in the face of His creation, and there is nothing He will not enable you to achieve." That is the value of it in a spiritual sense. In a mental sense, Mrs. Brightwen has indicated the lines on which it is good. No one who has a love of Nature can be dull, and boredom is the height of evil. Nature Study takes people into the open air. Carlyle says, if he had only been about something, with the ground under his feet and the sky over his head, how much better his dyspepsia would have been!

Let the children love Nature, not make it into a dry study. Then about loving without understanding. We never love without understanding. We all know that the inherent thing in Nature is to love what one knows a little about, just the same as people interested in Wagner's music form little classes amongst themselves, in which the various motifs are pointed out to them. They take the greatest interest in these things and recognize them afterwards, as they would not otherwise have done. Our Union supplies several practical helps to parents, among others the "Children's Quarterly" and the delightful pamphlet, "Nature Lore and Nature Note-books," which comes from the House of Education. There is another difficulty. Parents who live in the country speaking of Nature Study, say, "We do take them for walks in the country," but they are country mothers! What can the poor London mothers do? Well, these publications will help them a great deal; and then there is the idea of arranging instructive walks. I think we are all anxious to take up this line, and I should be so thankful if anybody willing to conduct these rambles would give in their names. I will ask Miss Simpson, from Leeds, to give us her experience of taking out parties of children.


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Miss Simpson (Leeds): We have a very interesting Natural History Club carried on in the same lines as those indicated this morning, and have lectures and talks in connection with our monthly walks. I should like to emphasize two things in connection with this paper. First, the necessity for accuracy of information. There is a great deal of zeal about this Natural History teaching, but sometimes there is a little more zeal than knowledge, and consequently a good deal of superficial teaching. Secondly, I think we need classes in connection with the Natural History Clubs and walks, in order to get this exactitude and accuracy. In comparing notes with others, I find that the children who only go the walks pick up a sort of smattering, but lack real scientific knowledge.

Another thing I should like to emphasize is the advantage of continuity of observation. In our own Natural History Club we have been laying special emphasis on trees. Perhaps the children know a sycamore tree or the sycamore fruit, and it is well that they should be able to connect the fruit with the tree. Now, as a rule, it is considered enough to say to a child, "This is a sycamore fruit." Next summer comes the sycamore tree, and we show them that. There seems no connection between the two. How much more interested they would be if, in the autumn, they had broken open the fruit, had found out what was inside, and were able to connect the two things. We had a class last autumn in which we did very little else than examine the sycamore seed. We carry on our walks during the winter as well as the summer, and in the spring it was a great delight to see the seedlings beginning to come up. A week or two ago we found them in all sorts of delightful stages, and in that way the children actually saw and understood the sycamore seedling coming out of the seeds, and I could not have deceived them about what the sycamore seedling was. Supposing we had taken the fruit and never examined it: I might have taken anything up and said "This is a sycamore seed," and they would have believed me. This is an example of what I mean by continuity. Of course the children like to be let off lightly; there is a certain amount of danger lest they should look on Natural History merely as a game, and we need a little real work in connection with it.


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Here followed Mrs. Barnett's paper, which had been promised to the "Nineteenth Century," and appears in the July number.


Proofread May 2011, LNL