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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 Teaching

by Miss E. M. Wilkinson
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 515-520


Miss E. M. Wilkinson then read a paper on Nature Teaching.

It is very difficult to say in a few words why the study of nature forms so essential a part of the early education of children, but I will try to give a few of what seem to be the chief reasons for making them early familiar with their surroundings in the visible world.

In the first place, every natural object is the interpretation in visible form of some underlying idea (or ideas), and it is the power of perceiving this, and discovering for themselves the raison d'etre of these natural objects which surround us, that we wish to give to our children, in furnishing them with the key to that glorious book which opens up such vast fields for thought and investigation, and which we call "Nature."

Secondly, by a loving and careful study of nature, the child learns at first hand many of the great facts of science. He knows them, not in so many learned phrases (these may come later), but in deed and in truth. This it is wherein lies their great educational value, and their vivifying and stimulating influence upon his intellectual life.

Let the teacher see to it that the underlying idea is received, and that natural curiosity (which is an evil only when directed on unworthy objects) and that love of investigation, common to unspoiled human nature, and found, therefore, most strongly in children, will find food to nourish the idea which has once "taken root." Thus begins a course of study, be it in Botany, Geology, Astronomy, or any other natural science which, with a wise supervision and direction by the teacher, is really beneficial to the child, inasmuch as his intellect is growing in power and understanding by his own self-willed (I use the word advisedly) effort, and is continually nourished in the "fresh fields and pastures new" opened up by the study of nature. Life then becomes full of absorbing interests and joys, and to a mind thus open to her teaching and influence,

Nature, a mother kind alike to all,
Still grants her bliss at labour's earnest call.
(Oliver Goldsmith)

--labour which is healthful and life-giving in both its spiritual and physical aspects; labour which brings with it joy and peace; labour which is laying up for the future stores of spiritual healing and balm, and, for the weary, rest.

It is not my purpose here to speak of the spiritual, moral and aesthetic training which the study of nature gives, but surely our poets have much to teach us on these points.

One of out greatest writers, who has recently left us, speaking of the education of women, says (after having mentioned literature and art):--"There is one more help which we cannot do without--one which alone has sometimes done more than all other influences besides--the help of wild and fair nature." (Ruskin)

Now as to the imparting of these ideas which give life, meaning and unity to our nature teaching, the following facts must be borne in mind. These underlying ideas interpret objects in the various groups to which they belong, shew them as members of a series, and as essential parts in the great plan of the web of life; manifest the inter-relations and inter-action of all the members--animal, vegetable and mineral--of this vast orb which we call the earth.

It is the intimate knowledge of the objects which constitute these different groups, and the reasons for their difference, that we wish children to possess; later on they will learn the bearing of the facts with which they are already familiar. Suppose that walking along the sea-shore you find a limpet clinging to a rock. You make the child observe his soft body and protective shell outside; further on, you find one of the vertebrae of a fish, and the child observes and compares, and so finds out that he has a backbone in common with a fish, and the next time he finds a snail or a cuttle-fish he classifies it with the limpet. Thus he has learnt the chief difference between the two great divisions of the animal world, though he need know nothing of the terms Vertebrata and Mollusca.

Again, he sees a pool dried up in the hot sunshine, and the cloud gathering round the mountain's brow. You explain the reason for these things, and he understands the meaning of clouds and dew, and has come into contact intellectually with the two great forces of condensation and evaporation. Pick up a lump of coal, and tell of the imprisoned sun-beams of thousands of years ago--and the child is acquainted with the doctrine of the Conservation of Energy.

Or again, take the leaf of a strawberry, and look at its many-branching veins--and the child will find and note the parallel veins of an iris or a lily leaf, thus recognizing one of the chief distinctions between the two great classes of Phanerogams.

On one occasion, having brought under the notice of a little child of four years old the fruit of the snap-dragon, a few days after he brought me the pistil of a fox-glove, and said:--"See! This is like the snap-dragon!" thus finding out for himself a distinguishing characteristic of the Natural Order Scrophulariaceae. This was a real piece of knowledge gained by the discrimination and judgment of a four-year-old brain. In order to illustrate more closely what I mean, I will try to give a brief sketch of nature walks in early May.

We start out along a country road, and find the banks and hedgerows full of primroses. We notice the two forms--one with the pistil above, the other with the stamens uppermost. The child would know the meaning of this. Here we have an illustration of the great law of cross-fertilization among certain species, and one of the means by which it is secured. Soon after, we come across the lesser hairy wood-rush, which may be found on almost any bank at this time of year, and here we have another illustration of the same law in the protogynous flowers of this plant. In connection with these, we must mention the agency of insects, and here we see one of those most beautiful inter-relations of plant and animal, shewing the inter-dependence of each upon the other, for here, as in the world of men, the same law holds, "No man liveth to himself."

Next we notice the bees flitting from flower to flower, and on close inspection find them laden with yellow pollen--"bee bread"--which they carry away and dust upon the stigma of another flower. This is their compensation for the sweet nectar of which they have robbed the flower, which nectar, in its turn is to supply the honey which from time immemorial has been the royal food of queens and all great people.

"The Queen was in the parlour, eating bread and honey."

Under a group of sycamores we find the ground strewn with the seedling plants, and we notice the two cotyledons, the nursing leaves, fleshy and green, and these we compare with a seedling oak. Where are its nursing leaves? And why are they white? Then we speak of the food stored up by the plant--of the Co2 taken in from the air and decomposed under the influence of sun-light by the green parts of plants--of the carbon united in those wonderful laboratories with oxygen and hydrogen, thus forming what we call "starchy foods." Here, in the great process of assimilation, we have a link between the animal, vegetable, and mineral world. The minerals taken in by he delicate root hairs, the leaves decomposing and elaborating new food, and man fed and sustained by the plant, or by the animals which that plant nourished.

Now we come upon a spring, welling up clear and sparkling, and the child must needs know what force it is that sends the water up. This tells of pressure, and an impervious stratum somewhere underneath. Now he will notice the rocks around him, and see of what they are composed. Here, perhaps, is sandstone, telling of deposition by water, and giving us a good example of one of the great divisions of rocks--the Sedimentary. What a train of thought such an idea opens up at once, carrying us back till we live in remote ages of the past, and making us perceive that continuity and relation of cause and effect which we call history.

We note how these sandstone rocks are worn and rounded, giving a smooth, curving outline, and to quote Home Education (by Charlotte Mason), this brings us "face to face with disintegration, the force to which, more than to any other, we owe the aspects of the world which we call picturesque--glen, ravine, valley, hill."

Looking about in the hedges and bushes we find a blackbird's nest with young ones. The child observes that they are more like thrushes than blackbirds--and here is an argument for evolution.

If we are fortunate enough to find a pond in the course of our ramble, we may see its surface starred with the white flowers of the water buttercup. Pulling out a plant, we find the submerged leaves divided into long threads--one of the many beautiful instances of adaptation exhibited by plants, the study of which, alone, would give thought and work for many happy hours.

A harsh jarring note suddenly breaks upon our ear, and we recognize the corn-crake, but we shall have much ado to find him, for nature has gifted him with ventriloquism--one of those protective weapons, may we say, with which she provides her weaker children in the struggle for existence that the battle may not be always to the strong.

Here is a wood-louse (roly poly, pillbug), that rolls itself up into a ball directly it is conscious of a hostile presence. We notice its horny ringed armour, and the child, having observed a lobster, is able to classify it with its marine relation. If we are very fortunate we may find a trilobite, and here are many questions arising concerning this remote ancestor of the crustaceans.

We may note also, as we pass a brick-field or a lime-kiln, how the industries of a district depend almost entirely upon its physical conditions--a thought which supplies us with many interesting problems.

Time will not allow me to speak more fully, but in this kind of way a child should be made familiar with all natural phenomena, with plants and herbs, with beasts and birds, with stones and minerals, and with the hidden powers and virtues of each. It is said of one, "He was wiser than all men . . . for he spake of all things, from the cedar of Lebanon even to the hyssop that groweth on the wall."

Surely if children knew these things we should not hear such alarming statements made by intelligent children of 12 and 13 years old as, "The sun goes round the earth" (I heard of this only a few days ago by a school boy), or, "The spider is an insect," or "A caterpillar is just a lump of squash!"

With deeper knowledge of nature comes greater reverence, and we would have out children worship in--

That cathedral, boundless as our wonder,
Whose quenchless lamps the sun and moon supply;
Its choir the wind and waves--its organ thunder,
Its dome the sky.
(Horace Smith)



Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, July, 2010