The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
P.N.E.U. Natural History Clubs

by F. Blogg
(this is undoubtedly the Frances Blogg who married G. K. Chesterton in 1901)
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 378-381

". . . what we desire, who have the question of the right guiding and training of the young eager mind so much at heart, is, above all things, to make this power of wonder, this spirit of enquiry, a durable and life-long possession, so that whatever else may fail the children in the course of years, the love and healing of Nature may be a priceless treasure to them for ever."

Of St. Francis of Assisi it is written that, in spite of the strict vow of holy poverty which he had taken, "he told the brother that did the garden not to dig the whole of the ground for eatable herbs only, but to leave some part of it for green herbs that in their due time produce Brothers flowers for the love of Him that is called the Flower of the Field and the Lily of the Valley. Yea, he said that Brother Gardener ought always to make a fair little garden in some part of the garden-land, setting and planting therein of all sweet-smelling herbs of all herbs that do bring forth fair flowers, so that in their time they might invite them that did look upon the herbs and flowers to praise the Lord, whence we that were with him did greatly rejoice both inwardly and outwardly as it were in all things created."

We can well imagine that the brethren did indeed rejoice inwardly and outwardly at the luxury accorded to them by St. Francis' decree. In their strict and limited existences, the pleasure of cultivating and enjoying the sight of green herbs and fair flowers can hardly be estimated. The knowledge that these beautiful things might be looked upon and brought to perfection without sin, that it was no harm to rejoice in glorious colour and exquisite form, and that Brothers' flowers should be allowed to exist for the purpose of being and giving "beauty" alone, with no thought of utility or of necessity, must have had the desired effect, and led the brothers that looked upon them, by easy steps "to praise the Lord, the Flower of the Field and Lily of the Valley."

The spirit of St. Francis of old religion to the world of Nature, despite the centuries that separate us from his ideas and work, is the same spirit which we would gladly give to the children of to-day--the spirit of love and reverence for all created things, animate and inanimate, that spirit which could speak of the fire as brother and the little birds as sisters.

The P.N.E.U. as a body representing certain principles in regard to education lays great stress upon the necessity of keeping alive in children this spirit that acknowledges its kinship with the natural world. The sky, the sun, rivers, trees, animals and flowers are to children a subject of ever-increasing wonder and speculation, and what we desire, who have the question of the right guiding and training of the young eager mind so much at heart, is, above all things, to make this power of wonder, this spirit of enquiry, a durable and life-long possession, so that whatever else may fail the children in the course of years, the love and healing of Nature may be a priceless treasure to them for ever. Our enthusiasms are surely things we should endeavour to preserve, and the enthusiasm for Nature must be recognised by all as one of the great factors at work in the cause of education, one of those quickening impulses which help to make the task of training and teaching an ever living and growing privilege. With such enthusiasms there is no dead letter of utility or expediency in questions of education.

In order to carry out our principles, however inadequately, certain branches of the P.N.E.U. have formed Natural History Clubs so that some sort of systematic and continuous work might be accomplished, and the interest of the children stimulated and encouraged by the means of many working together towards some definite end. I have therefore collected a few facts about clubs started by branches of the Union and the work done in the past year, hoping that other branches may be induced to start similar clubs, and to give to the children that initial impulse which shall lead them later on to really love and study Nature for themselves.

I have received programmes or short reports from the following branches: Reading, Leeds, Ipswich, Bournemouth, Darlington, Wakefield, Dulwich, Richmond, Woodford and Brondesbury, and there are seven or eight other branches in which clubs have been established, but of which I have had no report. The clubs differ very much in regard to numbers, but the methods of working are more or less on the same lines. All seem to be in a state of activity that promises well for future work, and should be a source of encouragement to those whose task of forming a club is only just beginning.

The club at Reading is the largest, and is particularly indebted for its success to its enthusiastic secretary, Miss Hart Davis. A lecture to children is given about once a month, and there are many country walks and excursions which wisely have always some definite object in view. The Annual Exhibition, held on December 1st, 1900, was most encouraging, and the number and variety of exhibits quite surprising. It was not difficult to see how the children had enjoyed the work of collecting, drawing, painting or writing. This club also publishes a magazine entitled The Children's Quarterly, which would prove of great assistance in the systematic and organized working of any Natural History Club and which might with advantage be adopted as a general and connecting link for other clubs worked by other branches of the P.N.E.U.

The Leeds club has also done excellent and interesting work. A lecture to the children takes place each month. Miss Simpson, the able organizer of the club, writes, "My great aim is to do some really satisfactory work. On our walks we have some definite object of study, though, of course, minor matters may crop up incidentally. I am always trying to cultivate continuity of observation, watching the seedlings of spring develop into the plants of summer, the plants of summer ripen into the fruits of autumn, etc. The lecture and walk seem to me both absolutely necessary; the lecture to indicate what is meant by accurate observation, and the walk to discover what there is to observe." The lecture and walks are, therefore, dependent one on the other, and deal with simple aspects of Nature, such as "Signs of Spring," "Trees in June," "Pine Needles," "Preparation for Winter," etc. A portfolio is also circulated, containing drawings or papers written by its members.

In Ipswich, a club has been started comparatively recently, and is well maintained. Mr. Woolnough, Curator of the Ipswich Museum, is the great inspirer and helper. Lectures for 1901 have been announced of a most interesting description, and the keeping of Nature Note-books is here made a special feature.

In Darlington and Wakefield, small clubs have been established, and are carried on upon much the same lines as those already mentioned.

In Bournemouth, directions for work are given to club members in the early spring, and in the autumn a general meeting and exhibition are held. This exhibition consists of collections of flowers, leaves, grasses, fossils, etc.; Nature Note-books; fruits, etc., modelled in clay.

In London, in the nature of things, it is more difficult to carry on a club successfully, but, in spite of difficulties, a good deal has been accomplished. Regular meetings are held at Woodford, Dulwich, Richmond and Brondesbury, where the same plan of a country ramble with an occasional lecture has been followed.

In all cases grateful thanks are due to those real experts and naturalists who have been generous enough to find time and opportunity to help the young beginners, and who, by their knowledge of and enthusiasm for the subject, have inspired both young and old to further efforts, especially by their assistance at the initial stages in the formation of the clubs.

The Annual Exhibition of Nature work done in connection with the P.N.E.U., will be held in London in May, at the same time as the Conference, and I would therefore remind all interested in the subject that this is an opportunity for all to meet upon a common ground of interest, to see what has been done, what may be done in future, to receive a fresh source of inspiration, and suggestions for new methods and aims of work.

The fact that so much has been done already by various branches, very often in the face of difficulties and disappointments, ought to be a very real source of encouragement to those who feel how necessary and delightful a thing it is to be able to give the children a real impulse in the direction of the study of natural history. A club of this kind is a very ready means of maintaining systematic and accurate work, and is of the greatest interest to the children, who rejoice in the fact that there are many others besides themselves to whom the book of Nature is still a secret, and who, like themselves, are beginning to spell out the words. We hear a good deal nowadays about illusions and disillusions, but, at any rate, in the study of Nature there can be no fears of this sort. There is an enthusiasm which need never wear thin, for it holds within itself the truth that St. Francis saw of old, for it invites "them that do look upon the herbs and flowers to praise the Lord."

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, July, 2010