The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

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


The Importance of Nature Study in the Bringing-Up of Children.

by the Rev. Cecil Bosanquet.

Volume 15, 1904, pg. 771-780

[Cecil Bosanquet, 1838-1920, studied at Exeter College, Oxford. He married Theodosia Chapman, 1843-1880, in 1866 and they had six children. He is recorded as living at Clophill House in Bedfordshire.]

To the thoughtful person who has given any attention "to the question" of children and their training, it seems almost absurd to lay any emphasis on such importance. It seems like solemnly announcing that young things need food and clothes, for the study of nature is needed by every creature finding itself in this great domain of nature, our world.

Some studies are adapted only to certain positions in life, others, however desirable, are clearly out of the question in many cases. But nature study is the birthright of every creature in the realm of Nature. Even the very beasts do their nature study lessons. A nice pickle they would find themselves in if they didn't. And yet! The so-called educated person of this the twentieth century, unless a doctor or nurse, what does he or she know of the structure, conditions and working of the human body? that particular portion of nature with which each individual is more especially concerned. Indeed there are people, both amongst men and women, who look upon Anatomy and Physiology as rude, dirty, unrefined, and systematically keep their children ignorant of important facts, with in many cases the very infidel idea that the great God's methods in nature have something bestial and defiling in themselves. This wilful ignoring of the study of ourselves and our conditions results hourly in ill-health and suffering and wholly unnecessary death.

But before I go on to speak more fully of nature study I am compelled to go back to the root question of the difference between education and instruction. Strange that so many people should confound the two, even if not in theory, certainly in practice! The many certainly look upon children in the light of little bags to be stuffed as full as they will hold with certain materials, much as minced meat is forced into sausage coverings. Fatal idea! A child is a being with powers inherited from long lines of forbears, far longer lines than was supposed a few years since. (The child is a product of ages). These powers need to be developed to their utmost, and that development is the aim of true education. These powers are injured instead of helped, if trained out of their due order. The mother is the first person into whose hands this duty falls, and very much of the future success depends upon her alone.

Hence the vital importance of the women of a nation being themselves highly educated for their work, yet foolish people may often be heard seriously discussing the undesirability of highly-trained women. As if a mother could be over-prepared for her difficult work. It is painful to see how little many mothers are at all fitted for it. They are generally over emotional, prejudiced on all sides, irrational, and wholly unread on the subject of children.

Nature study is very especially adapted for development. The development of moral life, mental life, and physical life. I will begin with mental life, not because it is the most important, but because it is almost necessary to take it first. Nature study works from the concrete to the abstract and begins by training the observation, without which perceptions and judgment cannot follow. Observation is the very foundation of the drawing out process or education.

The child is led to observe every colour and shade of colour, every different shape and form, every structure, every function and action, thence to perceive and grasp, and finally to draw its own conclusions thereon. What more can you want as a method of mental training? What a difference between that working of faculty, and the perfunctory teaching of the routine governess. We probably all remember, and with no very grateful feeling, the dull geography lessons, with lists of towns and political divisions to be learned by rote. Mere instruction with a vengeance and very little even of that. The emasculated history of different periods, those being usually selected which could least cultivate interest, such as that of the Saxon Kings, or strings of Jewish and Israelites monarchs, making the Bible lessons a source of suffering, or the grammar lessons which could not be assimilated, inasmuch as the subject itself was out of the reach at the time of life when pitchforked into the young mind. The unlucky child, meanwhile, unobservant of almost all the different shades of colours, varieties of forms, of the pitch of sounds heard (let it be remembered that ordinary piano teaching does not develop the power of distinguishing pitch), less developed on nature's side than a young savage. Fortunate, if the eyesight and general health have not been deteriorated by close rooms, wrong positions and want of free movement. Well, if a determined dislike to all books and teaching generally has not been firmly implanted.

It is well for her progeny that the most prejudiced and ignorant mother cannot prevent her infant from doing something in the development way for himself. The healthy child begins (who can say how early), to observe for himself, in some cases too early for his feeble powers. The ignorant mother or nurse also early exerts her malign influence in the shaking of keys and tossing, and the numberless disturbing methods, ignoring the brain work which is going on. A child cannot be kept too quiet in the early days. It should be surrounded by beautiful colours and forms, kept in the fresh air, and the sounds which it hears cannot be too soft and harmonious. The room in which the young child is kept ought to be carefully decorated, for what it sees then tells for life. The centre of English bourgeois life is the drawing room, often little lived in, and often the most suitable room in the house for the children, the sunniest and best. That room ought to be the mother's and children's living room, with no blinds drawn to save the carpet, but kept as full of sun and air as it can be in our climate.

When the child begins to look about it, then comes the true mother's time. Following the child's lead, she gives him as toys, flowers, grass, leaves, and takes care that he shall have the opportunity of watching animal life in the shape of birds, rabbits, cats, dogs. The child finds himself in a brotherhood. The animals understand him, and he them. He is never tired of watching the plays and life around him, and is out as much as can possibly be managed, and while noticing life at every turn is saved much of the pain of coming teeth by the fresh air. Oh, the pathetic sight of children in towns, whether perambulating square gardens, such gardens! or squatting in the gutters, with no playground but the street, or the almost equally pathetic sight of the overdressed infant, unable to pursue its investigations into the qualities of earth and water, bushes and pebbles, because of the maternal crochet, or the carefully starched garments, which nature study in its elementary forms (and they are very real and practical forms), would render unpresentable in the eyes of other mothers who worship the goddess Mrs. Grundy*, and offer the sacrifices of the freedom of the limbs of their offspring on the altar erected in the drawing room. Happy child who is not nicely dressed and who is not presentable! whose fat little puds [hands] hug dirt or stones, and whose mother's garments are not well cut, but her headpiece well furnished. The country child in the hands of a mother, herself a student of nature, who guides the little steps to find the pretty caterpillars and the shining beetles scuttling away on their errands, or the happy frogs and their tailed children, or even the solemn sitting toad with his fine eyes.

* [Wikipedia: "Mrs Grundy is a figurative name for an extremely conventional or priggish person, a personification of the tyranny of conventional propriety. . . Mrs Grundy originated as an unseen character in Thomas Morton's 1798 five-act comedy Speed the Plough."]

What a book that is, The Story without an End, telling in a sweet simple way of the poetry in a country child's mind. But not only out of doors is the mother occupied with her nature lessons. In these days of cheap and good pictures, what collections of natural objects can be shown and what endless stories related, the plumage of every bird shown, so that when the child goes out, he notices not only the song of every bird, but knows the gay livery which it wears. The child will realize the beautiful tinting and shading of our common sparrow as few grown ups do. Then comes music heard out of doors from the birds, and indoors from the mother's voice and fingers. A home without music is almost like the face of a blind man. The Fröbel system with the charming melodies, marked time and sweet simple cadences works wonders in training the ear. After all only an outgrowth of the happy twittering of birds. All children ought to be made to use their voices. If mothers would only look upon their music as a sacred gift for their children! A lady once told me seriously that she supposed that girls were taught music chiefly as a kind of parlour trick, part of the service of Mrs. Grundy in the drawing room, with a view to tea parties!

As the child grows in intelligence, there is the aquarium with its humming bird-like sticklebacks and their nests, the cleve newts folding up their eggs in leaves, and occasionally eating their sister's productions, the great fierce water beetles, or, in sea water, crabs and star fishes or ghost-like shrimps, or great anemones with their feelers and lovely colours. It seems astonishing how little earth lore (geology) is taught to ordinary people, and yet how important in practical life. Are we not often needing technical instructions as to soils, &c., then physical geography with all its bearings in the life of our race, and the interest which it gives to history and life generally. What subject can give as science does such a training in the search of cause and effect--in other words, train the reasoning faculty, and help on the creative. A walk in a sea-side place like this is made of living interest. Look at the cliffs, made up of layers of soil, clay and sand and the tale they tell of sea and rain action. And under foot on the shore, any passer-by may pick up the iridescent sea mice [marine worms], curious zoophytes, scented flustra [plant-like colonies of bryozoans], razor shells with their fleshly inhabitants [long species of clam]. The beach to eyes that see is a book of the deepest interest, to the right, to the left, or every side.

I question whether most people even watch the different clouds, the cumuli, and the cirri, and the strati, and yet any encyclopedia gives interesting accounts of them. Having observed them you perceive that one, the cirrus, is like little curled feathers in the sky, another like great heaps of fat cloud piled up, and the other lying in long thin lines. Having observed and perceived, the child is led to think about them, the feathery cirrus tells of wind, then he sees that they are all jumbled up together, and bear the name of "cumulo cirri stratus," of in one word "nimbus," the heavy dark cloud which tells of rain; then he is led further to reflect in the causes of the different clouds, the temperature of the air and its humidity, the climate and the seasons, the neighbourhood of sea and mountain; then further on how clouds come to be formed. Vapour rising from the moist surface of the earth, or from water warmed by the heat of the sun's rays, held suspended in the atmosphere, remaining invisible till the air at some distance from the earth is completely saturated with it, and finally condensed into visible form.

Look again at the value of chemistry to the housewife, helping in that most important and much neglected department, the feeding of the household, making humble operations matters of scientific interest.

Then comes, as the child matures, the time for teaching the reproduction of the flowers, the story of the pollen falling off the anthers of the stamens, and reaching the stigma of the pistils, finishing its journey down the style of the ovaries. The great sweet story of the growth of life, which should be taught by every mother's lips to her boys and her girls in distinct explanatory words, with proper illustrations, so that foul ways of learning God's great methods of the increase of our human race may be avoided, and moral purity be inculcated by the lips of a pure tender mother. Natural curiosity satisfied by her. Reasonable questions not blinked or turned aside by silly stories of cabbage beds and storks. We Protestants, I think, often fail to give help in moral difficulties, which is given as a matter of course in some Catholic Communities.

Even a little of the nomenclature of science may be taught early by a tactful mother, and such necessary botanical terms taught, as cordate, lanceolate, pinnate, etc., while differentiating the different forms of leaves and the causes of their forms. More effort being made to teach the life of plants and their whole story than to force upon the child dry systems or difficult names. Some people contrive to know many names and little science.

Foreign languages can be taught conversationally with natural objects, and if those languages are to be learned, early childhood is THE time to teach them. An intelligent and willing foreigner, if seconded by the mother, can in that manner save infinite labour to children. A language can so be acquired, as far as speaking and understanding are concerned, almost unconsciously, and certainly without tears and scoldings.

But nature study should be made a great MORAL force. God is seen in nature by the child as the great Father. The mother who has studied the theory of evolution and made use, say, of Kingsley's clever Water Babies (you must all remember Mrs. Bedone as by you did) ought to be able to give clear lessons of the evil of sin, which is in its essence only Retrogression, a return to less reasoning beast life, to the moral plane of Might being Right. What is murder, or theft, but the going back to the morals of the less rational beast? The atrophy of unused organs teaching the danger of idleness, the necessity of adaptation to environment, the fact of God's helping those who help themselves. The lesson is taught that the wages of sin are death, without any picturing of an angry God, and a hell with its aimless punishments, neither aiming at the correction of the individual nor the protection of society. It is curious that any should be able to imagine the great Father as giving punishment which could not by reason of its being unending, result in the amelioration of the punished, or punishing with the view of paying out the sinner for his evil deeds. We humans can hardly help wishing that those who have injured us or our society should be made to expiate their wrong doing, though such a position is anti-Christian. But even we never have that feeling with regard to our children. We punish to prevent worse suffering, and no idea of paying out could ever occur to us. How much less to the great Father who put into our hearts that faint reflection of His love which we possess.

The terrible fact that every act has its result. The real, the awful results of sin are shown more strongly in nature study than can be shown in any other way. The lesson is brought home in a way in which no wholly abstract teaching can bring it. The lesson of Herod and his degrading death is taught again in the history of the microbe. It always seems to me that much of the Old Testament teaching, the gradually developing morality, is not fit for children, however interesting and forcible to the grown-up. Our Lord's teaching of the great Fatherhood is singularly helpful, combined with the sweet voice of nature. The great brotherhood which evolution so gloriously proclaims. The nature religion, fit companion to that of the Teacher, who taught in open boats, in wildernesses, on the tops of mountains, whose one grand dogma is the Fatherhood of Him who set the sun and stars in their courses, and whose moral teaching rested on lovely parables of nature, the sowing of the fields and their reaping, and the growth of little seeds.

And, lastly, as to the development of healthy physical life. It does not do to forget our animal lives, we must look to the pit from whence we are digged. We are animals. The open air men and women are not only more mentally and morally healthy than the exclusively booky and towny person, but they have bodies which make better supports for the higher faculties. They are more able for this world's work. Nature study makes healthy country life happy and possible. We all remember the lovely story of Eyes and No Eyes. The walks and climbs are no dull constitutional with the expectation of a rare flower as an incentive.

Then the elementary study of childhood and youth leads to some knowledge of the organs of our bodies and their workings. The boy and girl early trained to ask the why and wherefore in nature's great kingdom is not likely to grow up contentedly ignorant of the whereabouts of lungs and liver, and the intelligent care which those organs need. The bicyclist likes to go, at all events superficially, into the working of his machine, so will I think the young naturalist trained at his mother's knee, care to examine into the working of that marvellous and important machine, his own body. The girl too may possibly be led to turn her back (at all events half way) on the idiotic dictates of fashion [such as the corset] and leave her waist as the great God meant it to be, and not impede her circulation and digestion, bringing on serious maladies with which to weaken the coming race, to become herself a red-nosed and unhealthy uninviting-looking personality. And finally, though I ought to have said this under the head of the moral benefit of nature study, that it tends to eradicate that painful and especially English love of killing.

The child early trained in the brotherhood of creation, who realizes that no sparrow falls to the ground without God's attention, will not so readily give himself up to the degrading occupation of shooting tame pigeons loosed out of a trap, nor to knocking down pheasants by the hundred in a battue, poor tame things, differing in no way from barndoor fowls. He will get his physical health without unnecessary torturing of God's creatures. Such men may take up sport, but not in its petty and cruel forms, and if they hunt big game in foreign lands, will not be likely to leave beasts dying slowly in lonely places, nor to kill more than they need for their sustenance.

And may we hope that women trained as children to watch and love the birds will not bedizen themselves with osprey plumes torn from the heads of living birds.

The following extract from a newspaper, dated April 2nd, 1904, shows how great is the need of moral instructions on this point among our women:--

"The extent to which the slaughter for millinery [hat-making] purposes of beautiful birds is carried is instanced by the report just issued by the Bird Protection Society. At the first sale of the present year, 1904, in the Commercial Sale Rooms--the central market of the plume trade in London--no fewer than 2,687 birds of paradise were sold. As these birds are restricted to a comparatively small area of the globe, it is almost safe to prophesy their early extinction if fashion continues to call for them. During the year probably 10,000 will come under the hammer. Impeyan pheasants suffered to the number of 1,828. Four hundred tiny Indian owls were sold for a farthing each. A large number of the Indian owl, Ketupa, a by no means common bird, realised threepence each. Humming birds have been mercilessly butchered to swell the list, 11,440 passing into the hands of the milliner. Despite the outcry against the wearing of osprey plumes, there has been a brisk demand for them, as much as £9 12s. 6d. per ounce being paid. In America, feather millinery is not nearly so extensively used as in this country. The influence of bird protection societies and the stringency of laws passed to prohibit the destruction of birds have been so effective that the milliners of New York have pledged themselves not to trade in gulls, terns, egrets, grebes, Berns, or humming birds. The example is worthy of emulation by those who study the fashions in England."

Even more hideous has been the cruelty in the matter of furs. Mother seals having been murdered leaving their little ones crying and starving to death. Frank Bullen [novelist of sea stories] saw with his own eyes seals skinned alive, standing up crying in their agony, red quivering bodies outlined against the sky. Cruel as many men are, women are even more guilty. They have acted as the receivers of the goods so wrongly obtained. Nature study would have done a great deed if it had done nothing more than prevent the torture and slaughter of creatures for the decoration of females, who with crocodile tears weep over the pages of a novel, while clothed in the spoils of tortured birds and beasts. A cruel man is bad enough, but what can be said of a cruel woman?

May we as parents lead our children through nature to nature's God, and through nature study to the obedience of the great laws of our being, whereby they may develop as children of God, morally, mentally, and physically, and may those children not confine their moral sentiments to the human race only, but carry them a step further to the whole of the great creation of sentient beings.

All hail the study of God's great book of nature.

       "He prayeth best who loveth best
       All things both great and small;
       For the dear God who loveth us,
       He made and loveth all."

Typed by Nicole Robinson, Oct. 2023; Proofread by LNL, Oct. 2023