The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Nature Study; And How to Encourage It in Children.

by E. E. Hart, B.Sc. (Lond.).
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 934-940

[Paper read before the Darlington Branch of the P.N.E.U.]

"There is no new thing under the sun," and certainly the idea of the educating value of nature study is no modern one. It is at least as old as Job! "Speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee," he said, and since his time this thought has been echoed over and over again in so many places and tongues. A very limited excursion into educational writings will show the germs of many of the methods we think so modern lying quite forgotten in some of the oldest of these. This is certainly the case with the nature study idea. Comenius, that "prince of schoolmasters," laid great stress on educating the child in a knowledge of the world around him, so that he could enter into his birthright of "dominion" over creation in a real and true sense. He also emphasised the necessity of direct observation in the sciences, and of the study of "things before words." Later Froebel taught that no education was real which did not bring the child into relation with his three-fold environment -- God, man, nature -- and that "therefore the human being, and especially in boyhood, should be made intimately acquainted with nature." Others have reiterated his words, and at last an impression has been made on the popular mind and nature study is now fashionable!

It seems at present in more danger from its friends than its foes, for there is a tendency in some directions to advertise nature study as a sort of quack intellectual cure-all -- a remedy for every educational trouble. So that those who realise wherein the true value of nature study lies, feel forced to imitate the honesty of a certain advertisement and emphatically declare that it "won't wash clothes." But the extravagancies of the fanatic are familiar phenomena in every new movement and we should not allow them to blind us to its real good. As to the nature study movement, there can be no doubt that it is a "real development in the direction of truer educational methods," and that the subject "develops the mind along lines left practically untouched by booklearning."

But in spite of all the conferences and exhibitions we are having lately, people are not always clear as to what is meant by nature study. It means first, as C. B. Scott points out, nature study, not the study of books about nature or the formal sciences, and though it will form a good introduction to these latter, it has a great value to the child if never followed up by special science teaching. Then, too, it implies the study of nature in any or all of its departments, the sky and its stars, the earth and its many inhabitants. This does not mean that we cannot begin to teach till we are ready to cope with all the problems they suggest. As to the choice of subject, the best advice is teach as well as "study what you most affect," and the area of your interest will soon begin to widen. In choosing a subject, too, special regard should be paid to the opportunities for practical study which the neighbourhood affords. Again, the study must be of nature under natural conditions, of living things, not the mere collection of pressed flowers and insect corpses. Ruskin's words to his art students we might well take to ourselves. "In the degree," he says, "in which you delight in the life of any creature you can see it and no otherwise"; and again, "we should know every beast with its skin on it and its soul within it." Our nature study must not be mere search for the principle of life in dead bodies! When we remove the plant or animal from the place in which it lives, and then draw conclusions from the object without reference to natural environment, our method is always unscientific and sometimes cruel. Under some circumstances a little amateur collecting may be useful, but it should be done with definite purpose and at an age when the child's destructive tendencies are under control; the mere amassing of specimens should always be discouraged, though we might well make more use of our public collections. In the case of plants, the making of pencil or brush drawings, however rough, would be far more useful than pressing specimens. Lastly, we are concerned with nature study, not play, -- it must make the child really think -- though the relations between teacher and taught are necessarily somewhat informal, as so much of the work must be done out of doors.

And what will this nature study do for the child? In the first place it provides valuable sense training, it opens those gateways of knowledge and quickens all the powers of the child, so that by making him alert, bright, and receptive it enables him to get the real good of the world about him and to become a "lord of creation" in a true sense. The reasoning powers may be exercised about the sense material so provided, and very good results on the moral character may be looked for. Nature study is peculiarly valuable in encouraging love of accuracy and truth, patience and self-reliance. Last but not least, nature study is pre-eminent amongst all school subjects in increasing the child's happiness. The readiness with which children welcome the subject is proof of this. It opens a new world of real and healthy pleasure of a kind which contrasts most favourably with the artificial and exciting delights of children's dances and pantomimes. Indeed the subject proves most attractive even if started after arriving at years of discretion, and will prove a death-blow to all sorts of ennui! Nature study taught on almost any plan will interest children and increase their sources of happiness, but satisfactory intellectual results by no means so invariably follow, and we may perhaps next consider how to encourage nature study in children so as to get the maximum intellectual benefit.

First, if the subject is to provide any real sense-training, the child must be brought into actual contact with nature; showing pictures or mere telling about a thing is not sufficient. We shall by driven therefore to choose our subjects from familiar and seasonable objects, and this will be a very good thing, for surely it is saner at Christmas to choose "holly" in preference to the "hippopotamus" for our lesson. Here too we see the value of observation walks, excursions, and gardening. In all of these children need supervision at first. They need to be shown how, when and where to look, and then this looking should be encouraged by keeping calendars which register the date of the first appearance of each kind of leaf, flower, or fruit. Or a definite problem may be proposed for them to solve, e.g., why primrose or daisy leaves are the shape they are. (In both cases the plant is in the shape of a rosette, and the leaves radiate from the centre, broadening towards their free ends. In this way the maximum area of leaf surface with the minimum overshading by other leaves is obtained). There are many similar problems of plant mathematics which, if suggested, will make observation much more interesting and definite. Or studies of plant communities may be made and the differences between the characteristic flora of a wood and a meadow investigated. This guidance and suggestion on the part of teacher does not mean the crushing of independence -- properly carried out, such teaching will make it really possible for the child to be independent, and problems will soon begin to suggest themselves to him.

In connection with sense-training the value of drawing, brush painting, and modelling from the actual object cannot be over-estimated. After a nature talk on ivy, the child should be allowed to draw the leaf, berries, &c. The work of expressing through the hand what the eye has seen will make the knowledge of form and colour of the particular object much more exact, and at the same time increase the general power of observation. It satisfies, too, the child's desire to be doing something and is far more interesting to him than drawing conventional copies.

Again, to provide exercise for the higher powers of mind, nature study must seize on the childish wonder and curiosity, and lead the pupil to reason about the things he sees, to take up the position of an enquirer, and to discover as much as he conveniently can for himself. Conveniently, I say, because we must not too slavishly adopt the heuristic methods and expect the child to discover everything. We must show him short cuts to some regions of the unknown. But the important thing is to see that he is able to proceed from one step to another with definite purpose, to go through a series of experiments or observations with the solution of a definite problem in view. In this way he will know something of the feelings of a discoverer and will be able to really appreciate the work of the past. In the Edgeworths' Practical Education [Maria and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, 1798], there is a most interesting account given of a boy of nine who determines to discover the cause of a rainbow on the floor of a room into which the sun is shining. He moves several things upon which the sunlight is falling without the rainbow being affected, until at last he tries a glass of water holding some violets and the rainbow disappears. He next removes the violets, as he thinks these may be responsible for the colours, and, finding this is not so, he empties the water away with the result that the rainbow is still seen, but is fainter than before. He concludes from this that the water and glass together make the rainbow, but remembering that there is no glass in the sky thinks that probably the water alone would give a rainbow too. To see if this is so he pours water from the glass to a basin where the sun can shine on the water, and is rewarded by seeing the rainbow glittering on the floor as the drops fall. Perhaps few children of nine would be able to make such a discovery as this, but this is the kind of work we have to help and encourage them to do. We should choose subjects and problems which require observations or experiments over a considerable time, as these are specially valuable in encouraging this scientific spirit of patient enquiry. As affording convenient material for continuous and interesting observation it would be hard to beat trees. They are to be found everywhere and everywhen and are particularly interesting in the winter, when their beautiful architecture can be easily observed. They have besides two great advantages which the amateur will appreciate; they are to be found always in the same place, and they are not subject to the early death so characteristic of the animal pet! Further, a tree encourages observation out of doors and under natural conditions as regards the object. Preparation for out-door spring studies can be made by taking tree twigs a month or two before the normal time of opening and keeping them in water in a warm room. The buds will open before those out of doors, so that the beautiful unfolding of the tiny leaves and flowers from the bud can be watched and sketched in their different stages at close quarters. After this, observation of the buds opening outside will be much more intelligent. Then during the summer the leaf-shapes, flowers, and fruit afford continual interest. Mrs. [S. L.] Dyson's Stories of the Trees, John's Our Forest Trees, and Edward Step's new book [search here] will be found particularly useful to grown-ups who are trying to interest children in this subject. Continuous observations can also be conveniently made on seeds planted in damp sawdust, sand, or soil. Young children should be started with quickly growing material, so as not to tax their patience too severely. In seeds, mustard and cress, peas, beans and lupins are all good, while in tree twigs, the horse chestnut makes a good beginning as all its parts are large and easy to recognise and it is one of the first to open. The keeping of diaries helps to foster continuous work, if desultory entries are discouraged.

As to the value of books in this subject there are widely different views. Some consider them indispensable; others think that they only hamper direct observation and discovery which we have seen is so valuable. The truth is probably between the two. When someone is present to guide the child's observations, a book which will anticipate what he may gradually discover for himself is only distracting. At the same time all books should not be tabooed, for there are many, particularly the lives of naturalists, which will spur the child on and give him a real enthusiasm for the subject. Then too we have to teach him how to use books of reference, e.g., a flora, to help his work. The main thing to guard against in both teacher and taught is the unintelligent acceptance of facts from books without verifying them by actual observation. To the grown-up who has received no nature study training, books are essential. Nature is the best teacher truly, but we require an introduction to her! And if no friend has introduced us, we must rely on books -- but we must be sure they are good books, and we must not confuse them with the real teacher.

While securing the intellectual benefits of the study, the teacher can also foster patience, love of truth and accuracy, and a habit of suspending judgment in doubtful cases. Self-reliance and resourcefulness can be encouraged by letting the child suggest ways of making and recording observations and experiments. The construction of simple apparatus may possibly be within his powers, and if so will give him real pleasure. Lastly, nature study is the great subject which will give the child reverence for life in all its varied forms, and we must see that the "dominion" over all the creatures which is his birthright does not degenerate into a "tyranny." We must not train him to regard nature as the mere appendage and slave of man, but with a loving and reverent sympathy. As his nature-knowledge grows, any tendency to childish cruelty -- generally the result of defective imagination -- will be naturally checked. It is sometimes said that the study of plant and animal life does the reverse of this, and increases the child's destructiveness. Certainly until quite recently botany and zoology lessons generally involved much unnecessary destruction, due no doubt to the mistaken idea that no biological teaching could be properly conducted without dissection. Direct observation is necessary, but this is not the same as dissection; and those who think the latter so essential have generally never tried to do without it. As a matter of fact large portions of botany and zoology can be covered thoroughly without dissection. For instance, in zoology the life history, habits, and intelligence of many animals may be studied, while with plants the choice is still less limited. Such botanical problems as those suggested above can be attacked. We may study the relation of leaf-shape and position to light, wind, or rain; habitats and time of flowering of different plants; the characteristics of different plant communities (e.g., those of pond, meadow, or wall-top). Again, the structure of many flowers can be made out quite sufficiently without any tearing or parts (e.g., snowdrop, daffodil, poppy, buttercup, &c.) Later, when good habits have been fixed and destructiveness is under control, detailed study involving dissection may be more reasonably introduced.

These good results on the moral character, however, are not secured without great care and patience on the teacher's part; but they are well worth the trouble they cost. Lord Avebury [John Lubbock, 1st Baron of Avebury] has beautifully expressed the value of the influence that a love of nature exerts over the character, and we may fitly conclude with his words. "The love of nature," he says, "is a great gift, and if it is frozen or crushed out, the character can hardly fail to suffer from the loss. I will not, indeed, say that a person who does not love nature is necessarily bad, or that one who does is necessarily good, but it is to most minds a great help. Many, as Miss Cobbe says, enter the Temple through the Gate called Beautiful."

Typed by tjade, June 2024; Proofread by LNL, June 2024