How to Use The Handbook of Nature Study

Nature study has always been a very important part of our home education. It has enabled my children to fill their days with wonder and I have observed its power to draw them closer to their Creator. All those (sometimes inconvenient) hours spent outdoors with a purpose have done magic. Now I see my older children taking long walks alone among the fields and trees and filling journal pages with observations and poetry, prayers and drawings from nature.

Our primary resource is The Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock. It has become a very popular choice among homeschoolers. However, this 800 page paperback, at first glance can seem overwhelming. Where does one begin?

I will begin by telling you what NOT to do. Don't make the mistake of trying to plow through the entire book with your children from start to finish. This is a handbook, not a curriculum. Instead of trying to fit your nature studies into the book, make the book fit your family's uniqueness. Keep in mind your location, the time of year, previous knowledge, interests and ages.

After taking some time to become acquainted with this invaluable guide, I came up with a simple plan that has made our nature lessons easy and enjoyable. Before I share that plan I encourage every one who has this book to read the introductory section called "The Teaching of Nature Study." This section will inspire you and provide many excellent ideas to help get you started.

First of all, I went to the table of contents and recorded the main areas of nature that we would study in large colorful print onto a piece of paper and posted it on our school room wall:

Flowerless Plants
Rocks and Minerals
The Heavens

This provides a particular area of focus every six weeks or so and it reminds us which areas still need to be studied. We don't follow a special order, but we check them off as we go. Every few years we revisit a subject but learn something new about it. I used to be very haphazard about our nature walks, but whenever I chose to 'unschool' in an area, the children became bored and real learning fell by the wayside. In providing a particular area of study on a regular basis, I've learned that we are sure to expose ourselves to a variety of plants and animals. We can also allow for interruptions and changes in the schedule if we discover an unexpected creature or have an opportunity to visit an area where the flora and fauna were not in our plan.

I quickly realized that this book wasn't designed for children to use. Instead, it is a teacher's guide to the natural world, a "living book" for adults, if you will. We are to personally glean from it and pass our knowledge on to the children while they are observing nature firsthand. So, after choosing an area, I familiarize myself with the general information.

For example, let's say we are going to study insects; before I meet with the children, I look over the first few introductory pages about insects and jot down interesting notes that I will want to share with the children. When we gather together to go outside on a nature walk, I condense and paraphrase this information for them so that they will know what to look for. This takes just a few minutes.

Now that we know what to focus on and we have a little bit of background information, we gather a few collecting jars, take a walk and look for insects. If we find a praying mantis, I look it up in The Handbook of Nature Study while the children try to find it in a field guide of insects that they took along. We like field guides because they help us identify particular plants and animals, whereas Comstock's book is a collection of short lessons..

Often, we choose a particular insect to look for. If we find it, I turn to see if there is a lesson about that insect and ask some of the questions provided to help get the children to observe more carefully. I will also tell them further interesting information about the critter. I do this naturally and keep it very short. Sometimes we keep our finds as pets for a few weeks. Pets in a Jar by Seymour Simon has been a great help for this aspect of nature lore. One spring, we spent six weeks just catching and identifying various butterflies. Together, we made a net from a hanger, an old broomstick and some muslin. Another year, we focused on a different insect each of the six weeks. Leaf miners and Coddling moths became important creatures to us whereas before, we passed them daily without notice.

"The child who spends an hour in watching the ways of some new 'grub' he has come upon will be a man of mark yet. Let all he finds out about it be entered in his diary––by his mother, if writing be a labor to him,––where he finds it, what it is doing, or seems to him to be doing; its color, shape, legs: some day he will come across the name of the creature, and will recognize the description of an old friend."

The last thing we do is sketch the insect (or bird, or tree or flower) in our nature journals and record its name and the date spotted. If we have time, we color it with watercolor pencils or watercolors. Older children sometimes add a poem or inspiring quote. They may wish to write a little note about how they discovered it. Children can also press leaves or flowers, make bark rubbings or take photographs as well. However, Charlotte Mason encouraged the practice of sketching and watercolor as the primary means of recording nature so that children's eyes become trained to observe with utmost care. This skill will eventually care over into other areas of their lives.

If The Handbook of Nature Study is sitting on a bookshelf somewhere in your home gathering dust, I encourage you to pull it out and take another look at it. If you had no other resource but this one book, it would be enough. So what are you waiting for?