Home homeschooling Homeschooling With Charlotte Mason Part 5: Nature Study

Homeschooling With Charlotte Mason Part 5: Nature Study

by Kelly Crawford


“Every hour spent in the open is a clear gain, tending to the increase of brain power and bodily vigor, and to the lengthening of life itself. They who know what it is to have fevered skin and throbbing brain deliciously soothed by the cool touch of the air are inclined to make a new rule of life, Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.” -Charlotte Mason

It would be an understatement to say that a very important part of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy was the study of nature and outdoors. She believed that often being among nature was as important as breathing. She compelled mothers to allow children to play not an hour or two a day, but four or five hours a day outside, often attending them and directing them to study, drink in and immerse themselves in the marvels of creation.

“Let me repeat, that I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children; and that, in the faith that mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them.” -CM

She suggests that while children need a great deal of time to be left alone, the mother also needs to be actively and deliberately helping to train their eyes and senses through the classroom of nature.

“They must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education few are worse than this––that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder––and grow. At the same time, here is the mother’s opportunity to train the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and to drop seeds of truth into the open soul of the child, which shall germinate, blossom, and bear fruit, without further help or knowledge of hers.” -Charlotte Mason

Most Charlotte Mason homeschoolers use the term “Nature Study” to define that part of their curriculum that employs the study of the outdoors. A nature study is the practice of taking the children out to observe the outdoors. The children either take along a sketch book (better if it’s designated specifically for this exercise) or they bring back some part of nature or they try and remember an object they wish to illustrate. Using their best memory of details, they sketch a selected object (leaf and bark of tree, bird, acorn, grass, flower, etc.) Some description of the object is then written on the page, although sometimes a poem or quote can be written. A field guide is helpful in writing descriptions.

But like all of the CM philosophy, this aspect goes deeper than just checking off an activity. The mother must understand and embrace the depth and value of this practice. Charlotte Mason gave some practical guidelines a mother can follow if she wishes to make nature study an integral part of her child’s education (more are discussed in the referenced link at the end of the post):

Education of Sight-seeing

“…she sends them off on an exploring expedition–who can see the most, and tell the most, about yonder hillock or brook, hedge, or copse. This is an exercise that delights children, and may be endlessly varied, carried on in the spirit of a game, and yet with the exactness and carefulness of a lesson….

This is all play to the children, but the mother is doing invaluable work; she is training their powers of observation and expression, increasing their vocabulary and their range of ideas by giving them the name and the uses of an object at the right moment,––when they ask, ‘What is it?’ and ‘What is it for?’ And she is training her children in truthful habits, by making them careful to see the fact and to state it exactly, without omission or exaggeration. The child who describes, ‘A tall tree, going up into a point, with rather roundish leaves; not a pleasant tree for shade, because the branches all go up,’ deserves to learn the name of the tree, and anything her mother has to tell her about it. But the little bungler, who fails to make it clear whether he is describing an elm or a beech, should get no encouragement; not a foot should his mother move to see his tree, no coaxing should draw her into talk about it, until, in despair, he goes off, and comes back with some more certain note––rough or smooth bark, rough or smooth leaves,––then the mother considers, pronounces, and, full of glee, he carries her off to see for himself.” -CM

Reading about Miss Mason’s passion for nature is contagious! But even more is her conviction that a mother holds the power to lead her children to a higher awareness than we are accustomed to believing can be obtained. And perhaps never more in the history of man must we fight against the deadening amusements that constantly pull our attention. I wonder what she would have to say if she could see the children in our day with all their hours of mindless video games and television.

“It is infinitely well worth of the mother’s while to take some pains every day to secure, in the first place, that her children spend hours daily amongst rural and natural objects; and, in the second place, to infuse into them, or rather to cherish in them, the love of investigation.” -CM

As I read Mason’s explanation of the educational value of the nature study, I am reminded how we complicate things so much. It’s ironic that our educational system boasts of more money, more books, more technology and more resources than ever in history, and yet a simple browsing through a text book from 100 years ago will reveal the unmistakable fact that we are less educated now than ever. Let it be a reminder to us then, that it doesn’t take more teachers, more classes, more advancements to raise intelligent, insightful children. Do you feel pressured to “keep up with the system”? Consider that there is a wealth of education and opportunity at our disposal–let’s use it!

“Consider, too, what an unequalled mental training the child-naturalist is getting for any study or calling under the sun––the powers of attention, of discrimination, of patient pursuit, growing with his growth, what will they not fit him for? Besides, life is s0 interesting to him, that he has no time for the faults of temper which generally have their source in ennui (boredom); there is no reason why he should be peevish or sulky or obstinate when he is always kept well amused.” -CM

Homeschooling With Charlotte Mason: Part 1

Part 2-Homeschooling With Charlotte Mason: Living Books

Part 3-Homeschooling: Charlotte Mason: The Schedule is Your Servant

Part-4Homeschooling with Charlotte Mason: Writing, Spelling and Grammar

Part 6-Homeschooling With Charlotte Mason: The Arts

Homeschooling With Charlotte Mason: Part 7–Daily Plans


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Ann October 26, 2009 - 12:14 am

Although we do not strictly adhere to the Charlotte Mason method, it is the nature study aspect of her approach that I really do appreciate and try to incorporate into our homeschool curriculum. As children sometimes forget to keep up their own Nature diaries we keep a ‘Family Nature Journal’ and all the children are encouraged to contribute to it – stories,poems, sketches, photographs – the only condition is that the subject must have been observed on our property – we are blessed to live in a forest setting. It is a beautiful ‘memory book’ of this special place we call home – all the birds we have spotted are in there, there are photographs of koalas in their natural habitat (as you can tell I’m in Australia!)And as for the eucalyptus trees there are so many different species, we are still learning how to identify the different types. They are not just ‘gum trees’! I am still amazed at how much my children know about the plant and animal life we have here simply from spending lots of time outdoors taking it all in – so much more detail than they gain from text or reference books! If you do not live in a forest you could still create a family nature journal for your backyard, your local park or favourite beach!

Diane October 26, 2009 - 7:39 am

Oh, how I wish I had “discovered” Charlotte Mason when my children were younger! We have recently begun incorporating some aspects of her philosophy into our homeschool, and are loving it. Alas, my youngest is now 10yo so I am discovering her too late for the best benefits for my kids. Even so, we are loving the Nature Study very very much indeed.

Do you ever wish you could just start over from the beginning with this whole mothering-thing? How much better a mama I would be if I knew at the beginning what I know now! I have always said, it’s the only job that… once you really get the hang of it, you are ready for “retirement”…lol;)

Terri October 26, 2009 - 8:43 am

GREAT post!! This is the part of CM I love the most but hey I love the outdoors. I also love to complicate the simple. When I first starting incorporating this we could not start until we had all the right colored pencils, backpacks, nature study books, sketch books, scheduled time to go on “nature walk” etc… now whenever they find a treasure, we look it up, draw it (sometimes) and put it on our nature table. Often this becomes more with questions from the children and we will continue study but if not we just move on. Much more relaxed and yet it gets done. Occasionally will schedule a time to do this but more often than not the children are out alot anyway and are always finding treasures. I have recently sent them on scavenger hunts in the pasture with a list of things to find like: something sticky, smooth, hard, brown, etc… they love that game and all come up with completely different objects. Big fun!! For Christmas this year I have bought several of the children identification books and books on poetry about the outdoors – all to encourage this love of nature (and I also hate plastic toys from Walmart!!) Wonderful series – thanks a bunch Kelly.

Jill F. October 26, 2009 - 9:04 am

I love this aspect of Charlotte Mason’s approach as well. I was born with a hole in my heart that was not surgically repaired until I was 11. Even though I went to public school my mother was a great believer in fresh air and sunshine and always shooed me out of doors. I spent hours of every day on horseback or in the river. I was not encouraged to observe or study nature but I picked up a “feel” for the weather and an awareness of nature that I still have to this day. My husband grew up in a small town in front of the t.v. set and he missed out!

We are not country dwellers now but live near some amazing parks as well as the ocean :)…it can be quite a challenge to let the never-ending indoor tasks go and to head out for an afternoon out of doors. I must be quite deliberate about it but I never regret it. We always return to the house refreshed and renewed.

Word Warrior October 26, 2009 - 9:10 am


Boy do I know what you mean!

Word Warrior October 26, 2009 - 9:11 am


I LOVE the game idea–and I too had to buy the right books and pencils and we’re all ready to start finally!

the cottage child October 26, 2009 - 11:17 am

Terri – lol on all the right pencils – my kids check them out from our supply library and put them back in the box just right because the world might fall apart if they don’t…at least my world.

I wish I had room for a whole nature table, that’s terrific – I love the idea of having their discoveries available for more constant observation. We do have a nature box, and for a day like today (cold and rainy) it’s great to revisit a seashell or a branch with lichen.

To give a little, tiny example of how differently my children “see” in just the short time we’ve been doing CM – when we woke up to pouring rain and dropping temperatures, I commented that we wouldn’t be able to do our walk this morning. “why not, Mom, rain is nature?” – and we own mud boots and raincoats and why not is right! We got cold pretty quickly and came in, but now they’re on the back porch, snuggled up, drawing rain drops in their sketch books and reading aloud (no, not about Noah and the Ark or Shakespeare, but a nice story about a bat) – they also have a bucket out to catch rain water so we can look at amoebae after lunch. Observation as routine becomes the default (to borrow your term, WW 🙂 ). It is an applied process of thought that identifies relationships, rather than just an arbitrary absorption of unconnected facts.

A practical upside of the whole nature study effort is it is GREAT for including littles – fresh air + long walk + pb&j = LONG NAP :).

Kelly L October 26, 2009 - 1:11 pm

Reading all you ladies’ comments has me wishing I didn’t live in suburbia of Las Vegas. Well, except for the bugs, critters, dirt, lack of convenience. Never mind, I love it here. You just made me want to drive to the mountains 45 min away and see the fresh snow (it is supposed to snow tomorrow). Or visit Red Rock and see the burros. Thanks for the encouragement!

Quinn October 26, 2009 - 1:20 pm

Kelly L,

I tried to post a comment, but I think it was lost- mentioning Tom Brown’s Field Guides. He has one in particular called “The Forgotten Wilderness” where he teaches you how to explore the outdoors in suburbia! Sounds perfect for you. Even though we live in the country, I like to use his techniques in this book to help us appreciate the “little things.”


Quinn October 26, 2009 - 1:21 pm

I just wanted to say how much I’ve enjoyed this series Kelly. I have been transitioning to CM over the last few years from Classical method. The small chunks of time seem so manageable and I have found it simply pleasant to teach this way.

We used Tom Browns Field Guides to help train us to be more observant outdoors. The year we read them it was like seeing an entire new world outdoors. It was all there before, it was just that our powers of observation were tuned. We’ve lost a bit over the years, but just this weekend, my husband and eldest son were knocking down an old shed and underneath my son identified skunk scat and was describing the contents. I thought of these books, because where else would he have learned that? I certainly don’t know ;D

I couldn’t help but also find it ironic when you mentioned our educational system in your last paragraph, that Ambleside has recently come out with a modern translation of Charlotte’s works. That certainly doesn’t speak volumes for our intelligence these days does it?

Kelly L October 26, 2009 - 8:26 pm

Thanks, Quinn…I’ll try to find that on a resale site! Although I still like escaping to the mountains and Red Rock, it would be great to explore our walking paths.

Tricia October 27, 2009 - 10:45 am

Add to all these wonderful aspects of nature the fact that it’s even been scientifically shown that having contact with God’s creation (nature) improves health, helps children with what some call ADHD, and destresses anybody!


Obviously, Charlotte Mason and most people knew this intuitively already, but it’s interesting for some to see the studies on it. Plus, sadly, in today’s world many have been taught–or conditioned–to ignore or distrust their intuition.

Thanks very much, Kelly, for this informative series!

Tammy November 22, 2009 - 3:05 pm

We started implementing Charlotte Mason’s ideas in 2000. Her principles have not only changed my ideas about what an education is but have helped me live a fuller life! Thanks for sharing your ideas on nature study.

Rebekah March 29, 2010 - 10:52 pm

I have been using Charlotte Mason since I started homeschooling in 2003. My family loves nature study. The boys have bound sketch books for their work. The digital camera comes along as well. We love walking on the farm and observing God’s creation.
Just tonight we took pictures of the bird who lives on our porch. Since it is late, they will make sketches of him from the photo in the morning.


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