Charlotte Mason recommends frequent nature walks already in her first volume, Home Education. In fact, this is one of the main reasons I was so drawn to it. God has created such a beautiful world for us to live in. And I believe one of the best ways of learning about the world we live in (as well as our God) is to study nature.
However, whenever I read her excerpt on nature, I get certain expectations. And so I try to do a search online to find out more about how modern families are doing their nature walks. And I get the same expectations. It all seems so simple and lovely. So I get frustrated by my reality.
Until I realize that it doesn’t matter if it is picture perfect every time. That my children will still learn. Even in our chaos. The important thing is not how it is done. Simply that it is done.
So here is a list of expectations, the reality, and how we can still learn from the imperfection.
You must find someplace that has nature. Your living room with no plants or animals won’t work. For obvious reasons.
When I think about taking my kids to experience nature, I picture an idyllic forest area with a little pond. There are no signs of civilization. Wildlife is abundant and visible. The number of different plants and trees are also numerous.
We could spend hours on just one tiny section and still not have discovered all of it. Even after a year of intense study.
It is pristine. And beautiful. And the stuff only found in paintings award-winning photography. Frankly, I picture a new Eden.
More often than not, we spend our time outside in our backyard in the middle of the city. There are high walls surrounding the entire 20 m2. We have 3 trees (one of which is dead), 3 rose bushes and little to no grass. The soil is not rich enough for a garden (though we keep trying).
When we do find time and energy to venture to a park, it is still in the city. The expressway is visible on one side and houses surround the other three sides.
Granted, it has trees and a pond (with ducks and even swans). We have even been able to see a third type of duck on occasion. But it is not teeming with any other wildlife. At least, not one that we can see. And the plants are not that varied. From what we can tell.
We don ‘t know the names of all the plants in our yard. And every year, we discover a new plant. One that hasn’t yet sprouted in the backyard.
The dead tree in our backyard wasn’t that way on our arrival. We were able to watch its slow deterioration. And though all our rescue efforts failed, it was still a lesson. Plants have beginnings and endings. Just like us.
Being present to watch the coming and going of seasons in a small area of land, opens your eyes to the smallest changes. Including the fact, that even though we have put little effort into changing the landscape, it has changed nonetheless.
The park, on the other hand, is a fountain of knowledge. Though we only see a couple of different types of animals, we begin to know them well. What seemed at first glance like an area with little variety in plant life has proven to be more robust than we thought.
The children look forward to seeing the changes in their favorite sections. And relish the arrival each year of their favorite flowers. There is a wealth of knowledge in even the smallest bit of nature.
Charlotte Mason suggests daily walks with weekly excursions in nature for learning and sketching.
I would love to start every day with a short nature walk. And every year, I schedule weekly nature walks to larger areas further out from the city.
When we moved to our current home, the empty lot across the street was to be turned into a park with a fountain. I planned for our mornings to start there, looking at the different flowers and breathing in the clean, natural air.
I scouted the city we lived in, picking a different area to visit each week. I wanted to make monthly visits to each of the four different areas. I had chosen, the seaside dunes, a forest to the south of us, the rocky cliffs of Cap Blanc Nez, and some marshes further inland.
We are blessed to live in an area that is so varied. I want to take advantage of that.
We never start the day with a walk. Let’s face it. By the time we are all out of bed and dressed it can be nearly lunchtime. Our days are usually so packed, we can barely get through our lessons and still have time for chores.
The park that was planned across the street? Due to greediness on the part of the city politicians, it has been developed and around 10 houses have been built. Most of them without space enough for a backyard.
The nearest green area (other than our own backyard) is a 30-minute walk away. Or a 5-minute bus ride with a 15-minute wait between buses.
The weekly nature walks? More like monthly. The weekends have become our moment to relax after a busy hectic week. If we don’t have grocery shopping or other errands to run, we just don’t feel like taking a big excursion.
We are usually so tired out by Saturday morning, we just want to have a nice, calm weekend at home, in preparation for the busy week ahead.
So we don’t go on a lovely walk through a well-manicured park every morning. So what? We are blessed to have a backyard. When the weather starts turning nice, we leave the backdoor open from morning to night.
We have daily access to nature (even untamed nature) right outside our door. Some days we do our lessons in the dirt. Other days we look at it from the window.
Though we don’t make frequent trips to all those lovely places I noted above, we do go to the beach often.
The seaside is only a 15-20 minute bus ride away. On nice days, we will even walk there. School vacations are a great excuse to go more frequently.
And in the summer, nothing beats getting up in the morning to take a swim in the sea before returning for a lazy afternoon at home.
The further out places like Cap Blanc Nez are our special spots. Reserved for those days in summer when we are feeling adventurous. Or when we have visitors and we want to show them around. It takes on an air of importance because we are not there as frequently.
The attitudes of the children when on nature walks should be ones of curiosity and joy.
I have been learning more about the healing powers of herbs in recent years. I have become interested in the age-old tradition of using God’s creation to strengthen my body and encourage health in my family.
Because of this, the children and I now play a game of foraging for known medicinal plants wherever we are. We look at a picture and description of the plant, and then we go searching. I encourage the children to search high and low. Trying to find it in the places it is most likely to be found: shade, sun, in forested areas, by the water, etc.
I imagine them frolicking happily together in search of the elusive plant and squealing in joy when it has been found. We will study it together, learning its medicinal uses and joyfully look for others.
The picture I painted above sounds so lovely, doesn’t it? Sadly, I can say with all honesty, I was writing pure fiction.
More often than not, when I start my “game” with the kids, all I hear are squeals of anger and frustration.
“L found it first! I wanted to be first!” “That’s not the right plant! You’re just trying to beat me!” “It’s not here! We’ve looked everywhere!”
There is a spirit of competition that is seemingly constant among the older children. No matter how often we tell them that is not a race, the kids just want to stand out as the best.
We usually end up leaving in frustration and disappointment. But always with the hope that next time will be better. And it never is.
I’m exaggerating. The reality is not always like that. But it does happen often enough that we have begun to use these excursions as lessons in character.
While learning to forage for specific plants, they are also learning to work together. They are learning to encourage one another. Find joy in another’s accomplishment. And how to « lose » gracefully.
But they are also learning observational skills. Looking for tiny details that separate two seemingly identical plants. Searching in the hidden places for that just sprouting flower. Recognizing the same flower year after year in different areas.
Acquisition of Knowledge
One of the goals of nature walks is to learn a little more about the nature around us.
This is where I imagine my children become nature experts, creating the next National Geographic for Kids. All this time in nature will spark their imaginations and start them on the path to be little geniuses. Not just the names and properties of each plant and animal but also sketching the most perfect little images ever.
I see us learning daily about some new plant we’ve never noticed before. The children will find something that interests them. We will pore over our little field guide to discover the name, sketching it and labeling it correctly in English, French, and Latin.
If we can’t find it in our field guide, we get a small sample to bring home for further research. And after some scouring on the internet, we find success. Thus increasing our knowledge of nature’s secrets even more.
Let’s be honest here. I personally know very little about the world around me. Sure I can use the basic generic terms with ease: bush, tree, flower, bird, etc. But the specific type? It’s latin name? Nope.
I keep hoping that I will learn quickly. I want to know the different types of trees and how to recognize them. I want to learn about the plants and know which ones are edible and nourishing.
But more often than not, when we find a plant or see a tree, we can’t seem to agree. Is it a calendula flower or something that looks similar? Because there are plants that resemble one another. And sometimes it is just a small difference that separates them. Like the way the veins in the leaf are placed or how many flowers sprout on each stalk.
So we look in our field guide but can’t find what we are looking for. Or we forget to bring a sample home for further research. Or we do bring it home but it is so mangled that we no longer recognize what it was supposed to be.
And we come home not having learned the name of anything.
Did you know that the veins of a leaf can give you a clue to its real name? Or that the leaves on a tree either alternate or sprout across from one another?
I didn’t. So even though we may often come home without knowing the particular name of something, we have still learned something about nature. We have seen the unending beauty that is created by these millions of tiny details that so frustrate us.
And for every ten plants that we fail to recognize, we learn the name of one. And that is one more plant added to our list of known plants. We are just a little bit less ignorant.
We have basked in the glory of a God who created such numerous wonders. We have learned more about Him by spending time in His creation. And are more persuaded of his power and glory because of it.
Keeping track of what you have learned during your nature walks is important. And one of the easiest (and most fun ways) is by keeping a nature journal.
Before our first excursion, I bought each of the children a little sketchbook. It had beautiful paper suitable for both sketching in pencil and using watercolors. And I bought them each a good pencil, quality erasers, and a watercolor set.
I expected the younger children to just scribble in it but was fine with that. After all, what they were doing was developmentally correct.
But the older children and I were going to come away with beautiful drawings. They would show the proper details of each plant we sketched. (Even if the proportions were not always correct.) And we would paint them beautifully as well.
I looked forward to seeing the end product. We could look back on these books in years to come as lovely reminders of our journey in learning. They would be worthy of leaving on the coffee table to page through with visitors.
And our yearly inspections would pass without friction when they saw these works of art labeled in three languages.
We are in our third year of Charlotte Mason homeschooling. And we are already on our sixth sketchbook. Or tenth. I don’t even know anymore. I lost count.
The first books were ripped and scribbled on within weeks of my distributing them. There was little resembling nature in any of them.
The second books got lost somewhere. I still haven’t found them.
The third books became personal sketch pads for the kids when we all realized that we forgot to bring them on our infrequent nature walks.
So I stopped buying them for a while. And I stopped expecting anyone to sketch anything.
This last year, I found these gorgeous spiral sketch pads on sale for 1 euro each and bought one for each child. I figured we could start again. But I kept them hidden for months because I was scared they would be ruined.
I couldn’t bring myself to let my children touch them until I was positive they would turn out as lovely as their covers.
Last week, I finally gave in and gave the sketch pads to my kids when they were out in the backyard.
And yes, my soon to be three-year-old just scribbled. But it was such a delight to see her focusing so hard on the trees and bugs and dirt. She sketched to her heart’s delight. And then proudly showed us all her renditions, describing (in her language) everything she drew.
The older children got excited to have a place to draw nature in. They grabbed leaves, sticks, and rocks. And they focused. They tried sketching as many details as possible.
And we labeled their drawings. In English. With words like rock, stick, and leaf.
And I’m starting to be okay with that because they are still learning. They are learning to focus on something. And to take care of their “special” notebook.
They are learning about how varied nature can be. How two leaves that look so similar at the beginning are actually quite different when you focus on the details.
Our excursions into nature may not be idyllic. They may not even resemble what Charlotte Mason described in her books.
But we are learning to enjoy them none the less. I learned to not focus on recreating someone else’s ideal. Instead, we make it our own.
There is no shame in less than perfect. The only shame is in not trying. In fearing the failure of expectation over the success of learning.
Nature walks should be fun. Just do it. The learning will come naturally.