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5 Tips For Nature Study

By Kris Bales

Nature study is one of my family’s favorite ways to spend some of our homeschool day. It’s fun, relaxing, interest-led learning in a real-world, hands-on environment. Here are five tips for making nature study an anticipated part of your family’s education (and yes, Mom and Dad, you’ll be learning, too).

1. Do it by the book

The Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Botsford Comstock, is the comprehensive nature study book. Written by the late founder of Cornell University’s Department of Nature Study, this detailed reference guide was originally meant for elementary school teachers.

The first few chapters explain the hows and whys of nature study. After that, the volume is broken down into sections on animals, plants, earth and sky. The subsections and the index make it easy to find information on nearly any nature-related subject imaginable.

The corresponding blog by Barb McCoy (handbookofnaturestudy offers fantastic direction for getting started, from the Outdoor Hour challenges, which encourage you to get out and study nature as a family, to notebooking and journaling pages. It was McCoy’s passion for nature study that ignited the interest in our family.

2. Keep a nature journal

Yes, this means you, too, parents. When your kids see you getting excited about nature study, they’ll get excited, too. I modeled my nature journal after a picture of one I saw in The Handbook of Nature Study. Another good resource for getting started is Keeping a Nature Journal, by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles Roth.

I did not put any expectations on my kids’ journal-keeping. I wanted it to be something they wanted to do, not something they had to do. I encouraged them to draw pictures, make rubbings of leaves, tape leaves to the pages, or even include quotes or poetry—all things I enjoy doing—but I didn’t require it.

3. Give everyone a camera

This may not be feasible in every family, but at this point in our family’s lives, each of my kids has their own digital camera—either a hand-me-down or one they’ve received as a gift. We all see the world differently, as evidenced by the variety of photos we take.

My kids seem to enjoy nature study more when they’re encouraged to photo-journal our outings with pictures of the things that interest them. We rarely go on a nature walk with a detailed agenda. I may encourage the kids to look for things—different types of tree bark, a variety of mushrooms—but generally I like to just let them document whatever catches their attention.

4. Pack a nature backpack

We keep a nature backpack in our van so we’re always prepared for an impromptu nature walk and we don’t have to worry about forgetting anything. Included in our backpack are:

  • Nature journals

  • Pencil boxes (with colored pencils, writing pencils, an eraser, and a pencil sharpener)

  • Binoculars

  • A magnifying glass

  • Sandwich bags (in case we find an interesting specimen to bring home)

  • Field guides

5. Join a nature center

Some of you may be blessed with great places to observe nature in your own backyard. If, however, you’re like us, and live in a subdivision, you might want to join a nature center. We have a couple of options in our area, and having a place where we can hike and be sure to see different types of plants, birds and other animals is well worth the inexpensive membership.

Don’t overlook nature preserves or national parks in your area, either. These are typically free, and offer some great opportunities to observe nature.

Nature study doesn’t have to be—and shouldn’t be— a complicated undertaking that adds more stress to your life. These tips should help you to get out and discover how enjoyable and relaxing it can be to explore the world around us.