Charlotte Mason tells us that the young child is “full of vivid interest. He has a thousand questions to ask, he wants to know about everything; he has, in fact, an inordinate appetite for knowledge.” Unfortunately, we soon cure him of all of that by “occupying him with books instead of things…and we succeed in bringing up the unobservant man (and more unobservant woman) who discerns no difference between an elm, a poplar and a lime tree, and misses very much of the joy of living.” (Parents and Children, p. 181-182)
If we are determined to follow Mason’s lead down a better path, we must remember that while books are an essential part of a Mason education, things can be very instructive as well, and the more we find a balance between the two, the more intelligent and observant our children will become.
Object lessons are a wonderful way to gently guide a child to carefully examine a given object (a thing) in order to find out all he can about it through the use of his five senses. In fact, when the child’s senses have been exercised and his interest aroused, he can most effectively retain what he is discovering.
One of the best ways to enjoy an object lesson is for it to happen incidentally. Have you ever noticed something fascinating while you were on a nature walk? Maybe it was the remains of a bluebird egg that had been pushed out of a nest, or animal tracks that you didn’t recognize, or the biggest caterpillar you have ever seen. Mason instructs us that these finds can be turned into impromptu object lessons. She said,
“The child who finds that wonderful and beautiful object, a ‘paper’ wasp’s nest, attached to a larch-twig, has his object-lesson on the spot from father or mother. The grey colour, the round symmetrical shape, the sort of cup-and-ball arrangement, the papery texture, the comparative size, the comparative smoothness, the odour or lack of odour, the extreme lightness, the fact that it is not cold to the touch––these and fifty other particulars the child finds out unaided, or with no more than a word, here and there, to direct his observation. One does not find a wasp’s nest every day, but much can be got out of every common object, and the commoner the better, which falls naturally under the child’s observation.” (Parents and Children, p. 182-183)
These kinds of lessons are more difficult in a classroom situation, which is why we see it on Mason’s morning schedule for young students. But she encourages, “this is where the family enjoys so great an advantage over the school. It is almost impossible that the school should give any but set lessons; but this sort of teaching in the family falls in with the occurrence of the object.” (Parents and Children, p. 182) From this, as well, we can discern that object lessons are so important that in case they do not happen incidentally, we need to have a backup plan.
I find The Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock, to be an invaluable resource to prepare for an object lesson. This book is not to be read to a child, but is rather to be used as a tool for the teacher. Each topic begins with one or two pages of background information to educate the teacher, and then short lesson prompts, in the form of questions, are suggested, which the teacher can put to her students to guide them to look closer. I encourage you to read part one (p. 1-23) each year as a reminder of how to do nature study. Comstock aligns well with Mason, and it is a good refresher on many of the important guidelines for nature study.
There are so many topics included in this book, that it may feel overwhelming to pick something to study. I keep the table of contents earmarked in my copy, because that is the best place to start. Scan through it, looking for something you have noticed on a previous nature walk. Don’t avoid things you perceived as common. Some of the most interesting things seem common at first glance, but upon further study, become the most fascinating things! Such as ants (p. 369) and dandelions (p. 531).
You can also pick a topic based on the nature lore books your students are reading. If they are reading a book about birds, for example, you might scan the bird section of the index and decide to make an object lesson on attracting birds (p. 43), or maybe you have noticed Chickadees at your feeder, so you study up on them (p. 68).
Because this is a massive book, and I have no desire to carry it around, I frequently write some of the questions I want to ask my students on a small card, which I can then slip in my pocket when we go outside. I can discretely refer to my card if I need help remembering some of the questions I want to ask. The first few items listed in the Chickadee section are:
- Where have you seen the chickadees? What were they doing? Were there several together?
- What is the common song of the chickadee? What other notes has it? Have you heard it yodel? Have you heard it singing “fee-bee, fee bee”? How does this song differ from that of the phoebe? Does it sing on the wing or when at rest?
- What is the color of the chickadee: top and sides of head, back, wings, tail, throat, breast, underparts?
- Compare the size of the chickadee with that of the English sparrow.
You do not need to cover every question in one lesson. Just pick a few, and gently guide your student to notice all that they can. You must remember that it is not your duty to fill the children’s minds with facts and details. You will likely know more than they do about the Chickadee, because you will have read the teacher section, but you must guard against lecturing.
Do feel free to use proper vocabulary when doing an object lesson, but do not turn the whole affair into a vocabulary lesson. Mason says big words “such as opaque and translucent, [will] never become part of their living thought until they pick them up for themselves incidentally as they have need of them.” (Parents and Children, p. 180) What is more important is that they have a chance to use whatever words they have, to describe what they notice.
Eventually object lessons become even more complex. Rather than looking at just one object, our children begin comparing a certain aspect of similar groups of objects. This falls more closely in line with Mason’s direction on the P.U.S. Programmes that each student make special out-door studies for the season.
“We supplement this direct ‘nature walk’ by occasional object-lessons, as, on the hairs of plants, on diversity of wings…but our main dependence is on books as an adjunct to out-of-door work.” (School Education, p. 237)
I believe this shows that Mason intended for our students to become more independent in their object lessons over time, the same way they become more independent with all of their school work in time. A study of “the diversity of wings” would require the focused attention of a student over a period of time, rather than simply a ten minute family lesson. They may even need to do a little research, by checking a book out of the library.
Not all object lessons must be painted in a student’s notebook, but they should be recorded in some way. Students in form 2 (grades 4-6) are directed on the P.U.S. Programmes to “make special out-door studies, with drawings and notes” in their nature notebook, and students in form 3-6 (grades 7-12,) are directed to “keep flower, bird and insect lists, and make daily notes”.
Making a drawing or otherwise recording what they have seen is a form of narration﹘one that requires very attentive observation. It’s not enough to notice the chickadee or the dandelion, for example, but rather one must look very closely to determine what color to use in a painting, how one part connects to another, what shapes are apparent, what textures should be recorded, what is near the object and how it compares in size, how hard is it, and so on. Young children can draw these things, before they have the words to describe what they have seen.
As you can see, some object lessons will happen naturally, some amount to having a few questions at hand, and then there are some which require a little more time and effort. You only need to prepare for one object lesson each week, and the whole lesson should take no more than ten minutes. Of course, you may notice enough interesting things to make an object lesson on a daily basis, but Mason warns that we must not point out more than one or two things each day. For the rest of the interesting things, we will need to zip our lips and let our children practice the art of looking closer all by themselves.
For Further Study:
Outline of Out-of-Doors Life For the Children
The Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock
Home Education (vol. 1), p. 78-79, Part II Out-Of-Door Life For The Children, pp. 42-95
Parents and Children (vol. 2), Chapter 17 Sensations And Feelings, pp. 178-190
Object Teaching; or, Words and Things by T.G.R., The Parents Review, Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 13-23