Category Archives: Nature Study Notebooks

Object Lessons

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. Continue reading

Hatching Baby Chicks

chick 1Several years ago I decided I wanted chickens. Live ones, living in the backyard. I had been moving my family to a more traditional lifestyle, and growing my own food and raising chickens were part of the deal. Maybe I should tell you right up front, though, that at the time we lived in a neighborhood. Have you ever thought about having pet chickens in the yard? Neither had my neighbor. Or my husband actually. I checked the statutes of my area and found that it was legal. As for approval from my hubby, he was tolerant of the idea…sort of.

chick 2There is a lot to know about raising chicks, so I did much reading and preparing before they ever arrived. Two of my favorite resources were the website Back Yard Chickens, and the book Chicken Tractors by Andy Lee.

Our first batch of chicks were delivered through the United Postal Service. (Really!) We had a temporary home prepared for them in the laundry room, and we snuggled them in directly.

chick 3In these early days, baby chicks require much care, (mostly because they are messy and have to be cleaned up after very regularly,) but more importantly, they are so CUTE that you have to watch them for hours! And what is nature study beside observation? Anyway, it was February, and indoor nature study seemed much more inviting.

Shortly after these cuties got moved outside, my sister decided she would like some ducks for her pond. She bought an inexpensive incubator and ordered some eggs through the mail, but we did the incubating at my house. By this time I had figured out that this was a pretty neat school activity.

Some of the kids built an egg candler, which is used to shine a bright light through the egg to see what is happening on the inside. (Later, we found that the flash light setting on my smart phone works just as well.) This was a great nature study activity because we could track the development of the embryo. You cannot hold the light to the egg for long, because it’s important that you don’t change the temperature of the egg. Therefore, each child had to take a quick hard look, then put the egg back, before going to the table to draw what they had seen.  We did weekly drawings like this in our nature study notebooks, and I think they came out wonderful. (Click on the picture below to look more closely.)


We did find that hatching ducks is harder than hatching chickens, and really requires a better quality incubator. I ended up having to help some of the duck get out of their shells at the end, which is a pretty precarious thing to do.

duck 3

Over the years we have hatched several batches of chickens and ducks. I also got a batch of meat chicken by mail once, but that’s a whole other story! And most recently we hatched some Sebastopol geese. Geese are harder to incubate than ducks even, but my sister got a really nice incubator which we used for them. We also used eggs which her own geese had laid, and 5 out of 7 of them lived, which apparently is really good.

This goose just hatched and is still in the incubator.

This goose just hatched and is still in the incubator.


Whether you incubate some eggs, or just want to learn more about their development with your kids, I would suggest the following books:

For young children and early readers
Egg to Chick by Millicent Selsam (63 p.) This has excellent drawings which show embryonic development. There is an in-print version, but I haven’t been able to compare it with the original. Sometimes books are “revised” when they are reprinted, but you never want a revised version of a Selsam book.
Where do Chicks Come From by Amy Sklansky (LRFO1, IP)
Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones by Ruth Heller (PB, IP) Shows other animals that also lay eggs.
All About Eggs: and how they change into animals by Millicent Selsam. Another one that considers other animals that lay eggs.

Middle to upper elementary readers
A Chick Hatches by Joanna Cole and Jerome Wexler (47 p. with a medium amount of text on each page) This book includes photographs of embryonic development.
Science Projects With Eggs by David Webster

Middle School and up
Window Into an Egg: Seeing Life Begin by Geraldine Lux Flanagan

Thank you Kim B. for inspiring this post! I hope you and your family enjoy incubating your eggs.

Opening Their Eyes

Early on in my family’s Charlotte Mason education, nature study time just meant going outside to see what we could see. There was no plan. I’m not knocking that way of doing nature study. In fact, it was an improvement over the “we’ll just skip it today” mantra that I had very early on.

A most memorable day of “seeing what we could see”, came when we walked outside and found a wee mushroom.

It was like a little gift to us! We each did a nature drawing, 
Can you see the mushroom down front and center?

we struggled through some identifications,

we read a short book,

and we made some spore prints.

The kids’ surprised faces are priceless!
Some spore prints are light colored and some are dark, hence our use of black and white paper.

This was so fun that we decided we would try to find more mushrooms somewhere else. My sister has a large piece of property with a fun creek, where we spent several days a week playing. That seemed like the best place to start our mushroom search. Would we find any? We had been over there recently and hadn’t seen any.

As we walked around we noticed hundreds – no thousands – of mushrooms! They were everywhere!!

What happened? Had they all popped up overnight?  No, our eyes were just opened.

We didn’t know it at the time, but we had done a special study. We had spent a little time finding out about one particular thing, fungi, and our eyes were opened. What a joy!

We took it a little further after that, looking closer and making more detailed observations. (Because who could help themselves!?)

We made some spore prints on a glass microscope slide and took a closer look,

and there were many drawings made.

All because our eyes were opened one day when we went out to see what we could see. 😀


Natural History Rotation
Natural History: Implementing Special Studies (full explanation)
Implementing Special Studies – An Outline

Stuck at Home

I enjoyed watching a Northern Flicker on the bare little dogwood through the sunroom window.

I enjoyed watching a Northern Flicker
on the bare little dogwood
through the sunroom window.

I have been practicing what I preach, by doing a little nature study out the window! It’s been dreadfully cold and snowy here this week, as it has been over a good portion of the Eastern US, and we have had the pleasure of being stuck at home for an entire week.

My dear friend Liz, from the LivingBooks Library, always says that you should try to schedule to be home three days in a row each week. I have never really understood how valuable that can be until this week. What I finally realized is that when you go out every other day, or some such schedule, your days at home are partly just rebounding. Your brain is in recovery mode from all the running around. Given a few days at home in a row you begin to be fruitful. A drawer gets cleaned out here, a closet there, a nature painting is completed, and the classical music playing in the background doesn’t feel forced. You aren’t recovering from the last thing, and you aren’t worrying about the next thing. You can just be here now.

There is one quality that characterizes all of us who deal with the science of the earth and its life -- we are never board. - Rachel Carson

There is one quality that characterizes all of us who deal with the science of the earth and its life — we are never board.
– Rachel Carson

Before I cancel every lesson we have scheduled for the rest of the school year, however, I remember a valuable tidbit I got from the book Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne. I read it years ago, and I’ll admit that I didn’t finish it, but the main thing I took away from it was that you don’t have to cancel everything indefinitely. Sometimes you just need a few days to recoup. This time at home has let me recoup a peace of mind that I was seriously lacking last week.

Tomorrow it is supposed to rain, which will melt all the snow and our family will be in motion again. Like many families, spring is unreasonably busy for us. Maybe this unforeseen break in our schedule will allow me to approach it with a greater level of serenity though.

I should mention that we did complete our entire school schedule this week, and because we have our act together in that department, there was still ample time for sledding!


Nature Journals

Nature study is an essential piece of the intertwining puzzle which is a Charlotte Mason education, but it can be intimidating to some. I hope this post will encourage you if you are just getting started.

“As soon as he is able to keep it himself, a nature-diary is a source of delight to a child. Every day’s walk gives him something to enter: three squirrels in a larch tree, a jay flying across such a field, a caterpillar climbing up a nettle, a snail eating a cabbage leaf, a spider dropping suddenly to the ground, where he found ground ivy, how it was growing and what plants were growing with it, how bindweed or ivy manages to climb” (Vol. 1, p. 54).

Step 1: Gather Your Supplies:

  • I would recommended a medium size (7×9 inch) sketchbook, not a full 8×11 book at first, because all of that white space can be intimidating to a child.
  • Spiral bound is useful, because it will lie flat.
  • A hard cover is beneficial, because this is meant to last for years.
  • Look around for a deal.  I’ve always been able to get mine on sale.
  • That said, don’t get one with cheap quality paper. You want a smooth surface to your paper.
  • My children go through one of these in about a year or year in a half.

The Medium (in order of recommendation)

  • Prang’s Semi-Moist Watercolor paints with a #1 or #2 size paint brush. (The paint brush that comes with the paints is not this size, so you will have to buy them separately.)
  • Nice tubes of watercolor paints if you have older children.
  • Good quality colored pencils like Prismacolor.
  • Charcoal
  • Pencil (Although it is tempting for a child who isn’t as excited about this process to quickly sketch out a drawing with no detail or effort, so I would only recommend this option for the advanced student.)
  • Pencil to make notations on the page.

The Specimen

  • Go for a nature walk so everyone can find their own item to draw.
  • In the beginning I suggest looking for something small, approximately the size of their hand, that is simple. Leaves are good first drawings.
  • Don’t look for the “perfect” specimen, because the imperfections create interest in the painting or drawing.

Step 2: Observe Your specimen

“All is incidental, easy, and things are noticed as they occur.” Mason Vol. 3, page 237

  • Start by studying your specimen well. There is something that drew you to this particular object, so get to know it well. You may even set a timer and request that everyone keep their eyes on their object for one full minute.  It’s interesting what you see when you really look hard.
  • Be gentle with your specimen.

Step 3: Record What You See

“The children keep a dated record of what they see in their nature note-books, which are left to their own management and are not corrected. These note-books are a source of pride and joy, and are freely illustrated by drawings  of twig, flower, insect, etc.”  Mason Vol. 3, page 236

  • I remind my children regularly to draw what they see, not what they think the object looks like. You can quint your eyes, or look through just one eye to see a “flat” or two dimensional version of the object.
  • Begin with the outline. I recommended starting with a leaf, because they are generally flat, but using the technique I just mentioned, you can better see the outline.
  • In the beginning, it is helpful to paint to scale rather than enlarging or shrinking your painting of the specimen. Later, as you become more adept at drawing in your nature journal, it will be easier to adjust sizes.
  • Spend most of your drawing time looking at the object, not your drawing. Your drawing skills will improve in time if you do this, because you will learn to draw what you see.
  • Lightly fill out the inside of the image. Lightly is the key term here, because you might want to make changes as you go.
  • Layer color upon color to create more texture, shading, or just a richer, darker color.
  • You do not have to be perfect, because you are not the Creator God. Only He is perfect. We must however make our best effort.
  • Do not judge or correct your child’s work in any way.
  • Try not to make arbitrary rules for them to follow. I was once encouraged to allow them only one drawing per page, and only on the right side of the spread, but then I got my first glimpse of The Country Diary of An Edwardian Lady: A facsimile reproduction of a 1906 naturalist’s diary by Edith Holden, and that changed everything for me.  I think we have to emphasize truth and that this is science, which means they need to attempt to record what they see, and not what would be cool in some fantasy land. But at the same time, this is an opportunity to see, really see, God’s beautiful gift to us. Each child is going to express their response to that in different ways.

Step 4: Make Notations

“They notice for themselves, and the teacher gives a name or other information as it is asked for, and it is surprising what a range of knowledge a child of nine or ten acquires”  Mason Vol. 3, page 237

  • All notes should be done in pencil.
  • What to note should be decided by the student, not the teacher. Maybe you would like for them to include the scientific name for every drawing, but you have to hold back and let them make notations based on the questions they have asked of themselves or you.
  • You may require that they include the date.
  • Things they may like to include: what the drawing is of (common name and/or scientific name,) where they found the specimen, any other things they observed on their walk, such as the weather, a poem or Bible verse that seems appropriate to their drawing.
  • If your child has a lot that they want to record in their nature notebook, but they are still young and have difficulty writing, either offer to write for them or type their narration, print it, and let them paste it in their book.

Whether they only draw a simple picture, or paint a masterpiece and record a full page full of information, remember that this is a form of narration, and just as an oral narration is ones own, each differing from one another, a nature journal should be unique.

Last, but not least, did you notice all the times I said “you”? I would jump up and down and flap my arms and plead if I could get you to do all of this right along side of your child. Not only does it encourage your child by placing value on the task, but it’s therapeutic in all sorts of ways.