This is an excerpt from my book Common Sense Excellence: Faith-Filled Home Education for Preschool to 5th Grade. I'm really glad my kids are nature lovers! We're going back to Secret Lake Park today to catch some little fishies, with a real net this time! (See Florida Field Trips #4: Secret Lake Park) The photos and bird sketch in this post are from my son Micah's blog, http://www.godsanimals.blogspot.com/. (Note: We're having problems with his blog right now, so as of June 23, you can't access it and the pictures that I linked here from there aren't showing up. We're trying to get that fixed ASAP!)
Get outside and see nature! After all, nature walks are free and easy to do, and observing nature for yourself is one of the best ways to learn about plants and animals. Children get excited about their "specimens" and the fresh air is good for your health. Francis Fenelon in his book Education of a Child says, “A simple walk through the woods or splashing in a stream brings contentment to the soul and appreciation for God’s beauty in a manner that extravagant amusements cannot.”
Here are some ideas for your own nature explorations:
Start in your own backyard. If you live in an urban or suburban neighborhood, you may not have much “habitat” at first glance. Still, I’ll bet you could find lots of living things in your own backyard: birds, bugs, flowers, lizards, cats, worms... To go farther afield, hike at a trail, park, preserve, lake, river, or mountain.
Keep your eyes and ears open. Learning to pay attention is so important to nature study! We often hear a red headed woodpecker rat-tat-tatting on our back fence.
Be careful not to upset nature. Please remind your children to refrain from disturbing animal homes. They don’t always know that they shouldn’t remove an egg from a nest, even if they return it right away. This upsets the mama, and she may abandon it! Talk about nature conservation -- how pollution and human expansion affect an ecosystem’s quality of air, water, soil, plants and animal homes. Read about animals which have become extinct. You don’t need to be a “tree hugger” to be a prudent environmentalist! God has called us to stewardship!
Practice nature safety. Learn to avoid poisonous snakes, stinging insects, irritating plants, and hazardous bodies of water. Wear protective clothing, sun screen, and/or insect repellent.
Collect and/or identify interesting specimens using a pocket-sized field guide. (Obtain permission from the landowner before you do this!) Look at your “finds” with a magnifying glass or microscope. Do a scavenger hunt. Each person needs to find listed items like an oak leaf, a brown rock, a nut, etc. You don’t need to take the items, just check them off on the list. My friend Michelle suggests buying a plastic divided box in the sports department to store your treasures.
Savor the seasons of nature. Do special activities related to winter (snowmen), spring (flower arranging), summer (beach trip) or autumn (pressing leaves). My uncle in Pennsylvania hosts home school groups for syrup making when the sap starts running in the maple trees. What makes each season special? Flowers have their own annual timetables for sprouting and blooming. Northern trees bud in spring, stay green through the summer, turn brilliant colors in autumn, and are bare in the winter (except for evergreens, of course)!
Take field trips to organized nature study areas. Go to the zoo, petting farm, botanical garden, nature center, science museum or county fair. Out of their natural habitats, you can find specimens organized by category. When you go to the zoo, have your child identify whether an animal is a mammal, bird, insect, amphibian, reptile, etc. What are the characteristics of each group? (Before you go, you can learn about this from books.)
Find an experienced nature mentor. This human resource can answer your questions and help guide your explorations. It could be an adult who works in this field, but don’t overlook home schooled kids as resources. When we had questions about catching bugs or growing pineapples, we used to call two middle school boys in our support group.
Keep a nature journal. Have your children make drawings or rubbings of what they see, and then label them, also telling where they found the specimen. For language arts, they can also “paint” a word picture to describe a flower or other nature object. A nature journal is also handy for recording changes in the seasons or the weather from day to day or week to week.
Take pictures. Show your child how to take landscape pictures or close-up shots.
Bring portable field guides: I recommend Peterson’s or Audubon. At the minimum, you should have one each for birds, insects & spiders, and flowers. Trees, reptiles, rocks & minerals, and other guides will be useful too, if your child is interested. A regional field guide will focus on species which are most commonly seen in your area.