Our children, like most, are naturally curious about the world around them. They like to poke around in it, with sticks in the mud, with their feet in puddles, with their hands when we let them and with their minds when we finally go back indoors. They like to observe the things they see outside and find out more about them. And they also like to collect things, feathers, snail shells, leaves and seeds. They are natural, natural scientists.
This is one important reason we've made natural science a cornerstone of our home education, it's always easier to encourage something they already like. But it's not the only one. Aside from their natural enthusiasm, what I like about natural science is how it encourages observation, record keeping and organisational skills.
When we collect things we start looking at the details to see what makes one feather different from another, what makes a snail shell special. As our collections grow, we begin to look for ways to group things together to create order and categories. In order to do that we use our own natural powers of observation first and foremost and then we turn to books, posters, experts or the internet to help us.
Over the years this has led to several 'herbiers' being produced - little books of pressed leaves, flowers and seeds which were then identified and described. One of Maya's first herbiers presented each flower on one page and then the relevant poem from the Flower Fairies opposite it. There's also been a book about birds with many beautiful sketches alongside feathers and snippets of information and a magazine article about salamanders after we found one in Frank's welly boot.
Often practicing natural science just means spending time outdoors and observing whatever we come across. Recently that was this toad.
The children spotted him in a brook when we were out walking through our village. They observed him for about half an hour while I took photographs and we discussed his appearance. Back at home we used the internet to try and identify him.
Nothing more, no one wants to write about him or draw his picture right now and that is fine. There doesn't have to be a production every time, oftentimes it is just fine to have been out, spent time in nature and got to know the world around us just a tiny bit better. It encourages us to be mindful of the world around us, to walk with our eyes open and really see the details in the things around us. It encourages us to love our earth.
In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv talks about the "death of natural history" in the face of "more theoretical and remunerative" subjects. He states that "the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world". If this is truly so, in my opinion it's a tragedy. In the natural world we find wonder, joy and peace. Wonder at the strange things we unexpectedly discover, joy at the sheer beauty of what surrounds us and the peace of feeling we our part of our amazing world.
Ways to encourage kids to be natural scientists:
- Encourage collections - provide bags to put things in while out on walks and boxes for keeping it all in when you get home (egg boxes work well for smaller items, jam jars and vases for feathers).
- Encourage the birds in your garden by putting out bird feed when appropriate and bird boxes and then buy some decent binoculars and take it in turns to watch. If you don't have a garden, you can put a feeder on a balcony or spot birds at your local park. Most cities also have ornithology groups who do sessions for kids.
- Try not to act disgusted by bugs and spiders, lots of kids don't react that way until they see other people do so. Bugs are common and easy to spot so they offer a great opportunity for kids to observe.
- Buy a spotters guide so the kids can look up things you see when you're out when they get home.
- Point out the things you spot to your kids, snails, ladybirds, flowers, acorns, anything.
- Go out worm hunting after it's rained (we used to save worms we found stranded on the pavement after rainfall).
- Run around trying to catch butterflies in the summer.
- Visit your local natural history museum, butterfly park, botanical gardens.
- There are lots of great children's books out there too about birds, plants, the seasons etc. Make it a goal to get some out of the library next time you go.