Even before we began formally homeschooling, appreciation of nature was a part of our lives.
I think it was because I had parents who unwittingly engaged myself and my siblings in nature around us. We weren’t homeschooled but we were given an amazing living education by our parents when we were at home.
From the recesses of my earliest childhood memories, I can still smell soil on my hands from when I‘d pull out carrots from our backyard veggie beds with my Dad. Composting and caring for our chooks was an everyday practice for us kids: initially alongside my folks then independently. On long scenic drives from the suburbs to the ocean, my Mum would point out ‘bacon and eggs’ flowers lining the winding roads through the National Park on our way to Bundeena beach. Once there, we’d play on the sand collecting shells in buckets, we‘d chase the waves down and then run away just as fast as they’d chase us back to the shore, or we’d hover for hours over rock pools trying to find star fish or little crabs in underwater crevices. We‘d pop the little seaweed bubbles between our fingers and search for pippies by digging our heels into the wet sand before sticking our hands into the cold grains to see if we could pull a pippi out. As we’d walk along, Mum would tell us about catching minnows in the old oyster bottles when she was a kid at her Gran Sally’s house in the opposite bay. Before we left the area, Dad would drive us to Garie Beach on dusk just so we could try and spot the deer which would often head over the hills.
On other occasions, Mum would call us to gather quickly to watch the amazing colours of a sunset. Some nights after dinner, Dad would tell us of his own childhood back in Fiji playing in the river, planting taro, catching eels or riding bareback on his horse through the tall cane fields of his beautiful rural town on the island of Vanua Levu. These are just a few examples of the ways my parents wove an appreciation for nature into our daily lives. There was something magical in the way they talked to us about what we could observe. It spoke of deeper things to me: of an awesomeness and divine design that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. It spoke of mysticism, of rhythms, of surprise. It spoke of creation and a Creator.
By the time we started our formal homeschool journey in 2009, our little family had already had years of picnics in parks, bushwalks, creek playing and collecting of little treasures. The same sense of curiosity and wonder was awakened in my children by the little ways we chatted about what we saw in the world around us. We’d “ooooh” and “ahhhh” together over butterflies landing on us, of the smell and colour of our lavender in our garden, of the texture of moss as little fingers would gently explore the outline of a soft green growth on the side of a tree. One day, our then 8 year old son pointed to our hedge and told us he’d spotted something moving in it. He carefully investigated further to find there was a little bird’s nest with speckled eggs right there in the safety of the hedge! We’d all missed it but he sometimes saw (still sees) the world with a different lens and because of his inquisitive (and persistent) desire, we were able to witness those eggs hatch. I’m so glad! This is the actual photo of the day the eggs hatched in our hedge.
Nature study. Nature appreciation. Nature connection. Whatever you call it, almost daily, we’d find nature woven into our days. Sometimes it was done with intention but other times it was incidental. In our early homeschooling years, we lived in the beautiful Blue Mountains. Our greater backyard had cascading waterfalls, bushwalking trails and tree topped vistas that would take our breath away. And we really made the most of our then-home. Seven years ago we moved further west to a rural-pastureland town where grazing sheep, roaming roos and paddocks of lucerne are commonplace. Despite the lack of obvious waterfalls and bushwalks, the beauty in our environment here has not been lost on us. Sure, there are different things to observe, but they are still many and wonderful!
So here is a list (words + photos) that are a bit of a nature-walk-down-memory-lane of ways we infused nature into our learning days regardless of where we have lived (or holidayed!) I hope it might encourage, inspire or affirm you on your nature journey.
The following are photos of some of the ways we’ve infused nature into our days.
* We’ve used a digital microscope to study leaves or other specimens.
* We’ve done lots of bushwalks and always chatted about what we could see. As the kids got older we’d take photos of bushes, plants, flowers, rocks, anything that piqued their interest. I‘d print the photos and older children would add a label once we’d looked it up together. We still have these in small photo albums.
* We went on tadpole or frog exploration adventures (we’d take jars or zip lock bags to a local waterhole and nets to see what we could find).
* I’d often asking leading questions like, “why do you think they’d choose to live here?” or “can you see any evidence of what they eat?”
* We‘ve made salt dough discs and made nature impressions.
* We had outdoor dinner under the stars which would always lead to chats about mosquitoes, moon and planets.
* We created nature shelves or tables depending on the age of our kids (it has evolved over time). Photo below was how we started.
* Our current nature table has a bird identification book, Usbourne cards, tweezers for picking up items to look under the magnifying glass, interesting nature books and random nature finds.
* Visiting the coast is always a special adventure for us. Time for natural exploration is amazing. We look at the identification signs around to see what we can spy. We usually take sketching paper and pencils and sketch what we’ve seen if we have a rainy-stuck-inside-on-holidays kind of day. We also take the underwater camera with us and the kids enjoying looking back over their snaps.
* We’ve introduced new vocabulary words to our kids like ‘canopy’ just by being in nature. It always seemed to stick more when they had experienced it and had a point of reference.
* Bird watching has always been something I’ve encouraged. Sometimes that has just been by observation like when we’ve been on holidays and have spotted pelicans. We’ve commented on their size, how they might catch their food, how they move etc.
And sometimes it has been closer to home. I’ve often used bird identification books, had the kids read excerpts from the Birds in Backyard website that I’ve printed off and listened to some bird calls on that site too.
* Each year we’ve had autumnal leaf fights and had an annual leaf throwing photo.
* We’ve practiced weaving with found fronds.
* We’ve gotten up close and personal with insects of all kinds and really allowed our kids to have their curiosity stimulated and satisfied through the process of investigation.
* We have visited MANY museums, Aquariums, Wildlife parks. zoos and animal sanctuaries. Our kids are always drawn to collections like these butterflies below.
* We’ve also tended to seek out the hands-on exhibits at Museums so the kids can really interact with their senses and natural objects.
* Cloud watching (lying on our backs noticing shapes!) and ‘plein air’ painting have been favourite outdoor activities over the years.
* Fruit picking (either in our own backyard like these oranges) or traveling to an orchard always gives appreciation and understanding of HOW we get our food.
* Exploring natural waterways like rivers has been important to us. We’ve also gathered soil samples and let them sit to investigate silt layers, discussed erosion and other natural features whilst there.
* Even rescuing a flat-shelled turtle can be an experience that brings nature study to life, often sparking questions like why the turtle was there and the difference between turtles and tortoises.
* Observing patterns and textures in nature is a great place to start pointing out what you see and ask your kids their thoughts about. Also a great place to start sketching. We have incorporated discussions about abstract art often too.
* Growing celery, garlic or other kinds of food from sprouts or cuttings is a wonderful way to demonstrate sustainable practices.
* We’ve made bird feeders, studied acorn caps (discussing variations in textures and colours), participated in nature scavenger hunts and built forts in the bush.
* Never underestimate the value of something as simple as climbing a tree - to a child it can open up their imagination to be an invitation to reenact a book setting they’ve seen (my kids here are imagining they’re characters in Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest).
* One of our sons had a small art exhibition displaying driftwood sculptures and other paintings inspired by nature when he was in his early teens.
* Acknowledging and appreciating the changing seasons has been memorable for our kids. Snow days saw us having snow fights, baking warm treats to enjoy whilst watching snow falling outside the windows or reading poems aloud about snow.
* Our Aunty (a trained horticulturalist) has given our kids many amazing hands on encounters with nature study. She has helped them grow mushrooms, done fungus studies with them, made spore prints and shown them examples of tree disease and pathogens. She has spoken about botanical terms, features of nature and the environment that we’d not have known otherwise and helped us all learn to recycle well. We are grateful to you Sull! Perhaps there is a friend, family or community member who has in-depth knowledge around nature study that you know.
* Sometimes nature has been the basis of a unit study and we’ve incorporated art and craft into it too like a unit we did on bees.
* Inspired by paw prints we’ve seen in our local environment, we’ve researched, read about and identified which animal they have come from and then tried to recreate these prints on a sand table.
* We’ve examined rock samples.
* We’ve watched sunrises together and closed the day gazing at the changing colours of the sunsets.
* We’ve roasted up marshmallows whilst waiting for darkness to descend upon us where we’ve then watched the International Space Station fly over us! We’ve awoken at 2am, rugged ourselves up and watched a meteor shower together.
* We’ve used nature for the basis of a colour study.
* With reef shoes on, we’ve explored creeks and the kids have collected logs and built ’dams’ from these.
* As the kids got older, they sometimes enjoyed creating lapbooks or doing some simple nature notebooking. (I have created some nature notebooking templates which you can find on my website). For our older teens, we occasionally used nature passages for copywork.
* We’ve also sketched found objects, fed and cared for our chooks and dogs, experimented with creating natural textile dyes from berries and leaves, we’ve created a little local ‘Bush Haven’ that our kids have enjoyed visiting and making forts. We have made a sundial, gone fishing, spotted seals on the far south coast, made treehouses, observed frost patterns and touched icicles clinging to bushes. We have learned that some birds nest on the ground (like the masked lapwing plovers that took up residence on a ‘scrape’ in our yard), we’ve gotten up close and personal to blue tongue lizards we’ve found, observed and gently let them go. We have watched swirly smoke rise up from campfires, rubbed the furry coat on almonds growing on our trees, observed our local river in drought and flood, grown zucchinis, grapes, olives, lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, watermelon, lemons, cucumber, spinach, stone fruit and herbs. We’ve made leaf and rock rubbings with paper and crayons, made ant and worm farms and enjoyed finding geocaches in nature around us.
I know that there are probably too many things mentioned here and I hope it wasn’t overwhelming. I do however hope that it might spark an idea or two and that ultimately, you might see that there are some simple ways that you can awaken a spirit of awe, wonder and connection in your daily life learning together through nature study.