The Butterfly Girl, by Winslow Homer
As a family, we try to study one particular area of nature over a six week time period. I post a colorful sign on the wall listing the major areas from nature.
Rocks and Minerals
The Heavens (includes weather, stars, planets)
This gives the children ideas and it reminds me which areas we have neglected. Every few years we revisit a subject but learn something new about it. I make a loose plan each school year choosing six areas of study from the above list for us to study throughout the year-two areas per term, allowing for possible unexpected changes. I don't 'microplan' by choosing what each of those six weeks' flora and fauna will be, rather just the area to study. For example, this term past 12 week term we studied wildflowers the first six weeks and insects the last 6 weeks.
We don't try to do an overview, but concentrate on just a few creatures, plants, etc... each time. I used to be very haphazard about our studies, but whenever I chose to 'unschool' in an area, things got neglected. In this way, we are sure to expose ourselves to a variety of subjects, but also allow for interruptions and changes in the schedule if we discover an unexpected critter or have an opportunity to visit an area where the flora and fauna were not in our plan.
I use The Handbook of Nature Study as my personal guide and teacher. I can usually find all the info I need in this 800 page paperback. Let's say we are going to study insects; I read the general information about insects for myself and then condense and paraphrase it for my children- drawing a quick sketch of the major insect parts or life cycles. I feel it is important that I don't make this 'academic', avoiding paper assignments. Kids can smell them a mile away : )
Then we go outside on an insect hunt with a few collecting jars and our journals. I give each child their own baby food jar with holes poked in the lid and each name written in permanent marker. We've used the same jars for several years. If we find a praying mantis, we look it up in the Handbook and in a field guide, learn about it, maybe keep it as a pet for awhile by reading Pets in a Jar, all the while, forming a connection with this aspect of nature. If we have time, we draw it in our nature journals, maybe even paint it. The following week we look for new insects. That's all there is to it.
We have been particularly interested in butterflies lately. The first thing we did was make a very simple catching net. I took apart an old clothes hanger and formed it into a circle, cut a piece of soft window screen material (you can use muslin) that we had on hand and recycled a broken stick horse without the head for a handle. You can find instructions here. This perked my children's interest. The little ones were excited. My oldest two daughters were not yet convinced that this was worth their time, but when I announced that they could use my digital camera to take pictures of each butterfly caught within the net, I detected some real interest.
The task was simple. As a group their goal was to catch and photograph ten different kinds of butterflies within the hour. They would all stay together. They were not to touch the butterfly's wings but could let it climb onto their hand. Then they must let them free. Later, we pulled out our field guides and try to identify them from the pictures. Those that we couldn't find, we Googled. We also looked in Comstock's Handbook for any other interesting information. Then we added their names to our nature lists in the back of our nature journals as well as the date and location where they were spotted. Next week we plan to make this butterfly feeder and see if we can attract even more 'flying flowers.' Here's a great video in time lapse showing metamorphosis.
The children had a delightful time and learned a lot. I am especially pleased that my 12 year old took a real interest in the subject. She has continued to catch and identify butterflies on her own throughout the week. She was my one child who has shown the least regard for nature study. However, the delight of catching and the use of the camera has sparked a fire within her.
In our nature studies, I like to change things around each year just a little so that it is always fresh and new for the children's sake. I do this by giving new journals to the children each year with pretty covers. I also change the medium. One year we use color pencils, another year we use watercolor or watercolor pencils. One year we used black ink pens rather than pencils. We also spent one year pressing flowers, leaves and feathers rather than drawing them, then we covered them with clear contact paper, placing each inside the journals. This year we are using the camera and concentrating on our online nature journal.
There are many, many ways to journal and I want my children to each find a style that appeals to their individual personalities so I expose them to a variety of methods. If one child is not particularly interested in drawing, I still require it during the elementary years so as to develop this skill. But when the children get a little older, say 12 years old, I have them read a nature journal from a different naturalist each year. Many naturalists have unique styles. For example, Edith Holden's journal consists mostly of beautiful watercolor sketches with quaint sayings. Animals and flowers are labeled and all is within a monthly format. Whereas Dallas Sharpe's Lay of the Land is a journal he kept of his nature walks without pictures but very descriptive writing. I have also introduced my older children to a few online journals, or those that have entries on the page but the margins have simple sketches. (a sample is in the introductory pages of Comstock's Book HONS)
My goal is not necessarily to make professional naturalists but to create within each child an appreciation for nature that will last a lifetime. I hope my children will spend part of their leisure time even as adults enjoying God's creation in this way. Life will be sweeter and God will receive glory.
one step at a time...