Monday, July 02, 2007

Nature Study- Butterflies or 'How we use The Handbook of Nature Study'

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.

Flowerless Plants
Non vertebrates
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...


  1. Thanks, Lindafay, for making nature study seems not-so-complicated. Your butterfly study looked fruitful. Can you tell me where to find the Dallas Sharpe book you mentioned and direct me to the online nature journals you described?

    Many thanks!

  2. Anonymous2.7.07

    Wonderful! And thank you for saying one of your children has a bit of a hard time with this. It helps those of us who work hard and our children just don't take to something like we had hoped. :)
    Tarheel Mama

  3. Thank you, Linda for sharing this. Nature Study, IMO, seems to be one of those areas that moms are unsure of because it 'seems' too simple. ;)

  4. Thanks for sharing this- we've been talking about starting a family nature journal, and this is inspiring!

  5. Very timely!

    We found a Monarch caterpillar on our nature walk last week. After 3 days of supplying it with fresh milkweed, it decided it was time to "morph" on Friday night. The children were in the middle of their bed time routine, but I was able to call them down just in time. They were totally engrossed! I am so grateful their little heads are being filled with such rich real life experiences.

    It was absolutely AMAZING to share this with my children. I couldn't stop thinking "this is why we homeschool...."

  6. Oh, and I have a quote for the copybook:

    "Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly." ~anonymous

  7. Betty2.7.07

    Great inspiration, Linda. Thanks so much!

    I think we can do this!

    Grace & Peace,

  8. Hi Linda,

    I enjoyed this post. I need all the pointers I can get for our Nature Study. :)

    I was sort of curious about the last butterfly pictured. I thought butterflies kept their wings up when they landed. That is how you can tell the difference between butterflies and moths, or so I thought.

    Also, would you mind sharing what website you get your music downloads from?

    Thanks so much!
    Elisabeth aka timbuck2mom

  9. Very nicely done. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Thank your Lindafay!! This is just great, you are an awsome mama! I wish you (or I) were closer so that I could meet you!
    Now to figure out which would be good for indoor winter learning! :) Thanks again!!

  11. Nature Study really IS easy. I think we get bogged down sometimes as moms because there is so much to choose from, we just don't know where to begin. I try not to do that on this blog. I want to keep it simple. Too many links and methods overwhelms me.

    Elisabeth, I usually use songs from my own personal collection of music, so I don't download from any sites.

    Amy Lu, I would LOVE to have had the same opportunity to find a Monarch. So happy for you and your kiddos.

    Danna, you are too kind. For winter times we often focus on stars and rocks. We also don't do as much nature study but focus more on handicrafts during the cold months.


  12. Elisabeth, I forgot to mention that the butterfly you questioned had just opened it's wings for a second and I managed to take its picture. It kept the wings folded most of the time.

  13. What a great post! I just typed up something about the Handbook and nature study last week to blog in the future...
    We are always examining some creature or flower-or weed outside!

  14. What a nice nature study, thank you so much for sharing. :)

  15. Popping in to say hello

    I came to your blog via a recommendation on one of the AO groups with regard to your Book of Centuries - which is a very informative and helpful post - I've put a link to it on my blog if that's ok - if not do say and I'll unlink.

    This recent post on Nature Study is an absolute delight too.

    Thank you for sharing your useful information.


  16. Thank you so much, Lindafay, for including the links for Dallas Sharpe and the online journal. I really will be tagging this post for future reference. Blessings!

  17. CJ, of course you may link. I'm glad the site has been helpful for you.

  18. When out in the field looking for your “critters”, you just never know what you might encounter! That’s what is so amazing with nature and spending time in it. This is a wonderful thing you are doing with the kids and soooo glad you are having them keep nature journals. I always try to stress how important they are since I am always finding myself going back to look things up!! So many wonderful photos here and I just love your home made nets! Keep up the great work and thanks for sharing my online journal with them. We need many more great teachers like youself out their!

  19. I have some butterfly pictures posted.
    Come see!
    I feel like I cheated though...
    my pictures were taken at the zoo!

  20. Thanks for sharing this post! We struggle in the area of our nature studies and this post was helpful.

    Glad I found your blog :)

  21. What a nice entry. I found an almost new Handbook of Nature at a booksale last month. It's nice to have a better idea what to do with it. I have one true animal lover, who is especially fascinated by insects and arthropods. About the best trip I've ever taken him on was a behind the scenes visit to the bug collection at a local museum. The third largest insect collection in the world, THE largest in the pacific and I think he would have stood and looked at each and every drawer if I'd let him.

  22. Anonymous13.7.07

    The Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Comstock is available online.

    It is here in several versions, including .txt and .pdf:

    Annette J.

  23. Forgive another Q, but what sort of handicrafts do you do, I know you hate busy work, so I suppose you also dislike useless crafts lying around. It just seems like most of the things I find are just another form of busy work, at least for the younger crowd, which is what I have. Sorry for the long rambaly Q! Thanks!!

  24. Danna, look on my sidebar for the category called Handicrafts and you should find some posts there that hopefully will answer your question.