Nature Study in Winter

Getting out in winter looks different all over the country, but in Ohio and New Jersey, where we live, the winters mean cold and snow.  Sometimes just a bit, other times a big, heavy helping, but every winter is cold and snowy.  It is easy to think that in weather like this, we should stay in our warm homes until the season passes.  Hot tea and hot cocoa, books and warm slippers, movie nights and cozy blankets – all of this sounds pretty appealing when the weather is chilly.  With that said, if we prepare ourselves with warm and water-resistant clothing, winter is an especially beautiful season and there is so much to explore and learn.

Here are some ideas to inspire winter nature study:

Trees:

Buds: Did you know the buds on trees and many bushes form in fall, so they are ready to inspect and explore.  They will swell and become more visible in spring, but they are formed now.  Are they hard or soft?  Fuzzy or smooth?  What color are they in winter? Below are three that I found right in my front yard.

 




Bark: Being able to identify your favorite tree using the bark is a lovely way to know your favorite trees even better.  What better time than in winter, when you don’t have the benefit of seeing their leaves, fruit, or seeds?  I personally like using the book Bark, as it outlines the ways to look more deeply at the color, texture, and surface variations of the bark on trees.

Astronomy:

When the darkness comes early, its great to find a clear day and look at the skies after dinner.  You don’t need much knowledge to start – be able to find the north star or the big dipper and then see where your curiosity takes you.  If you are looking to go in depth during your winter term, check out The Stars or Find the Constellations by H.A. Rey (of Curious George fame, who knew he was an astronomer?)  Sometimes, I like to use my SkyView app as well to learn more about what I’m seeing.

Birds:

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Here, a wren and a Black-capped Chickadee get a snack.

Birds are easier to see in winter because the branches are so bare.  Head out for a walk in your neighborhood, at a local park, or at a nature center.  If you have a pair of binoculars, you’ll be able to spot lots of varieties of non-migrating birds.  Or, maybe where you live is “the south” for some varieties of birds that spend their summers in the far north?  My favorite idea blends my love of birds with my desire to stay warm – window bird feeders.  I’ve collected a bunch of feeders over the years and I really love to be able to have one right in my living room window.  I’ve found they work best when you have other feeders on a post nearby, then the birds eventually become brave enough to jump right over to your window.  Other sources of food are scarce in the winter, so I find my feeders full of delightful varieties of birds – right now I can see a nuthatch, junco, a pair of cardinals, tufted titmouse, red-bellied woodpecker, song sparrow, and a house finch.  In the past few days we’ve been visited by a whole murmuration of starlings, a red-tailed hawk (who did not have any seed, but perhaps was looking for all the song birds?) as well as a blue jay.

Is it truly just too cold to go outdoors?  A trip to your closet, thrift store, or donation pile might offer enough substance for a bit of nature study.  Find something made of 100% cotton, 100% wool, and 100% linen and get your magnifying glass.  Inspect the different fibers and then go in your encyclopedia or online to see what they look like when they are growing, how they are spun into yarn (both now and historically), and how they are woven or knit into the fabrics we wear.  This could also spur some handicrafts – be warned!  Suddenly, the kids might be interested in weaving, spinning, or knitting for themselves.

Lastly, study the snow!  Weather study is great most times of year, but especially in winter when the precipitation is so varied.  Is it snow, sleet, or hail?  Perhaps leave a few magnifying glass plates out in the cold and wait for a snowflake to land on them.  Can you get them in quickly enough to check out the flake magnified? Maybe a magnifying glass outdoors offers enough of a glimpse of the crystalline structure.  Try it out!  Why do icicles form and why does salt keep the streets from icing?  What kind of clouds bring the snow and what does the barometer do before the snow comes?  So many questions to explore around the weather in wintertime!

What is your favorite way to do nature study in the winter months?  If you aren’t in the snow areas, how does your climate and surroundings change during this time of year?

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Gift Suggestions for a CM Holiday – Nature

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We have created a few lists to help you get your Christmas (or Hanukkah, or Birthday, or any other gift giving day) shopping done and to help you in your quest for the things that with help you create and atmosphere, a discipline, and a life of education. It may seem a bit early, but we know many moms shop early so that job is done and they can enjoy the Advent season without the pressure of buying gifts.  If you’re a last minute shopper, bookmark this list and it will be waiting for you in December.  These are all items we have and love, or would like to have.  Most are not affiliate links and we are not sponsored by any companies.  We do however have a few Amazon affiliate links mixed in, which means your cost remains the same but we get a few cents for sending you there and it helps us with stocking stuffers for our combined nine children.

The Nature List

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John Muir Laws’ favorite binoculars.


I’ve been using this pocket watercolor set for years.  I love that I can refill it with different hues or better grade paint as I improve (though, for my level of skill, this is really great quality!) and it is so small that I can take it anywhere.

These water brushes have made all the difference for us! It used to seem so difficult to paint in the field, but now we can open our paints and begin with these brushes that hold a reservoir of water.

Wildflowers Poster

This beautiful wildflowers poster would be a lovely addition to any room in the house, and there are also versions for bugs, herbs, leaves, birds, and many others.  If you can’t fit a full poster, check out the nature cards.

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How about a pretty pouch for paints and pencils?

How about some rubber boots that won’t break the bank, but will keep you both fashionable and dry?  Then you can step right into the creek with your kids or trudge through mud without flinching.  This is one of my favorite investments – now the kids don’t get all the fun! (Amy seconds the recommendation on these boots! They have held up better than any other boot brand we have tried and purchasing in black means they can be passed down from one kid to the next!)

My kids loved getting these 7-in-1 outdoor tools as stocking stuffers one Christmas. It features a whistle, compass, thermometer, led light, magnifier, viewfinder, lanyard and storage chamber.

We have used many different types of Nature Journals over the years, but have settled on these as our favorites. They feel good in your hands, are small enough to carry on a hike or on vacation, come in different colors which is nice for a big family!  (We’ve also used this one and this one,, if you are looking for a hard back edition.

One of the best purchases we’ve made are designated nature bags for each child to carry their own supplies when on a hike. With this many kids, it would be hard for mom to carry everyone’s water, paints, journals, etc.! Having everyone in charge of their own possessions is just one less impediment to getting outside!!! These are ultralight and durable and from the 2,000+ reviews and all the added videos and pictures, you can see how awesome they are.  A great gift was for each kid to get one of these in a different color.

 

This hummingbird feeder brought our family so much joy last summer.  I can’t even sing its praises highly enough.  Hummingbirds came right up to the window all day long!  They are amazing to watch.

If you aren’t in an area that hummingbirds frequent, what about a feeder for birds that do come to your area?  We love this window feeder to see them up close, but be warned that they won’t come right away.  We set up a few other feeders within two or three feet of this one (they were mounted on a pole) so that they would be bribed to come nearby and eventually be brave enough to jump to the window feeder.

 

Want to turn your iPhone camera to take amazing close up shots?  The easy macro allows you to take amazing shots of bugs, flowers, leaves, and all sorts of other nature!  Here are a few examples:

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Being a Hometown Tourist

A common theme I read when going through the volumes is that children should know their surroundings and have a sense of place, topophilia if you will.  They should be aware of the nature that lives in their backyard and the surrounding countryside – what trees, wildflowers, and creeks are present, when they bloom and when they fade.  She also uses their local towns and neighborhoods as the perfect starting ground for geography lessons.  What better place to learn east from west than where you see the sun rise and set each day?

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I can’t help but notice however, that all too often, we mothers don’t even have this deep knowledge of our own place.  Perhaps it is due to a recent move, or perhaps due to the fact that we didn’t learn about our own surroundings well when we were growing up, but we just don’t know if our street is lined with ash, or elm, or maple trees and we aren’t sure if Elm Street runs north and south or east and west.

May I invite you then, to become a local tourist?  Why daydream of traveling afar, when the local surroundings may be just as new to you?

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First, it could be helpful to find a local Nature Center.  The center itself will probably have plenty of helpful information about the local flora and fauna – more than you can learn in a day, so consider getting a membership and making this a spot to visit often.  Sometimes these are privately owned and other times they can be found within state parks.  Learn the surrounding trails, creeks, and the trees and plants that grow there.  Immerse yourself in the native species around you.

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When you know a bit more about your area, it is easier to spot local species in local parks and on your local street.  Pick up a field guide to help you if you don’t have one specific to your area and climate.

Next, grab a map of your neighborhood (printing a map from google maps is easiest) and acquaint yourself with your immediate area.  Did you know there was a pond behind that house, or a creek?  Are you surprised by how much forest-like growth covers the neighborhood?  Next, explore your town center, or the neighborhood of a close relative or friends.  Walk it, don’t drive.  Don’t use a gps, but just your printed map and your senses.  Bring a compass and keep an eye of the movement of the sun during your walk.

If perhaps, you find yourself in an area that is new to you or that you don’t really love, consider this your chance to learn to love it.  Maybe the location is temporary, or out of your comfort zone (speaking as a northeastern gal who lived on the west coast and the deep south, I feel you) but there are tactics to loving it more and making wonderful memories there!

Once you learn a bit about nature and geography, learn a bit about the people.  Make an attempt to find local shops and restaurants and meet the owners.  It is all too easy to come to a new place and order all the stuff you need from Amazon so you can unpack, homeschool, cook, and clean.  Choose to lean into the local resources of your neighborhood and the people of your town instead.  Find a great book store, a great coffee shop, and the library.  Attempt to have a conversation at each place.  When you find your church, make an attempt to walk there if you live close enough.  If not, then just try to spark a meaningful conversation after the service.

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Soon, you’ll find yourself feeling a deeper sense of place and a deeper curiosity as it changes through the seasons and the years.  Being a hometown tourist will help you find real joy and contentment exactly where you are right now.

Out-of-Doors Life: A Fossil Hunt, or Dealing with the Unexpected

“It is infinitely well worth of the mother’s while to take some pains every day to secure, in the first place, that her children spend hours daily amongst rural and natural objects; and, in the second place, to infuse into them, or rather to cherish in them, the love of investigation.” -Charlotte Mason, Vol., pg. 71

Let me share with you, I am a woman who likes a plan.  I’m not terribly spontaneous.  Maybe it is the decade of parenting under my belt, or the four dear children, or homeschooling, but I have learned to roll with the punches much better than I used to, but I still like a plan.  That said, the study of nature is not always one that will bend itself to my plan.  Perhaps you’ve found the same to be true?  On the plan it says, “Pin Oak”, and so you head out with your field guide and your nature journal and your colored pencils to study the Pin Oak at the state park only to find that they place is overrun with worms.  Worms lurk under every fallen leaf, every rock, and all over the trail.  You persevere in your attempts to call attention to a majestic tree, the shape of its leaves, and the acorns it drops in autumn, but the children squeal and jump and laugh because they can’t move their feet or they are likely to have their next step be into a bed of earthworms. Nature wins, it is now Earthworm Day.  You have no field guide to help you, but you press on. The kids have a great time, you go home and figure out some stuff about worms and share it with them and the day is a good one after all. These days may irk those of us who then look at our plan and see that the prescribed learning wasn’t accomplished.  We didn’t “cover” the Pin Oak.

Allow me to ease your concerns a bit.  If you go outdoors everyday, and you plan a directed Nature Study or Object Lesson once per week, even if you don’t exactly have a day that goes to plan, the habit of being outside daily will cover up any perceived lack from missing the lesson that was supposed to be “covered”.  Just keep going outside and following your plan as best you can.

Take our weekend nature study as an example.  We were planning to go on a fossil hunt at a local park.  Fossil guide in hand, we took to the car.  After we arrived, we noticed that the area was like stepping into another part of the country.  The park was an old quarry, filled back in and left to the public to explore, meaning that it had an eerie bareness to it that isn’t customary in Ohio.  It seemed like a western desert!

Already, talk of fossils changed to conversations about the Oregon Trail, covered wagons, and the expectations of tumbleweed.

Soon, we reached the fossil trail and this wall of rock that we all wanted to climb in order to find the treasures it seemed to promise.  Unfortunately, this trail proved to be only for those with steady balance as it was quite steep and made largely of loose rock that would slide out easily from under you.  My middle son was disappointed that he kept sliding down and was told it probably wasn’t a good idea to climb the high wall.  Also, I found myself unable to go at all because of a certain hitchhiker…

Mom and the two youngest found themselves unable to do the most fun parts of the fossil trail.  We could have let this be a big disappointment, but we decided to explore for other things.  The others could bring fossils to us.

So we found all the different colors of rocks that we could find…

We met a little grasshopper, who wanted to catch a ride with big sister, but wasn’t interested in staying very long…

And talked about how a leaf starts out as green and then turns brown and falls off the tree…

We found shorter hills to summit, so as to not let the older kids have all the fun…

and we even found a fossil or two.  Don’t let your plans or your expectations for the day dictate whether the day was a success!  Roll with the events that come your way and enjoy the surprises nature (or circumstance) throw your way.  Make the most of each adventure and teach your children, through your example, resilience, good humor, and joy.  Those matter so much more than if they found any fossils on the exact day I wanted them to!

Getting Outside: The Outdoor Life Series

Problem: “But they get Dirty!”

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Okay, you take your kids outside and they have a blast rolling down a hill, exploring a creek, and making mud pies. You love that the hours flew so quickly and everyone had so much fun until…you get home.

You have a pile of muddy shoes, muddy jeans, and muddy kids!

It’s enough to make you stay home next time. Or should it?

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  1. Did you know that dirt is good for your children’s health? Studies show that dirt builds your child’s immune system. *

 

  1. Did you know that dirt is good for your child’s emotional well-being? Studies now show that direct contact with soil improves mood and reduce anxiety. Another study showed that there is good bacteria in dirt which activate neurons in the brain to release serotonin, much in the same manner as anti-depressants and exercise. *

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  1. Did you know that this kind of play builds children who are “vital and vigorous, full of living interests, available and serviceable? ” How does Mason suggest we do this? Facilitating our children’s relationship with nature.

She continues,

“There are, what I may call, dynamic relations to be established. He must stand and walk and run and jump with ease and grace. He must skate and swim and ride and drive, dance and row and sail a boat. He should be able to make free with his mother earth and to do whatever the principle of gravitation will allow. This is an elemental relationship for the lack of which nothing compensates.” Volume 3 p. 80

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  1. Did you know that this kind of play builds confidence and mastery?

Another elemental relationship, which every child should be taught and encouraged to set up, is that of power over material. Every child makes sand castles, mud-pies, paper boats, and he or she should go on to work in clay, wood, brass, iron, leather, dress-stuffs, food-stuffs, furnishing-stuffs. He should be able to make with his hands and should take delight in making.” Volume 3 p. 80.

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What we need are clothes and shoes we don’t mind getting dirty and a plan for when we get home.

  • Where do muddy shoes go?
  • Where do muddy clothes go?
  • Where do muddy kids go?
  • Where do water bottles go?
  • Where do nature journals go?

 

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This post is part of our “Getting outside: An Outdoor Life Series”.

 

 

Getting Outside: An Outdoor Life Series

Problem: Getting Mom Outside!

This week we are beginning a new series to encourage us in our pursuit of an “outdoor life.” I thought there was no better place to start then on motivating us as mothers to go outside! In the future, we hope to cover a range of topics on why we should spend time in nature, what to do when we are there and solutions to some of the things that keep us inside. So to begin, 6 reasons for Moms to go outside.

“I make a point, says a judicious mother, of sending my children out, weather permitting, for an hour in the winter, and two hours a day in the summer months. That is well; but it is not enough. In the first place, do not send them; if it is anyway possible, take them; for, although the children should be left much to themselves, there is a great deal to be done and a great deal to be prevented during these long hours in the open air. And long hours they should be; not two, but four, five, or six hours they should have on every tolerably fine day, from April till October. Impossible! Says an overwrought mother who sees her way to no more for her children than a daily hour or so on the pavements of the neighbouring London squares. Let me repeat, that I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children; and that, in the faith that mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them.” P. 43-44

Do you struggle to get outside with your children? We want them to grow in fortitude but we ourselves complain of the heat, the cold, the bugs! There are also so many other things we could be doing: laundry, catching up on email, cleaning, napping, making dinner…we might even drum up work rather than get outside—“I know that drawer has been messy since we moved into the house, but now is the moment to tackle it!”

Why should we do it?

1. My children love it when I do. They are happy if I just park myself nearby in a chair with a book or my bullet journal. They stop by to show me discoveries and there are lots of “Hey mom, watch this!”

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Our boys showing-off!

2. Getting outside for a small chunk of time daily and for big chunk of time weekly forces (or inspires!) me to work diligently and efficiently. As Mason says, “mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them.” So to get outside, I may have to prep dinner during lunch or get it in the crockpot in the morning. I might need to get up early to answer emails before the day gets going. I know I can’t spend time dawdling on facebook and pinterest. I must remember to get the laundry going and change it over right away, (rather than letting it sit in the washing machine for hours!), so it is done before our afternoon out-of-doors. Nicole Williams at Sabbath Mood Homeschool has a very inspiring post along these lines.

3. We must remember how good it is for us. Yes, we have a million things to do, but moms are people too and the fresh air and the natural world are good for us, body and soul. I often complain that I am stressed or tired, but then don’t take the time to rest, when given the opportunity. Being outside gives my body a chance to relax and my brain a chance to sort itself out. Just be sure to keep your phone in your bag, so you’re not tempted to check email or the app that temps you most! The more we do it, the more we see the fruit of it.

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Camille the fire-master!

4. It’s important for mom to play too. There has been a lot of research and attention given to the need for adults to play: we stay younger, healthier when we do!

Here’s a few links: the psychological case for play and the importance of play in adulthood  and a TED Talk Play is more than fun!

5. On the other hand, there is more to outside time then play, as Mason says in the quote above, “for, although the children should be left much to themselves, there is a great deal to be done and a great deal to be prevented during these long hours in the open air.”

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This was the one of the few pictures of me outside that I could find on my computer!

And what is it we are to accomplish?

“…. here is the mother’s opportunity to train the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and to drop seeds of truth into the open soul of the child, which shall germinate, blossom, and bear fruit ….” Volume 1 p. 44-45

  1. This is our chance to learn all about nature for those nature lessons later in the week or down the road! I’ve had many moms tell me they can’t do nature study with their children because they don’t know nature themselves. While our children play, we can draw in our nature journals, work on identifying birds, trees, and plants, and bring along a nature lore book for ourselves.

So let’s do it this week! Schedule what time each day you’ll be going out for a short time and pick one day to dedicate a few hours for outdoor play. Come back and tell us how it went!

Also, we want to know what keeps you from getting outside? Are their any topics you’d like us to cover in this new series?

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The Out of Doors Life: A Vacation

“Children are born with all the curiosity they will ever need. It will last a lifetime if fed upon a daily diet of ideas.” Charlotte Mason

When we nurture habits of attention and spend ample time outdoors,  a life of wonder and discovery is a very natural result. You will also find that this type of life does not take a vacation. In fact, when you find yourself in new and unfamiliar places, the desire to discover intensifies.

Recently, we traveled for a beach wedding and it was an excellent place to explore the seashore in the Gulf of Mexico and see how it is both different from and similar to the Atlantic coast that we used to frequent.

Our first night, we took a sunset walk and found the blue herons were so used to people that they allowed us to come very close to se to them. We could examine their coloring, watch them walk, and then watch them take off in flight. It was really amazing!

The next morning, we decided to take advantage of the time zone change and get up before sunrise for another walk. It was absolutely beautiful. At both sunset and sunrise, the kids were amazed at how quickly the sun moved and that they could watch it without hurting their eyes. It led to lots of conversation and questions. How long does it take for the early to go around the sun? How long does it take to spin around? What is closer – the sun or the moon? We chatted about tides and the moon, seasons, and shortening days. It was fun to see how a walk on the shore sparked an astronomy discussion.

Creatures who hide in the heat of the day are out and about before the sun rises. We saw clams, crabs, a hermit crab, herons diving into the water hunting for a meal, dolphins frolicking in the waves, and loads of different types of gulls.

When you are reading Pagoo for your science time, it is especially exciting to find a hermit crab at the beach!

Of course, we don’t need an eleven hour drive to find new things (and would probably prefer not to!) – is there a spot you’ve been thinking about hiking, or a park you haven’t explored? I encourage you to find a place new to you and see what you find!