Natural History Clubs: A Case for Inspiration

Last year at the Charlotte Mason Institute Conference I was inspired by CM mom and educator, Cheri Struble who presented the idea of the Natural History Club.  She explained that the original club was established by members of the Parents’ National Educational Union to support parents and teachers in their study and understanding of Natural History.  “…children will not become keen and enthusiastic about Natural History, unless their parents and teachers also show feeling of interest and devotion to it.  But as very few, comparatively speaking, of the present generation have been taught to study Natural Science in their youth, it is now a difficulty how to set about learning, and how to show enthusiasm over what is unknown and unfamiliar.” (the Lady Isabel Margesson, “Our P.N.E.U. Natural History Club”, The Parents’ Review, p. 920).  What a wonderful testimony of people coming together to meet a need in their community.  The result?  Natural History Clubs established across England that breathed life into parents, teachers and children that then became inspired to study nature.

Fast forward to 21st century America and sorrowfully we still find parents and teachers suffering from similar circumstances that prompted the P.N.E.U. to establish the Natural History Clubs.  Modern parents and educators, like those of the early 20th century, have not a strong foundation in natural history and while they see the value in teaching the subject, they are way too busy with life’s demands to figure it out.  To make matters more challenging, this generation has been raised in the digital era and is dangerously susceptible to being numbed by the distractions of technology. Unfortunately, our relationship with nature and the created order continues to be broken. We are ever indoors when we should be out. We are enamored with pixels when we should be in wonder of the Primrose. We have exchanged the real for the virtual and find ourselves more and more isolated and disconnected from God’s good world.

Before treading any further, we must ask the question of why the study of nature is so important?  Why does Charlotte Mason place so much emphasis on the natural world?  When reading through Miss Mason’s volumes, particularly vol. 1 Home Education, we find that Nature Study in a Charlotte Mason education is foundational to all of school life.  How so?  Nature study is a study through observation.  It requires the observational power of our senses. By taking in the natural world through our senses we organically begin to distinguish, discriminate and identify those things around us. The more we observe, the more the opportunity to strengthen these and other skills needed in academics.  No wonder Miss Mason advocated for young children to be out of doors 4-6 hours every day!  Not only is nature study valued for being foundational to academics, but it is highly valued because of the aesthetic experience it offers.  Being out in nature, most anyone will tell you, is refreshing and renewing to the soul.  Charlotte Mason herself is said to have spent 2 hours a day in the outdoors.  Mrs. Edward Sieveking had this to say in a Parents Review article on the educational value of natural history:

About everyone who has drunk deep the wells Nature, there is always a calm, absorbed freedom from mental stress, from emotional wear and tear…[Natural History] takes us off to a new world of life, to a new way of looking at our own world.  It has a power of Divinity in it, for it makes all things new to anyone, man, woman or child, who comes to it not preoccupied, and with an open mind, ready to be taught a wider education of life at first hand.

It is this education of life at first hand that leads to the most important purpose of nature study: to grow in the wisdom and knowledge of Creator God and His magnificent, good creation.  God reveals Himself through the natural world and it is ours for the taking.  It is education from the supreme educator first hand. 
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I was inspired by the concept of the Natural History Club. In our community, we have a growing number of homeschooling parents new to Charlotte Mason.  The enthusiasm is tremendous, but so is the time and effort that goes into self-educating, parenting, teaching and being the CEO of the household.  Unfortunately, subjects like Nature Study begin to be seen as “extra” and get put off day after day.  We cannot let this be the case if nature study is the foundational study of a Charlotte Mason education.  I believe Miss Mason understood the demands of motherhood and still offers hope when she states,

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. (vol. 1, p. 44)

Having faith that we are capable of working wonders may require some lifestyle changes—a simpler life that creates space in our minds, schedules and tasks to let the wonder work.  We need to lean on each other, encourage one another to have the faith that we can work wonders.      Inspired to support parents and teachers in this endeavor, I have started offering a Natural History Club in my local community.  Parents and children meet at one of our local natural spaces once a month for a nature walk, prepared object lesson, time for exploring and journaling.  You can learn more about The Natural History Club here.  It is a time for children and parents to know and experience nature together.  It is an opportunity to do and learn despite the distractions and busy life.  It is an opportunity to be inspired.  At the end of our first meeting this year, a young child experiencing Nature Study for the first time came up to me and said, “You know, I spend a lot of time playing video games.  I don’t think that’s good.  This was nice, being outside like this.  I think I need to do this more.”  It’s quite true then what Mrs. Sieveking says, “There is this about the education that comes to us in the out-of-door study of natural history, it never lets us go when once it has taken hold of us.” Here’s to inspiration!

                                                                                Wander away and away
                                                                                   With Nature, the dear old nurse,
                                                                               Who will sing to them night and day
                                                                                  The rhymes of the universe.