Sunday, October 28, 2007

Gentle Learning: Enjoying Nature

I am not tackling the list from my gentle learning post in order, just going with whatever is uppermost in my mind ... which now happens to be nature, as I have just read the learning out-of-doors section of Charlotte Mason's Home Education.

Charlotte advocates spending as much time out of doors enjoying nature as is practically possible, so that children come to truly know its different aspects. I think in the past I have registered the list of things she recommends should be accomplished and skipped over the fact that these should be only mentioned lightly and occasionally, as a minor part of the time spent outdoors. The heart of her method is experiencing nature so that it becomes a part of the child.

Thinking back to my own childhood I can see just what she means. I grew up experiencing nature. My father was a farmer, so I naturally spent a large amount of time out of doors. There is so much that I knew without ever consciously learning. I knew how wheat grew from watching the first shoots to the ripe crop; I knew the feel of the ears and the taste of the individual grains. I knew a daisy from making daisy chains. I could still describe one from memory in detail - the look and feel of the petals and the stem, the way the stem could be pierced with a fingernail to thread a chain, the flower's evening sleeping habits. I knew hawthorn hedges and blackberry bushes, acorns and conkers, how to suck the nectar out of a dead nettle, and which nettles are dead and which sting. And as an adult I love nature. I am happy to recognise old friends and to make new discoveries. I enjoy keeping a nature notebook and learning more about nature.

Realistically, I can't give my own children the same experience. Spending hours outside just isn't going to happen. I'm too much of a fair weather person, a real limitation given our unpredictable and often damp climate. I also only have the use of the car a couple of days a week. The open spaces within walking distance are few and getting to other places by public transport is time consuming. Our garden is small and limited to grass and a hedge; I have black thumbs, and the few things I do manage to grow, Tevye - who is sometimes overly tidy-minded - digs up.

So how can Little Cherub and I enjoy nature together? How can I help her to experience it, rather than turn it into a lesson, given our limitations? This list of ideas is a beginning, that I hope to expand as time goes on.

  • Regular (weekly?) trips to our local country park, which combines ancient woodland, newer plantations, heathland, pasture, a lake and a pond with nature study area. Aim to stay for two or three hours, not just take a quick stroll round the lake!
  • Visit countryside and parks just to play outdoors - not always be tempted to gravitate to the playground and swing on the swings, or at least to make that only part of a trip out.
  • Start gardening projects and follow them through.
  • Turn my failed rockery into a wildflower garden. (Out of the mouths of babes: "Mummy, why are there a load of rocks dumped at the top of the drive?" "That's my rock garden." "No it's not, it's just an untidy heap of rocks.")
  • Replace my ancient unused bird feeder, and fill it.
  • Encourage Little Cherub to grow things (indoors and out).
  • Keep a seasonal nature table, Waldorf style
  • Modelling - make my own enjoyment of nature obvious; take out my own nature notebook again and work on it regularly.
  • Read picture books with nature themes, both fiction and non-fiction. (Does experiencing nature vicariously through books count? Yes, I think it does so long as it is an extension of real experience, not a replacement for it.)
  • Be aware of opportunities for outside time. For example, allow extra time when walking places so we can stop and smell the roses. Literally.
  • Cultivate "masterly inactivity". Gently pass on occasional nuggets of interesting information, but avoid falling into the mindset of cramming in "education". Smell the roses. Don't analyse them!

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