Nature Study

“From the time children reach the age when they can talk, till the time arrives for them to be sent to school, their home and outdoor life, as expressed in conversation is a perpetual “Why!” They seek to know the reason for everything . . . in all the phenomena of nature, their curiosity is being constantly aroused” (Catholic Education Review, 1914)

Did you know in the late 1800’s teachers led students through investigations of science outside? The practice, called Nature Study, found hold in classrooms across the USA. I learned about Nature Study several years ago when I undertook a research report on the history of educating students in the outdoors. The history of this curriculum, its development and implementation, and progression into World War II, fascinate me. I would like to share a little bit with you below and hope it will encourage you to reconsider how you engage with science, maybe even encourage you to send your students outside to learn, even during this digital time.

In 1891, Jackman defined nature study as the study of science through observations and interactions in the elementary classroom. As the practice was adopted across the country, the definition and expectations changed. Students of all grade levels engaged in Nature Study as part of their education. To assist teachers in implementation of Nature Study in the classroom, the American Nature-Study Society began publishing “The Nature-Study Review”. If you have never seen this publication, check it out!

As more classrooms engaged in nature study, and the happenings inside of classrooms became a concern of the government, concern over the implementation, rigor, and equivalencies across classrooms developed. In 1913, Downing (editor of “The Nature-Study Review”) reframed the definition and declared “[Nature Study] stands for direct contact with materials, the absorption of essential data and mental growth by the solution of real problems.” This definition did not hold the test of time and in 1918, Nature-Study was again redefined as the study of nature through simple, truthful observations.

The role of the teacher also changed through the years. In 1902, Silcox said the role of the teacher was to ask wise questions. In 1905, the role of the teacher was to allow students to explore and discover, according to Hatch. And finally, in 1918, Comstock, the editor of “The Nature-Study Review” at that time, suggested the role of the teacher was “to cultivate in the children powers of accurate observation and to build up with in them, understanding.” I postulate the role of the teacher continues to be all of these things today. 

Why am I sharing this on my blog today? I believe we all need a little Nature Study in our lives. As we look at ways to teach our children, we need to incorporate time outside in those tasks. Everyone’s outside looks different and it is difficult to plan for specific learning opportunities available for all of our students outside, but everyone can step into the fresh air and observe, at the very least. I might be able to successfully argue that every child has an opportunity to explore bugs outside, too.

As we embark on this path of digital learning, let us remember to send kids outside to explore. In those explorations, learning will happen.


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