Saturday, January 22, 2011

Nature studies...

One of my favorite things in life is nature.

"Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?"  ~Matthew 6:26

Nature Walks...I live on the northern prairies and I'm sure they call this "Big Sky Country" because out here, there is nothing to block the sky. Te flora of  the plains mostly consists of  grass. The few trees that grow here are either living by a stock dam or along a creek. But this affords me large expanses of area that I can walk without hindrance, and I just love to walk. I used to walk to keep my legs toned, but now I've found many greater reasons to walk. I have found that my walks bring me closer to God. It is my most treasured time.  I've found so many answers to problems, and to anxiety, and I've found so many reasons to praise Him for the blessings in my life. No wonder Jesus often went to the mountain alone to pray and would be away until late in the night. I sometimes feel I could walk forever. The cares of the world just seem to slip away as I walk along and ponder the good earth God has  set right before my very eyes! 

Henry David Thoreau wrote, "I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks--who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering." My walks that were once "walking marathons" are now times of contemplation, prayer, and just being.  I now understand what Thoreau said about sauntering. The sauntering I do comes when I see a "new" wildflower in bloom or a grass that is beginning to head or a butterfly, cricket, beetle or an eagle flying overhead. Sauntering happens when I nearly step on a lark's nest of eggs whose builder suddenly flew up in front of my foot, or when I find a bull snake coiled around a dozen greeny-gray duck eggs which he is about to make a dinner of. Sauntering happens when I take a rest beside a dam ringed with Cottonwood trees and just listen to the wind blow through the leaves, or when I take the time to watch the rain drops on the water. Sauntering is good for the soul.

I also used to take Nature Walks with my children. We did this as a kind of discovery project. "What can we find today?" I encouraged them to bring back something they had found...a feather, rock, flower, moss, insect or sometimes it was the memory of an antelope barking at us from a distance. After our Nature Walks, we recorded our findings in what we call Nature Journals.

Nature Journals...These were books that we recorded in weekly--usually. They contained the dates of our walks, our findings along the path, drawings, nature coloring pages, leaf or flower pressings, observations, common and Latin names of the specimens, and any other things we thought  worthy of an entry in our books. We also include poems, scriptures, verses, quotes, or hymns that described further our nature experiences.

The books we used were hard-covered books that had lined pages in them. This way we were  much neater about our writing in them. We usually drew our pictures on regular copy paper or sketch paper and then glued them into the proper place. We  often recorded two years worth of information into each book, depending on how in depth we got and how many entries we had. I know that there are now blank books available which have pages that are half lined and half plain for sketches and written entries.  Later in our years of journaling, we used copy paper and put our sheets into clear page protectors and then into 3-ring binders.

These Nature Journals turned out to be our most treasured books. Each child, and I, love looking through the past years and seeing the changes in nature and in ourselves. As the years go by, the children's pages become more detailed, more artistic, and reflect who they have become. The book The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden, was a great inspiration for me. This book is now out of print, but I found a copy in our public library. If you are fortunate enough to find a copy, hang on to it.  Edith Holden recorded her nature findings month by month  in this book which included her watercolor paintings of flowers and birds as well as her thoughts and poetry.

Books...When one is "nature journaling," he ought to have some good field guides to help in identifying the specimens at hand. We prefered Audubon Society's Field Guides because they include pictures of the actual specimens rather than drawings. Their Pocket Guides are smaller and include more general information, but are very handy for younger students. Another book we really used until the binding was coming off  is called North American Wildlife by Reader's Digest. If you could only afford one field guide, this is the one. It includes general listings of every kingdom...insects, mammals, flowers, trees, mollusks and more.  Our kids sometimes carried it to the tree fort.

Handbook of Nature Study is also a favorite of mine. It was written by Anna Botsford Comstock in 1911 and has been re-printed. There are over 800 pages of in-depth nature studies on every topic you could imagine. One spring, we have had the opportunity to see a pair of robins nest in the wreath at our front door. We watched everything from nest building to laying of eggs to hatching and feeding. Right away we grabbed the Handbook of Nature Study to find out all about the robins and their habits---how many eggs could we expect, how much time would it take to hatch them, how many worms would the fledglings eat. This book also includes questions that one could use to help children observe nature. To me, this is a "must have" for nature study.
One winter I purchased a book called Discover Nature In Winter by Elizabeth P. Lawlor. Because I continue walking and studying nature throughout the year, I thought this would prove to be a neat book to have. And it has. The book taught us to first understand the reason for the season of Winter--the tilt of the earth from the sun, shorter days and such. Then you learn about snow, winter constellations, trees without their leaves, identifying weeds and wild plants, winter insects, winter birds, identifying empty nests and about mammals who sleep through the winter and how some change during winter. It was a fun book for Northerners like us!

For very young children, I enjoyed listening to the children read the series of books called Christian Liberty's Nature Readers. There are five easy to read books with stories like -- An Ant's Story-- Mr. Crab and His House-- A Cocoon-- What Mrs. Wasp Can Do. Although these are called "readers" they are very nicely written and I considered them good children's "literature."

A Book List... of favorites that I have read or my children have read which have nature themes.
To read aloud to the younger ones---
James Herriot's Treasury for Children
The Very Hungry Caterpillar (and others) - by Eric Carle
Charlotte's Web --Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White
The Great Race -- Love Flute -- Beyond the Ridge (and others) by Paul Goble
Tales of Peter Rabbit and His Friends by Beatrix Potter
Wait Till The Moon is Full by Margaret Wise Brown
Christian Liberty Nature Readers - edited by Michael J. McHugh & Dr. Paul D. Lindstrom
Pagoo -- Seabird -- by Holling Clancy Holling
Find the Constellations - by H.A. Rey
I See Animals Hiding - by Jim Arnosky (and others by him)
Parables from Nature
For mature readers and adults---
Rascal --The Wolfing -- by Sterling North
Walden --- Walking -- by Henry David Thoreau
Nature -- by Ralph Waldo Emerson
My Friend Flicka --Thunderhead --The Green Grass of Wyoming -- all by O'Hara
A Girl of Limberlost--Freckles --Laddie --The Harvester -- all by Gene Stratton-Porter
My Side of the Mountain - Julie of the Wolves - by Jean Craighead George
Misty of Chincoteague - Stormy,  Misty's  Foal - (and others) by Marguerite Henry
Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking - by Tom Brown

One of my personal goals is to continue to record enough nature in my journals to finally have every bird, plant, grass, and tree which lives on our western plains ranch. I'd like to include insects too, but I doubt I can find them all. Another personal goal is to give my children the ability to really "see" nature, to love God's creation, and to see His purpose in it. I want them to be able to recognize the flora and fauna of our every-day surroundings and be able to tell you something interesting about them. You can only imagine how delighted this mother was when her children came in from horseback riding and brought in a wildflower, weed, rock or insect that they had found along the way. "Let's look it up and see what it is," were sweet singing to my ears!
More on nature journals to come!
"The Amen! of Nature is always a flower."
Oliver Wendell Holmes

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Kindergarten Charlotte Mason style...

Kindgergarten at our house was very simple.  The Charlotte Mason method doesn't require much formal "seat work" for children under about 6 or 7.  Instead it mostly requires reading aloud for short periods of time, listening to beautiful music, observing nature, and free play outdoors.  Discovery through the five senses is the very best way to allow a young child to learn at this age.

I kept "seat work" very low key in these early learning years, although I did like the Rod and Staff workbooks for young children.  They are called the Preschool Series is Bible Pictures to Color, another one is Adventures with Books, Counting with Numbers, and several others.  These are very user friendly workbooks that little ones will enjoy the lessons of coloring, writing numbers, counting, cutting, pasting and such.  All of our children liked these very much and they are very inexpensive...about $2.35 each.  I also loved their wide-lined penmanship paper (with the center line).  
Keep lessons very short, about 10 minutes at a time.

In my humble opinion, I say just enjoy your little ones!  They are natural learners and their curiosity will teach them many lessons that a book can not.  Allow them to discovery naturally,  but give them time to "sit and do" tiny bits of "school work."    Children can count with dry beans or crayons,  sea shells or rocks, measure water in the sink (cup, pint, quart) or measure using the dry beans on a large cookie sheet (How many full cups go into the quart jar?).  

Let toys be of a minimum.  Instead, give them wooden blocks, sticks, small tools like shovels and rakes and brooms.  Allow them to discover that pine cones and rocks and shells are fascinating things to play with.  Bits of colored yarn or snippets of mother's scrap fabrics make playtime fun too.  Click Un-toys for an interesting downloadable PDF article.

Have plenty of paper and crayons on hand for creative drawing. Scissors, paper punches, rubber stamps and stickers are also fun for little children. It's fun to cut pictures from magazines and practice gluing them on paper to make interesting "posters."  Sometimes we made ABC books by cutting and gluing pictures that begin with each letter:  A - apple, ape, apron.   B - boy, banana, bucket.  C - camera, cow, cook. Save each page and staple them together with a homemade cover.  It will be fun for the child to review his letters with a book he made by himself.

Allow your child to "copy" words out of a book (just for fun) or draw his favorite pictures.  Give him many beautiful picture books to look at and let him "tell" the stories in his own words (he may say he's reading the book). And always be ready to read aloud to him on your lap. I like picture books with good stories.  Some favorites are:

Peter Rabbit and others by Beatrix Potter
Home for a Bunny and others by Margaret Wise Brown
The Lord is My Shepherd and others by Tasha Tudor
The Real Mother Goose
The Children's Book of Virtues by William Bennett
Wonders of Nature and others by Eloise Wilkin
Brambly Hedge books by Jill Barklem 
Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
Together with your child, collect bugs or flowers,  leaves or rocks. Find out their names.  Help the child to hear the wind in the trees or the owl in the night. Point to the changing color of the leaves. Tickle his nose with the chicken's feather or let the woolly bear caterpillar crawl on his arm.  Watch the ants on an ant hill work.  Set up bird feeders in your backyard and learn the names of each visitor.  EXPERIENCE nature together.

 I used to take "dictation" from my little ones and make books for them about different things that they were interested in.  One year my 6 year-old son wanted me to read about knights, castles, horses, and tournaments and so we did.  Then we made a little book with his re-tellings of these stories.  He drew and colored pictures of horses and shields to go with his words, and we just stapled them together into a very simple book with a cover made of a coloring page he did.  He thought these books were real treasures and even gave some of them away to favorite people as gifts!!  

Make things out of clay or playdough. Here is a very easy recipe that your young child can make. 

Homemade Playdough
2 cups flour, 1/2 cup salt and about 1 cup water. Mix flour and salt. Add water gradually to make a smooth stiff dough. You may add food coloring and/or mint flavoring for smell along with the water.  Store in air tight containers or in food storage bags.

Allow your children to bake with you too. They can measure up the cup of flour or sugar. My children always enjoyed tapping the eggs on the counter and then handing them to me to break open and dump into the bowl. On holidays, we always made sugar cookies and used our cookie cutters, so there was much rolling out of dough, cutting, and decorating to be done with frosting and colored sugars. Children love doing this and they can say proudly, "I helped!"

Give children the opportunity to work with you. A small child can be taught to tidy up his room by putting all the Legos in the box or by picking up the dirty socks and dumping them into the laundry basket. He can learn to dust or spray and wipe door handles with a cloth. Teach him to fold washcloths in half and in half again (fractions) or match socks for you. Your child can learn to set the table at a very young age.  A small child can take care of a pet. He can learn to  feed the dog daily, brush its coat, or play fetch with him. Children enjoy working in the garden also -- digging, dropping in seeds, and pulling up weeds to put in their own buckets.

Sing with your child! Even if you're a little off-key, he'll never notice and will be glad that together you are making joyful sounds! Give him happy songs like Whistle While You Work, Yankee Doodle, Skip To My Lou, Itsy Bitsy Spider, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and others.  Also play those beautiful classics like Vivaldi:  The Four Seasons or Brahams at Bedtime.
There are many music CDs of classical collections put together especially for young children

One of the most important things I feel we need to give our young children, is plenty of room to imagine,  and that doesn't come from always giving an assignment or lesson,  but rather by giving free time to think on their own -- time to romp in the yard, play "fort" under the kitchen table, make airplanes with Legos, play tea party with Dolly. Even when they are much older, time for solitude is vital.  Enjoy your little blessings!  Letting them know that they are loved by you and by God builds great confidence in your children and gives them reason to be and do their best.

For additional information on Kindergarten Charlotte Mason style, click Ambleside.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Fine Art, Mary Cassatt...

Mrs. Cassatt Reading to her Grandchildren

 As a child growing up, we did not have any sort of art appreciation courses in school, and we did not live near art museums so learning about great art was non-existent.  Art class, yes.  We learned to use paste, scissors, water colors, crayons and such, but art appreciation was not a part of my education until I had children of my own.  As a home school mom, I loved the fact that I could pick and choose the type of education my children would have and I knew theirs would include art.  Yes, cutting and pasting, painting and drawing, but also being exposed to beautiful fine art.  This would be my education as well, and that is the beauty of home education --the teacher oftentimes learns right alongside her students. 

Mary Cassatt became one of my fast favorites because of her many, many pictures of women and children.  Our own children grew to love her work and could recognize her paintings.   It was exciting for me to think that our children would eventually be able to pick out some of the great artists from a group of paintings, but my utmost goal was that they would simply have a love and appreciation of beauty that is truly art.
 Breakfast in Bed
Is this not the way to awake every morning --a cup of coffee or tea and the joyful  innocence of a child beside you in a cozy bed?  Those were the days!

 Young Mother Sewing

I love this picture of a diligent mother fully concentrating on her sewing while her daughter leans on her lap.  There is no disruption, but a sense of "being together" that is enough.  Likely, the disruption came later on.

 Louise Nursing Her Child

What's not to love about this picture?  Both are fully captivated by each other.  What a bond!

Little Girl in a Blue Arm Chair

This picture became one of my daughter's favorites.  She requested it for her birthday, if I remember correctly, and she proudly hung it in her bedroom to look at every day.   She still has it hanging in her own home today.  If you would like to view more of Mary Cassatt's art, click here.  All paintings viewed here were selected from Mary Cassatt Complete Works.

If you are considering studying fine art with your children, I recommend looking for large coffee table books at your library of various artists' work.  Casually flipping through the pages and stopping at favorite pictures to look deeply is one of the best ways to learn to love art.  Ask questions like:  "Why do you like this painting best?   What part of this painting does you eye focus on most?  Where does it seem the brightest?  The darkest?    You might also like to play the game of Eye Spy while studying a picture.  If you have access to art museums, pack a lunch and go!  Even a half hour can enlighten the mind and soul!