09 10

04 May 2017

Science Through Nature

Science is a big deal. So much in our day depends on science, and there are so many ways in which it touches our lives. So how do we teach so that our kids are prepared to do science?

First, we go outside. Science is the study of God's creation: of the world around us. So we let them explore. Touch. Enjoy. Build a relationship with their world. That's the beginning. 

The child who does not know the portly form and spotted breast of the thrush, the graceful flight of the swallow, the yellow bill of the blackbird, the gush of song which the skylark pours from above, is nearly as much to be pitied as those London children who 'had never seen a bee.' 
-Charlotte Mason 1:60

Miss Mason lived in England, so perhaps her common sights of nature were a little different from ours, but the sentiment applies as well to our "Red-belly Robins" as my kids call them, House Sparrows and their little black bibs, and the warbling cry of a Red-wing Blackbird over the marsh as it did to her local birds.

Dragon climbed this cedar tree recently. It's the first tree that he's been able to climb. In a very visceral way, he knows this tree -- and he's not likely to forget it. Not only was it the first one he ever climbed, but it's so imposing that the kids named it "Thalia's Tree", after a character in the Percy Jackson books: Thalia had been changed by Zeus into a massive tree, and our cedar reminded them of that because it's so much larger than any other tree in the whole park.

On another visit to this park, we walked a "White Cedar Trail" and saw a bunch of younger cedars, which the group observed were "like Thalia's Tree". Because they knew the one tree well, having been all over it, they were immediately able to recognize the younger trees of the same species, even though they were not nearly so massive as Thalia's Tree. They were delighted to make the connection.

John Muir Laws, a naturalist and field guide author, spends a lot of time talking about science and kids, and how to help kids (and adults) do science through being in nature and using nature journals. He shares some interesting information about the Scientific Method in this lecture, starting at about 45:30. This is what he says:

"Now this is where things get really really interesting, and the reason that there is a lot of confusion about it is because we have all been indoctrinated with this: THE Scientific Method. ... There's different forms of it in different places, often with cool graphics, but they all are saying, you've got your question, and over here you are going to draw your conclusions, and you'll refine your hypothesis. This is missing several things.  

"How long has this system of exploration been around? 500 years? Does that sound about right? This might go back to Aristotle? So why am I dissing this, if Aristotle started this? Turns out this 'Scientific Method' started in the 1940s: 1945. And what happened is that Kesler to a bunch of scientists, had people write in a bunch of things, "These are things that scientists do," and scientists looked at it and said, "Yes. These are the sorts of things that scientists do," and Kesler took that list, and put some of them that fit into a nice little neat narrative, and put them in order and said, "This is the Scientific Method," and this got picked up on by scientific textbooks. And it's been with us as THE Scientific Method. There are lots of scientific methods! Could you do that method? Sure. But a lot of science is sort of mucking about, tinkering with things. And even that, the Scientific Method, leaves out the bigger picture of what's going on."
-John Muir Laws, Nature Journaling, Phenomenological Science, and Creative Thinking

He then goes on to discuss the use of nature journals in science, as tools to help students of all ages learn to really see, because good observations are at the heart of real science, but good observations are not at all intuitive: we have to learn how to see well. And he shares a number of pages from his own nature journal, and how they helped him to attempt to answer questions such as, "Do woodpeckers close their eyes when they peck?" and "Why are the ducks in this pond dying?" The video is great; probably the best part is that he gives practical tips on simple things that we can do with our own nature journals, and teach our children to do, so that we begin to think like a naturalist: we can begin to use our journals to do real science, today, and do it in many branches of science: botany, ornithology, entomology, astronomy, geology, and a wide variety of other branches of earth and life science; science is much more broad than the chemistry and physics that most of us took in high school. If we use it mindfully to train the attention and curiosity, nature study can be a very broad course of scientific inquiry, and lay an excellent foundation for even those branches of science that do not fall into its scope.

Laws is not the only person to suggest that nature walks and nature journals can be a powerful vehicle for introducing kids to science.

[Elaine Brooks] believed that people are unlikely to value what they cannot name. "One of my students told me that every time she learns the name of a plant, she feels she is meeting someone new. Giving a name to something is a way of knowing it."
-Last Child in the Woods, 41

Isn't knowing our world what science is, fundamentally, about? A nature journal not only encourages us to know nature - and more than just seeing a thing and knowing the name of its species, but to really know it - learn to be able to tell one Robin from another - and also to remember the experience, because they encourage us to flip back through them, to re-read the notes we made, re-look at the sketches. So they help us to see more deeply and more truly, and then they help us to remember what we saw, which leads to making more connections with the things that we learned.

 A year ago, I saw these wasp galls on some of the grasses at our favorite nature park. I wondered what they were, so I drew them in my nature journal. In drawing them, I noticed that there's a hole in the top, which was a clue to what they were, and something I never noticed until I drew it, even though they're all like that, and these are all over the place in our park, and we'd been visiting that park nearly weekly for over a year. My friend and I had a whole conversation about them, and then moved on to other things -- but when one of us found out what they were, we remembered and had another conversation. Since then, I've noticed conversations online about wasp galls that grow on a variety of different plants, most recently someone showed pictures they'd taken of galls that had blown down in a storm, probably from an Oak Tree. I walked past the galls in our park many times, hardly giving them a second glance. It wasn't until I started wondering about them and put them in my nature journal that I started to learn about them. Once I started learning, though, it's given me both an awareness that I didn't have before, and also a "peg" to hang new information on as I ran into it. I still don't know exactly what wasp it is that makes these galls, but I know a lot more about wasps and their galls in general -- because I added it to my journal.

Nature-study is for the comprehension of the individual life of the bird, insect, or plant that is nearest to hand. ... [It] does not start with the classification given in books, but in the end it builds up in the child's mind a classification which is based on fundamental knowledge; it is a classification like that evolved by the first naturalists, because it is built on careful observations of both form and life.
-Anna Botsford Comstock, Handbook of Nature Study, 7-8

And that is what we were doing when the kids fell in love with Thalia's Tree: building fundamental knowledge. No reading about Cedar Trees could hope to convey half of what the kids learned when they spent a half hour up in the tree itself, touching the bark, smelling the tree, seeing the leaves -the ceders were the only ones with leaves that early in spring: it would be more than a month before the deciduous trees put their leaves on- and using the strong, well-spaced branches as ladders. In contrast, Dragon tried to climb a Blue Spruce yesterday afternoon. I drew his tree in my journal while I was watching him -- at least, I drew the top part of it. It was a very large tree, and I didn't fit it to my page correctly, so I ran out of room before I got to the part where I'd wanted to add in a small boy for scale. I ended up measuring his height against it with my eye and noting about the same proportion of tree at the top with a bracket. Although he was persistent, climbing the Spruce didn't work very well at all for him: the branches are flimsy and crowded, the needles sharp, and even the bark is less than inviting. He won't quickly forget the differences between the two types of tree! Interestingly, the Spruce is located at the edge of a playground, and he chose to wrestle with the tree rather than play on equipment that is designed for climbing: he chose nature.

"…It would be well if we all persons in authority, parents and all who act for parents, could make up our minds that there is no sort of knowledge to be got in these early years so valuable to children as that which they get for themselves of the world they live in. Let them once get touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life. We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things."
-Charlotte Mason 

There is another part of the gift we are giving our children: when we learn about nature and science, we are learning about God. People have turned to nature for solitude and communion with God since the earliest times - a number of scripture stories start with a prophet who goes into nature to be alone. Perhaps this is because nature -our world- is made by Him, and when we are alone among His works it's easier to feel His presence and communicate with Him.  What a beautiful thing it is.


Jennifer Miller said...

You're nature journal entries are beautiful. So complex! We've tried that but not consistently. Congrats to your son for conquering the tree!

Christy of The Travel Bags said...

This is a beautiful post! I cannot agree more with the importance of getting to know the world we live in and the Creator through an intimate relationship with the creation. I also appreciate Ms. Mason's continual reassurance that we are not ruining our children's education by letting them explore their world instead of plowing through workbooks.

Your children are blessed.

Kym Thorpe said...

I like the idea that science is born of observing and wondering about the many interesting things in nature all around us. Your nature journals are lovely to look at, by the way! Great post.

Ritsumei said...

Thank you for the lovely comments on my journal pages! I admit that these are some of my favorite pages. I didn't share the misshapen birds! And I didn't even really try to do one until my tree-climber was big enough that I wasn't afraid that he'd up and disappear on me: the book I'm using now is only about 2 years old, and in that time it's only about half full. But the kids are getting big enough now that I can do a better job of setting the example, and it turns out that I love it -- even when my birds and things are weirdly misshapen, rather than mostly accurate to what I see. Though, John Muir Laws has some great tips for how to get the proportions right! I'm really enjoying his videos lately, which is kind of weird: I'm not usually really into videos.

Annette V said...

it is so true eh? when you draw things, you notice what you might not have noticed before. And so the learning continues.

Sheila said...

I really love that page you made of the tree. There's so much to discover!! :)


Blog Widget by LinkWithin