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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Winter Nature Study Ideas

The ideas below are mostly suitable for those living in northern climes where you get snow and ice.  There are some principles applicable to most of us, but the specific practices are mostly more doable in the north, with a couple exceptions of more universal application.

Charlotte Mason expected her students to engage in nature study throughout their lives, not just as preparation for the study of other sciences.

She said, "The study of natural history and botany with bird lists and plant lists continues throughout school life, while other branches are taken term by term." She herself set the example for her students by spending many hours several times a week out of doors, studying God’s creation, keeping a nature journal, and learning about the animals and plants of her own environment. Irregardless of the field of study or career path chosen, the invaluable skills of observation

 Children first should be learning about the world as it is- no matter how brilliant and academically gifted children are, they should all have plenty of opportunities to climb trees, play in mud puddles, go for long walks, run in meadows, wade in streams, sort rocks, shells, and acorns, collect bugs, watch butterflies emerge from a cocoon, run, skip, ride, swim, and more. A child who has splashed in a puddle has a richer understanding of a pond. A child who has climbed a tree has a broader grasp of what was involved when explorers first climbed Everest. A child who has collected stones or shells has a deeper grasp of what is involved in scientific classification later.

A little advance preparation can help a lot.   Keep a piece of black wool, felt, or velvet in your freezer (we just used a black mitten that had lost its mate.)  When it snows, grab it and catch some snowflakes on it. Hold your breath while you look at the snowflakes through a magnifying glass. You keep it in the freezer to help the snowflakes last long enough to see them under magnification.

 Play a version of `Kim's game'- pick a scene outside a window, look at it carefully enough to be able to look at it again on another day and describe what is different. When you have been able to take a brisk walk, go home, and over hot cocoa ask who can remember what you passed on your walk and tell each other all you remember.

 Observe the trees, note their changes- pick one or two trees and check them every week to see what's different. You can do this from inside with a good pair of binoculars. We've tied a bit of scarlet ribbon around one tree branch in the past, and checked just that branch a couple of times a month to see if we can spy any changes. Learn to recognize bird calls- set up a bird feeder, check out, and once you have identified a bird, go to the website to hear its call.

 The Sun: Observe its position at various times throughout the day
 Note times of sunrise and sunset as well as their direction
 The place of the sun at the hottest part of the day
 Distance and direction
 In addition to noting the location of the sun
 Note the time it takes to walk/drive
 A foot, a yard, a block, a quarter mile, a half mile
 To frequent destinations- a friend's house, the store, the library, the barn, the corner, around the block (wherever it is you do walk- learn how far that is and how long it takes to walk that distance) 
Wind Direction, learn what a western wind means (it is blowing from the west, not toward the west, just as a Canadian is _from_ Canada)
 Clouds Observe their shape, size, style, color and note the connection between clouds and weather

 WE bought the book _Exploring Nature In Winter_, by Alan Cvancara through Abebooks. I found a few useful ideas, although it is primarily for adults to use to learn to enjoy the outdoors in winter as well as warmer months. One of the many ideas between its covers is how to preserve snowflakes to sketch. You need microscope slides, which you put on a sturdy surface, like cardboard. Spray the slides with something like Krylon- clear, plastic spray generally for preserving artwork. Then allow snow crystals to land on the sprayed slides. Bring the slides in to dry. If it worked, you will have replicas of snowflake crystals that remain clear. You can sketch them, examine them under the microscope, or use a magnifying glass. Of course, to do this, your slides and the spray should be below freezing, or they will melt the snowflake on contact. (I will tell you that this sounds very interesting, but we have only tried this once and it didn't work for us)

 He suggests noting weather conditions, air temperatures, wind direction, speed, and what type of snow crystals predominate. These things, of course, could all be admirable additions to the Nature Notebook.

 Another way to study snowflakes is take out a a piece of black cardboard, or black felt stretched on a board, (or wear black wool mittens), and a magnifying glass and study the snowflakes outside. Just be careful not to melt them with your breath as you gasp in rapt admiration;-)

 Another nice nature study book for winter is the Winter ecojournal. It has lots of ideas to help children journal their own nature study adventures.

 Another neat thing to do is to sketch the moon each week, on the same night, to let the child discover for herself the cycles of the moon. You can do this just by looking out the window every night. I am embarrassed to admit that I never realized that the moon does not always rise from the same direction until I did this with my children 20 years ago.

Evergreens are always good subjects for winter nature study. Learn the pattern their needles grow in, look at pine cones, study what wildlife, if any, hangs out at the evergreen tree in winter.

 You can also bring in a rock, a bit of wood, a seed pod, a pine cone or small log with lichen on it and sketch it from the dining room table.

 You can sketch a leafless twig, noting the placing of the leaf scars, the color of the wood, the shape, etc. These will vary by type of tree, but see if your children can figure that out for themselves. We have tied a string around a twig or tree branch you can see from a window, then sketch it once a month, observing seasonal changes.

 You could look for old seed pods and sketch them, or animal tracks in the snow.

 Force a bulb to bloom indoors.

 Keep a calendar of nature firsts all year long- this should include things like first snowfall, first ice storm, first bird to your feeder, first goose seen flying south, first goose seen returning, and even the i.d. of the birds you see at your feeder every day.

Contrary to one common belief,  Miss Mason did not suggest that the children go outside everyday, rain or snow or sunshine. She said something about every tolerably fine day from May through October. She did think they should have appropriate clothes to make some snowdays comfortable and safe, but she expected reason, a thinking love, from mothers. I am sure she never meant for mothers to kick the children out of doors for 12 hours during the blizzards we get on the prairies in North America. We do what we can with the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

That includes learning from the circumstances in which you and your child find yourselves- in the following quote replace the bird species, for instance, with those common in your area:

“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.'

Speaking of watching the metamorphis of a caterpillar to a butterfly (in real life, not on a youtube video), Mason says,
"Most children of six have had this taste of a naturalist's experience, and it is worth speaking of only because, instead of being merely a harmless amusement, it is a valuable piece of education, of more use to the child than the reading of a whole book of natural history, or much geography, and Latin. For the evil is, that children get their knowledge of natural history, like all their knowledge, at second hand. They are so sated with wonders, that nothing surprises them; and they are so little used to see for themselves, that nothing interests them. The cure for this blasé condition is, to let them alone for a bit, and then begin on new lines. Poor children, it is no fault of theirs if they are not as they are meant to be- curious eager little souls, all agog to explore so much of this wonderful world as they can get at, as quite their first business in life."

Do not substitute books for first hand, hands on, nature study with the things in your house, yard, neighbourhood, local fields and parks, no matter how barren you think they are.

Other winter nature study ideas:

~Charlotte Mason Other resources for Winter Nature Study:
I don't know where this list of suggested books comes from. I own two or three of them, don't know that I've seen a couple.  I found it in my drafts from 2009, while looking for something else. Isn't that the way it goes?  At least, it is for some of us! Winter Search Party: a Guide to Insects and Other Invertebrates
Exploring Nature in Winter: A Guide to Activities, Adventures, and Projects for the Winter Naturalist (Naturalist's Bookshelf)
  Plants in Winter (A Lets-Read-and-Find-Out Science Book) Discover Nature in Winter (Discover Nature Series)
Winter-sleeping wildlife.
Winter Buds, Exploring Winter

Illustration taken from From Nature Studies for Children, Book One, by Nora B. Albright, Primary Teacher, and Jennie Hall, Supervisor of Nature Study in the elementary schools of minneapolis, Minnesota
Mentzer, Bush & Company, publishers


  1. I discovered your blog yesterday and WOW! I want to read every single entry. My twins will be 6 in a few months so we aren't fully immersed yet and it won't be much different from what we do now. Though more intentional. We live in North Idaho and we have a foot or so of snow on the ground. We went for a walk yesterday with the girls leading the way. Saw deer, hare and turkey tracks. It was so much fun. I started to read this entry but I wanted to say how much I am enjoying reading your blog. Keep it coming.

  2. Thanks so much for the kind words! Looking up tracks is another great winter nature study practice! Enjoy your journey.