I’m holding my newborn baby close to me on a Sunday morning. He squirms gently in my arms, ready for sleep, but too enthralled with the world around him to dare shut his eyes. The gentle and familiar tune, All Creatures of Our God and King fills the chapel. This is a song that I’ve been singing to him the past few weeks when I want to calm him. It’s a song that connects me to nature and fills me with peace. I softly sing along with the worship leaders. When I look down, I see that my baby is sleeping.
Hymns are filled with rich history and beautiful language. They connect us to our past and we’ll continue to pass them on to our children and their children, linking us to our future. Sharing these hymns with our children allows them to see the beauty of God in His creation around us. As we focus on nature during the early years, I imagine filling my children’s hearts with these beautiful words so that when we’re outside watching the birds flit from tree to tree, their hearts sing the lines from All Things Bright and Beautiful:
Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.”
I want to keep these sweet hymns on my tongue so I can share them with my children. These are beautiful hymns for nature study, in the early years and beyond.
Classic Hymns for Nature Study
I’ve linked these hymns to a version that I enjoy, or to their written lyrics.
When Miss H was a baby, I was what you might call an “indoorsy” mom. We rarely ventured outside together, unless it was for a quick spin around the neighborhood to get some exercise. My husband was concerned. He thought a child, even a very small baby, should be rescued from artificial lighting and recycled air. Thankfully, a lot has changed in the years since then, including my attitude towards nature. After becoming an Ambleside teacher, my views on getting outside gradually shifted. Then about a year ago, I made the commitment to get my children outdoors (almost!) every day. Getting outside regularly has been a beautiful change in our family!
Our outside adventures are less challenging than they used to be. E only naps once a day now; Miss H has become more independent outside; and for me, getting outside seems more like a pleasure rather than a chore. But I know it isn’t that way for everyone. I have some ideas to share that I think will help make time spent outdoors a little more pleasant and practical. Some of these ideas are tried and true by our family, and some of these are wise insights from other Charlotte Mason moms.
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When Getting Outside Sounds Horrible to You…
Sometimes we hear Charlotte Mason’s advice to get children outside 4-6 hours a day, and we think we have to hit that benchmark immediately. We want to move from 0 hours to 4 hours immediately- so overwhelming! But as with any other big change involving children, slow is good! Make a goal to be outside an hour a day for a month, and once that becomes a habit, move it up to two hours. Keep increasing until you meet your goal.
Of course, grace is a must. I mentioned that we get outside almost everyday. When the weather is bad, I don’t worry too much about getting outside. Being cold and damp is a terrible combination. I’ve learned to set myself free from my outdoor expectations on those days. Also, we don’t get outside for four hours every single day. We do our best, but we also have to honor nap time and other responsibilities to our family and community. In this post, I mentioned that we try to follow this idea from Home Education:
Never be indoors when you can rightly be without.”
Beyond scheduling, you can also start small with other areas. If certain aspects of nature make you uncomfortable, build up to them instead of instantly trying to overcome them.
Make Plans with Others
Accountability is a beautiful thing, even with seemingly small issues like getting outside more regularly. Schedule play dates with friends, go on group hikes, or take a class at a nature center or rec center.
Tinkergarten is a nation wide program designed to get kids playing and exploring outside. After taking Tinkergarten classes, 85% of families reported that they spend more time outdoors. 93% of parents said that there children were more curious about the natural world. I will be leading Tinkergarten class in Colordado this spring! You can learn more about them here, or sign up for a free trial class near you!
Hike it Baby
Hike it Baby is a group that encourages parents to get their young children outdoors by going on group hikes. There are groups in 48 states. There is a fee to join, and if you have “school age” children, you’ll have to check with your local chapter on whether or not they can attend.
I always use an abundance of caution with Meetup, but you can check your local site to see if there are any nature meetups in your area. Or, you can always start your own!
Our area has nature classes available for families, children, and grown-ups. Sometimes they have a very small fee, but then you’re really committed!
Schedule play dates at local parks, gardens, trails, etc. Having a friend or two go with you makes it more enjoyable!
Pack a Basket or Backpack
If you have a good-sized backyard to explore, put a basket packed with essentials at the backdoor. Backpacks are great for keeping in the trunk of your car for nature road trips. Some things to keep in a nature basket or backpack:
snacks (seriously, this keeps us outside the longest!)
I’ve realized that it’s much easier to pack a picnic lunch than to come home or inside from explorations and scramble to put food on the table before nap time. Now, I make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pack some sides, and bring lunch with us almost everywhere we go. Instead of rushing home, we stay outside and enjoy a picnic. This adds almost an hour to our outside time!
On nice days at home, we eat outside every chance we get. My little ones love having picnics on the grass, or just eating at our patio table.
Buy the Right Gear
While I was brainstorming for this post, someone mentioned this Alfred Wainwright quote:
Each year we buy a good snowsuit and snow boots for our children. We haven’t quite ventured to rain gear, but I know that investing in high quality gear would reduce the “damp and cold” feeling that quickly moves us indoors!
Set Up A Washing Station
If you don’t love the grime that comes along with a day spent outdoors, set up a washing station. Bring a gallon jug of soapy water and a gallon jug of clean water. Poor the soapy water on your little ones’ hands and rinse it off with clean water. When you’re at home, try using buckets instead of gallon jugs.
Don’t Stress About What’s What
When you first start getting outside, don’t worry about identifying plants. This is something that will eventually become a joy to do, but for now, it might seem overwhelming. I laugh at myself because it took me a few years to figure out that the tree in our front yard is a Colorado Blue Spruce: Colorado’s state tree! Start by just observing. Try to classify different types of trees by their buds, leaves, or what their bare branches look like in the winter. When you are ready to start learning about specific plants and trees, all that classifying you did will make it easier to identify them. There is a helpful Facebook group called Plant Identification, filled with helpful people who are eager to help you determine the type of plant you see. Buying a field guide, like Handbook of Nature Study is a good investment when you’re ready to learn more about nature!
If you have a good backyard space to explore, these ideas will help you make the most of it.
Set Up a Tent
This has been wonderful for our backyard outdoor time. A tent gives some shade when it gets hot, offers a place to keep water bottles, and just makes getting outside a little more FUN! My little ones don’t stick around in it for too long: it mostly serves as a home base. That keeps us outside longer!
When we’re on the go, a good picnic blanket serves as our home base. I’m not sure why, but having an established spot makes getting outside more pleasant for everyone! Someday, I’ll invest in a fancy little sunshade that I can pop up at the park.
Last year, we dug out a weed infested area of our backyard, added planters, and built a fire pit. This formerly unused space suddenly has a wonderful, bond-building purpose. While we normally would have headed inside for the night, now we sit by the fire pit until well after dark. Because of this, we’ve seen some beautiful, night-specific things to observe, like the moon and stars, and bats (ok, I’m probably not going to convince an indoorsy mom to get outside to see bats!)
Getting Outside With Infants
Work Around Schedules
If you are a my-child-must-nap Mom like I am, an infant’s schedule might be your biggest hurdle in getting outside. This was our problem last summer. Baby E slept from 8:30-10:00 in the morning, and then again from 1:00-3:00. To get outside for hours during the day, I’d have to blow off one of his nap times. But Charlotte Mason also said that we should keep children on regular schedules, and that includes sleep schedules. She said that the habit of regularity (concerning schedules) should be taught to children during infancy. So do we have to decide which child gets what’s best for them? Who gets their fair share of sleep, and who gets their fair share of outdoor time?
Some compromise has to come into play here.
Last summer, Miss H and I often headed out to the backyard during Baby E’s nap time. This had a double benefit, because it meant the house was nice and quiet. Then, after Baby E got up, we headed to a park or garden nearby, coming home around noon to eat. This didn’t give Miss H four to six hours outside every day, but she had plenty of time outside. Baby E didn’t get as much time outside as he was “supposed” to, but he got a chance to play outside AND to nap.
Sometimes, if we had a place we wanted to visit that was a little bit of a drive, I planned the drive right around nap time. That allowed E to get at least a little nap.
Charlotte Mason said that babies can sleep outside on blankets. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?! This has not worked for my children. Maybe our third little guy will be different 🙂
Buy a Good Baby Carrier
We have two baby carriers: one is great for everyday use, and one is good for actual hikes. For everyday use, I love my Ergobaby Carrier. When we went to local gardens and parks last summer, wearing Baby E made it easier to stay longer. He enjoyed being close to me, and sometimes he even took a little snooze.
For hiking, we have (an older model of) this Osprey pack. Miss H used it until she was about three, and it has allowed us to go on hikes that we wouldn’t have been able to without it.
If you’re feeling like you’re the hurdle to your child’s outdoor education, first of all, give yourself some grace. This is just one area out of many! But any step you take towards increasing your child’s time outdoors will benefit them- and maybe even you.
If you’re an indoorsy mom, what’s the hardest part about getting outside?
Over the past year, the time we spend outside has increased, and so has my appreciation of nature. I used to just look- but now I see. I see the different shades on the petal of a flower, and the shapes that compose a tree’s sprawling branch. The habit of observation has finally struck me. It fills me with joy to think that it most likely won’t take 34 years for my children to develop this habit. I decided to start a family nature journal with them so that we can share and remember these beautiful experiences together.
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What is a Family Nature Journal?
A nature journal is something that Charlotte Mason recommended children keep to beautifully record the intricacies of nature.
As soon as he is able to keep it himself, a nature-diary is a source of delight to a child.”
Miss H doesn’t seem ready to keep one by herself. She has been begging for more instruction with drawing and painting, so I decided a family nature journal would be perfect for us. I lightly sketch something into the notebook, and then if Miss H wants to, she can as well. Then, I paint my picture, showing her what colors make sense and how to mix them if necessary. She can paint too, if she wants.
This is not a mandatory activity for her. But, so far, every time I add something, she is thrilled to contribute. Some days, sketching something in the journal is her idea in the first place! Last week, she said, “Let’s go paint a flock!” I wasn’t quite sure what she meant. It turns out, she was referring to phlox.
So far, there have been some huge benefits of a family nature journal-
It helps us spend precious time together, working towards something worry
She learns about mixing colors and the dry brush technique
My own drawing skills are improving as I learn to observe the subject in shapes instead of entirety
Starting a Family Nature Journal
We bought these sketch pads off of Amazon. It’s a great size, but I wouldn’t recommend it for painting. The description said sketching and watercolor, but I’m learning that I should have been skeptical of those claims 🙂 Watercolor notebooks are so darn expensive! I think we’ll try to use my fancy Prismacolor colored pencils colored pencils more often on thee pages, because water makes it wrinkle up.
The paints that we use are wonderful, though! They’re high quality, but not very expensive, which makes them great for beginners! We’ve used them for our Playful Pet Portraits art course, as well as our family nature journal. I’m teaching Miss H that she doesn’t need to dig into the colors so intensely. Taking care of art supplies is another thing we’re learning through this endeavor!
Decide on a beautiful object to observe. Model how to sketch the object while your child watches. If they want to, allow them to sketch. My sketches are slightly off-centered to allow room for Miss H to draw. Paint or color the sketch in, modeling proper techniques to your child. This is not a blatant teaching time, just a modeling time. I’ve learned that having that perspective is helpful; otherwise I might get a little frustrated by Miss H’s scribbles over my picture or leaky water blobs.
Sometimes we take out journal and paints with us, but honestly, it’s tricky to paint with E(18 months) around. He loves to run off with paint brushes or experiment with closing the lid of the paints. Mostly we’ve been painting outside on our table, either while E happily plays with his sand table, or he’s unhappily taking a nap. If we don’t have our nature notebook with us an spy something beautiful to add to it, I snap a picture and we paint it at home. The specimen is sometimes plucked from its home as well, to my chagrin! (Exhibit A: this Instagram photo )
After we paint the object, I look it up either online or in our Nature Anatomy book by Julia Rothman. This allows me to learn a little more about it, and tell Miss H in a narrative way. Charlotte Mason described a daisy in the most beautiful way, in order to keep a child’s attention and pique their interest.
Is little Margaret fixing round eyes on a daisy she has plucked? In a second, the daisy will be thrown away, and a pebble or a buttercup will charm the little maid. But the mother seizes the happy moment. She makes Margaret see that the daisy is a bright yellow eye with white eyelashes round it; that all the day long it lies there in the grass and looks up at the great sun, never blinking as Margaret would do, but keeping its eye wide open. And that is why it is called daisy, ‘day’s eye,’ because its eye is always looking at the sun which makes the day. And what does Margaret think it does at night, when there is no sun? It does what little boys and girls do; it just shuts up its eye with its white lashes tipped with pink, and goes to sleep till the sun comes again in the morning. By this time the daisy has become interesting to Margaret; she looks at it with big eyes after her mother has finished speaking, and then, very likely, cuddles it up to her breast or gives it a soft little kiss. Thus the mother will contrive ways to invest every object in the child’s world with interest and delight. Home Education, page 140
This is my attempt at a narrative description about the grape hyacinth:
If you have more than one child, and you have a big old notebook like we do, it might be nice to give each child a page. Of course, if one of your children is a good independent worker, they might be ready for their own journal!
Things to Add to your Journal
I was tempted to keep everything simple so I didn’t have to test my own artistic abilities, but I’m glad that we’ve aimed high. So far, we’ve only added flowers because seeing a new one bloom truly makes Miss H’s day! But there are plenty of things to add to a nature journal:
blades of grass
portions of plants
I do think it’s a good idea to put a portion of an object in your journal, rather than trying to tackle an entire tree. You’ll miss out on a lot of the lovely details.
If You Don’t Know What it is
Don’t let not knowing something’s name prevent you from adding it into your journal. You can add it, and then write the name in later. When I’m not sure about the species, I usually Google something vague like, “Colorado purple flower.” This brings up lots of different images that I can sift through to find the one I’m looking for. There are also apps like My Garden Answers that allow you to take a picture of the object, and then it searches a plant database. It’s probably user error, but I haven’t been really successful with that app yet.
I hope this encourages you to try something beautiful and different with your little ones! This has been such an enjoyable process for us, and we both look forward to adding more entries in the future.
This year, I’ve been keeping an eye out for nature prints to use in our school/playroom. Nature prints make lovely decorations, but they’re also helpful when trying to identify a species or build background information before reading. The problem I keep running into, though, is that to find a broad range of prints, I’d have to invest a lot of money into multiple sets. That just isn’t going to happen right now. So I decided to hit the Internet and look for free printable nature images. I’ve rounded up some pretty images that I think you’ll love to display in your school or play space.
These nature prints are licensed for your personal use, but check the copyright information before other usage.
This print reminds me of how Charlotte Mason described the daisy in Home Education:
But the mother seizes the happy moment. She makes Margaret see that the daisy is a bright yellow eye with white eyelashes round it; that all the day long it lies there in the grass and looks up at the great sun, never blinking as Margaret would do, but keeping its eye wide open. And that is why it is called daisy, ‘day’s eye,’ because its eye is always looking at the sun which makes the day.” Page 140.
This spring, we’ll spend lots of time observing birds. Having these beautiful prints on the wall will be so inspiring! Some of these prints don’t have the birds labeled. Miss H would have so much digging into bird guides and figuring out which bird is which.
Who doesn’t love autumn? Nature prints make a beautiful fall decoration.
Which one of these prints is your favorite? Are you going to use any of these in your play or learning space?
*Main Image Cited* George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library. Chrysanthemum maximum (Ox-eye daisy) (King Edward VII). Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-21ab-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Last summer, we went on a nature walk at a nearby garden. The flowers were blooming, the robins were skipping around, and the beautiful sound of flowing water was heard around every corner. Suddenly we had been there for an hour and a half, and it was time to get home so Baby E could take a rest and we could eat lunch. These are the moments that send a whisper through my heart that says, “This is a beautiful childhood.” Spending time outside, so lost in nature that time surprisingly slips away is what Charlotte Mason had in mind for little ones when she recommended 4-6 hours of outdoor play while the weather is nice.
*Updated July 2018
Outdoor Play Is the Best Possible Thing
And long hours they should be; not two, but four, five, six hours they should have on every tolerable fine day, from April to October. ‘Impossible!’ says an overwrought mother who sees her way to no more for her children than a daily hour or so on the pavements of the neighboring London squares. Let me repeat, that I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children, and that, in the faith that mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them. A journey of twenty minutes by rail or omnibus, and a luncheon basket, will make a day in the country possible to most town-dwellers; and if one day, why not many, even every suitable day?” Charlotte Mason, Home Education, pages 43-44
In the winter, she recommended two or three hours outside each day: an hour outdoors in the morning, coming in to warm up and eat lunch, and then heading back out in the afternoon. Modern research supports this. Lack of outdoor time is linked to many childhood problems, like Sensory Processing Disorder, obesity, and even ADHD.
Charlotte Mason often wrote with the highest ideal in mind. She said that we as mothers can make miracles happen if we know that miracles are expected of us. While I think that it is possible to be outside for 4-6 hours each day, especially in nice weather, I think we also need to give ourselves some grace.
In Ambleside, England, where Charlotte Mason lived, the temperatures throughout the year range from a low of 30 degrees Fahrenheit to a high of 59 degrees Fahrenheit. This is much more temperate than my Colorado home, which ranges from about 0 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter to 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Charlotte Mason did not coin the phrase “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” I can’t imagine that she’d advocate taking very small children out in weather that could potentially be dangerous for them!
I think we can free ourselves from the guilt of not getting our children outside when it’s miserably hot or intolerably cold.
Never be within doors when you can rightly be out. ” Charlotte Mason, Home Education, page 42
This frees me from the guilt of not getting outside when it’s cold, or the baby needs to sleep, or we have errands to run. I have to find a maintainable balance. If I know that being outside is the absolute best for my children, I’ll try to be out there every chance I get; but I also have duties in order to keep everyone fed and healthy.
What should this outdoor time look like?
What Does Outdoor Play Look Like in the Early Years
The mother is not the entertainer
They’re outside! They don’t need to be told stories, played with, or entertained in other ways. There is so much for them to do and observe!
In the first place, it is not her business to entertain the little people: there should be no story-books, no telling of tales, as little talk as possible, and that to some purpose.” Home Education, page 45
It might take some time for your children to learn how to entertain themselves with nature and their own made-up games. You might want to ease into it, instead of immediately expecting hours of child-led play outside.
Ask the child to go observe a tree, flower, or other interesting feature. Have them come back to report what they have seen. This helps increase their vocabulary, ability to remember, and ability to recount without exaggeration (which is necessary for the habit of truthfulness). Don’t tolerate a lazy description!
…she sends them off on an exploring expedition–Who can see the most, and tell the most, about yonder hillock or brook, hedge, or copse. This is an exercise that delights children…” Home Education, page 45
Mental Picture painting
Ask your children to describe to you a landscape that they have seen. This is a tiring task, but it can be enjoyable when presented as a game. I think that this could be extended by actually painting a picture of a flower or another thing seen in nature. This would be fun and meaningful for a young child.
The children will delight in this game on ‘picture-painting’ all the more if the mother introduce it by describing some great picture-gallery she has seen– pictures of mountains, of moors, of stormy seas, of ploughed field, of little children at play, of an old woman knitting,– and goes on to say, that though she does not paint her pictures on canvas and have them put in frames, she carries about with her just such a picture-gallery; for whenever she see anything lovely or interest, she looks at it until she has the picture in her ‘minds eye’; and then she carries it away with her, her own for ever, a picture ‘on view’ just when she wants it.” Home Education, pages 49-50
Object lessons encourage a child to use their five senses while viewing things in nature, or objects around the house. I wrote more about these lessons here.
An Hour or Two of Vigorous Play
We love playing at the park, riding bikes, or playing tag outside. Charlotte Mason recommended 1-2 hours of vigorous exercise each day for children.
In the first place, do not send them; if it is anyway possible, take them; for, although the children should be left much to themselves, there is a great deal to be done and a great deal to be prevented during these long hours in the open air.”
I love that Charlotte Mason said this, because sometimes I think people want to create the 1980’s childhood where children played outside by themselves for hours without a grownup around. This ideal doesn’t fit in well with life today. However, there is a difference between supervising and hovering!
These hours that we spend outside are sure to make up some of my children’s most treasured memories of childhood. What a gift that we’re giving them!