'Mummy, there's a Devil's coach-horse in the kitchen!' Before I'd even eaten breakfast this morning I found myself confronted by two excited girls and a nightmarish-looking matt-black beetle, waving its tail aloft, scorpion-style.
Cherry and Violet were ecstatic, and once I'd transported the critter to its rightful home - outside - we had a happy time observing it through a magnifying glass as it brandished its pincers in our general direction.
We first discovered the Devil's coach-horse, a common garden beetle, a few weeks back when Violet noticed one living underneath a step on our patio. It took a while to identify, as initially I thought it was a very large earwig.
A few days later, we found the corpse of the beetle entombed in a spider's web. The cycle of life. Nature giveth, and she taketh away.
Since becoming acquainted with these scuttling harbringers of Satan, Cherry and Violet in particular have incorporated them into a great deal of their play. Violet repeatedly insists she has dreamed about a Devil's coach-horse. Such a tiny (well actually not that tiny) beast has completely captured their imaginations.
Nature study with my children is one of the greatest pleasures of home education. Not that it is, or should be, limited to home educators. But I have noticed from my forays into, particularly, the world of the American homeschooling Mom that nature study is really big over there. This isn't that surprising, most of us cite 'time outdoors' as one of our reasons for preferring home ed. That, and a curriculum that is interesting and relevant to the child. However our friends across the pond seem to have formalised it and paid it a great deal more lip service than we Brits.
There can be few more interesting and relevant curricula than the world outside a child's front door. And there can be few things more empowering than knowing and understanding one's place in this world, by knowing with whom - and what - you share it. Even one's back garden.
For us, nature study has evolved quite naturally although it was always my intention to formalise it once we began home education 'properly' - ie once Cherry reached school-starting age. The benefits, particularly for young children, are endless but for me they include:
Observation skills including looking, listening, touching, smelling, and tasting (whether you want them to or not!)
Writing and literacy - naming and identifying species, written observations and records, communication and descriptive skills, listening and sharing.
Science - classifications, habitats and seasons, weather and weather patterns, astronomy, observation and recording.
Maths - counting, measuring, sorting, recording.
Art - drawing, hand-eye co-ordination, mapmaking, arts and crafts inspired by and using natural objects and scenes.
History - natural and social history of an area, native and imported species and their significance.
Cultural - influence of nature on arts including paintings, poetry, music, TV and film, books and writing.
Physical education - walking, climbing, digging, stick-wielding, collecting, hunting.
General knowledge and conversational skills, interesting things to talk about and discuss.
Imaginative play - the possibilities are endless if your children, like mine, can get that excited over a stinking (literally) beetle.
If you regularly get outside with your children it's easy to incorporate nature study into your adventures by:
Choosing a regular spot to observe and talk about the changes in seasons, wildlife, weather and habitats. You could pick a small area in your local park, an individual plant or tree, or just use your back garden. Better yet, get your children to choose or even better, they will choose something without prompting. We have a gigantic spiders' web currently suspended between the sweet peas and netting on our shed and Cherry and Violet have taken to checking it for activity. Thus far we've seen spider vs wasp and spider vs cranefly, plus a host of smaller winged fry.
Setting up a nature table - all you need is a small surface where you can keep the treasures your children find outdoors. If your children are anything like mine your main challenge will be stopping them bringing the entire outdoors inside 'for the nature table'. Take photos then clear the table and start afresh each month, building up a visual and photograpic record of the changing seasons.
Starting or inviting your children to start a nature notebook or journal. As with so many things, this works best if you do it too. I have long wanted to keep a nature journal and finally brushed aside my usual 'but I can't draw!' excuse and just did it. Now both Cherry and Violet both take a notebook with them wherever they go, and Cherry in particular is getting more and more into sketching and recording her observations.
Cooking and eating nature - forage if you dare, use an allotment or your garden if you don't. Grow seasonal fruit and veg and enjoy! If you haven't got time, shove a few herbs from the supermarket on a windowsill and try and remember to water them, or grow nasturtiums which are utterly foolproof and the flowers are edible. And even the most anxious forager can identify and pick blackberries.
Reading seasonal and nature-themed books and looking at field guides (the RSPB publishes a lovely set for children including guides to garden bugs and garden birds). Build up a reference library from charity shops. When your child spots something and asks what it is, even if you know, try and avoid just telling them or Googling it on your phone. Instead, ask them 'how could we find out?' Then act on their suggestions - even if they seem silly. Children will have far more fun, and feel far more empowered, if they are directing the learning. I am consistently amazed how resourceful they can be when they really want to know something. (For more on self-directed learning see the fantastic Project-based Homeschooling book and website)
Watching nature programmes. Cherry, Violet and I were glued to Springwatch this year, and there was so much cheeping in the house from the live coverage of birds' nests Noel started to think he was getting tinnitus. For younger kids I recommend recording and you watching in advance - some of Springwatch was a bit Game of Thrones this year! You know your own kids and what they can cope with.
Joining a charity - Cherry and Violet are junior members of the Wildlife Trusts, and they get a lovely little magazine packed with goodies, posters, stickers and other cute things a few times a year. The Woodland Trust also has some great resources including seasonal scavenger hunts - a big hit in this house.
Joining a group or class - try Nature Play for a group near you, find a Forest School or just check in with your local mums' Facebook page to find an outdoor group. If you're home educating, ask around and there's bound to be something near you.
Following a curriculum - Nature study is pretty much the only formal 'work' we're doing at the moment, and I have found this lovely year-long curriculum very useful for ideas and inspiration. You can follow it to the letter, dip in and out or use it as a resource when you've exhausted all your ideas. There's loads more out there if this one isn't for you.
Suggested further reading - there are LOADS of nature study/kids and nature/1001 things to do with a stick books out there but these are some of my absolute all-time favourites. (Affiliate links)
You can follow our adventures in nature study, see pages from my nature journal and be grossed out by the occasional disgusting insect-related image over at my Instagram feed. Come say hi!