The New Student's Reference Work/Nature-Study

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Na′ture-Study. The environments of the child constantly stimulate sense perception and provoke inquiry. They are always arousing him to see, hear, smell, taste and touch. The satisfaction he gets in exercising his senses begets increasing desire to their further exercise, and his ability to discriminate grows rapidly every day. Curiosity and wonder spur him to find out what he can about everything he meets. These experiences are his mental food as well as the means of his physical development. Parents usually pay too little regard to mental culture in the first five years of the child's life, little realizing its relation to the after-life, though his eagerness to know usually accumulates a great fund of child knowledge and even child skill before he enters school. These years powerfully affect his life-long habits of investigation, thinking, talking, language and acting.

On entering school he has already made considerable progress in getting acquainted with the animate and inanimate objects about him. He is usually bubbling over with interest in everything he meets, particularly with those things that give sense pleasure and strike him as strange and novel. His knowledge is already of things in nature as well as of things in the household and about his father's work. This knowledge furnishes a fine starting-point for his school work and suggests the wisdom of continuing it on the very lines so well calculated to maintain and enlarge his interests and encourage him to study. Nature study, then, may rightly engross a large part of the course of study for the lower grades. It serves to introduce the elementary work in the other subjects usually included in the higher grades, and thus provides for that gradual transition to their more abstract phases and their more complex problems which is demanded by all scientific method. The teacher should so plan the nature work, that it not only extends the child's range of experiences but anticipates in a logical way the deeper and broader inquiries which he is to make later.

While there should always be method and system on the side of the teacher, there should always be relative simplicity and variety on the side of the child. The material should be selected with a view to the continual exercise and development of the perceptive activities, of observation, of understanding, of memory, of judgment and of language. But the primary purpose should be a development of a genuine love of nature. This should be a very prominent idea in selection throughout the elementary school, at least, and probably higher.

There is abundant material in every locality for use in this study. The teacher's individuality and ingenuity will enable him to utilize the children in gathering the material and the data for talks and studies. In the higher grades the inquiries should be exhaustive and should assume a more strictly scientific form.

In September or October there are many interesting and instructive features of plant life which furnish the material in sufficient variety for several lessons: the more common autumn fruits of the locality, wild and cultivated, with a study of their form, texture, flavor, name and use; the autumn leaves and flowers with a study of their form, color etc.; the autumn seeds, their forms, methods of distribution by winds, by animals, by water. The animal life of these months is full of interest for young and old. The birds which have summered in the locality are going south and others with strange plumage are coming from the north on their way further south or to spend the winter here. Insects are gradually disappearing in a variety of ways, some going into winter quarters to appear in new forms in the spring, others hiding away in the trees, in the earth or elsewhere, while countless multitudes deposit their eggs and die. The thickening of the coats of the wild and domestic animals should be carefully observed now and in the month following. Clouds, rain, dew, frost, changes in temperature, direction of the wind will interest the child every month in the year.

In November and December nature study finds ample outdoor range in discovering how the plants have prepared for winter, how the buds are sealed up, where the leaves have gone, what animals still remain in the locality and how they live, what the streams are doing, where the fish and other water animals have gone, what the farmers are doing. They also are good months for studying further the collections of fruits, seeds, leaves, grasses made in other months. Why are the days so short now? Why is the sun so far south? Why are fruits and vegetables beginning to rise in price in the markets?

The weather is a fruitful theme during January, February and March, but there is much also to engage attention in the lines mentioned for the preceding months. A simple study of the forms and modes of movement of domestic and of wild animals will make a few attractive lessons. These are good months for the study of the various forms of water and for making simple experiments in light, heat, electricity. Note later the signs of springtime in the growing length of the days, in the disappearance of frost and snow, in the swelling and opening of certain kinds of buds, in the flowing of the sap in the trees, in the appearance of an occasional last year's animal, in the song of the robin or the quick cry of the redbird, in the buzzing of venturesome bees, in the work about house and farm.

April, May and June conspire to furnish a world of material to attract and interest childhood. The studies should include the germination of seeds, the unfolding of leaves, the opening of the flowers; the parts of the plant, of the leaves and of the flowers; the various animals that cover the earth and skim the air; the moulting of the birds; the metamorphosis of the grasshopper, the butterfly, the frog; the building of nests; the swarming of the bees; animal foods. They should also include all kinds of work about farm and home and keep the child in close touch with ploughing time and seed time and harvest; with the pests the farmer fears; and with the friends he should protect.

July and August, as well as a great part of June, are months in which the child is usually out of school, but if the teaching during the other months is successful, these months also will have much in experiences upon which he will find pleasure in drawing as school opens in September.

Nature study includes the various parts and functions of the child's body, as well as of animals in general, and should make the child acquainted with the conditions essential to good health and to the development of physical strength and skill. It also includes a study of the topography of the locality, the soil, the rocks, the mineral deposits, the springs and streams, together with the forces which have shaped and are shaping the land. Excursions to other localities will be invaluable in adding zest to every phase of the study.

Success in directing nature study depends greatly upon the teacher's ability to select and arrange these materials in such a way as to bring them within the growing capacity of the child and yet stimulate perpetual effort. All of the foregoing and much more may readily be covered in a simple way in the first three years of a child's school life. The enlargement of the scope of the study in the following years gradually differentiates into geography, botany, physiology, physics, chemistry, meteorology, astronomy, zoology and geology.

Two kinds of work in this field are very desirable: extensive work and intensive work. In the first place, it is desirable that at least one period per week in the elementary school be occupied with brief consideration of the many nature-study objects the children in a class collect here and there and bring to school. A few interesting remarks by the teacher about each of a dozen or more objects on such an occasion can do much to keep children alive to the things about them. In the second place, it is desirable that important topics, as the horse, cow, cat, song-bird or maple-tree, be treated at length. Often in a third or fourth year class one month of these periods per week may be too little time for one such topic. The former is extensive, while the latter is intensive study.

As to method: Mere description or observation should be subordinated to function as a rule. It usually is uninteresting to begin the study of a plant or animal with mere observation or description, and it is unnecessary. It is far better to start off for the solution of some important problem, and in general to study under the influence of problems. For example, if the squirrel is the subject, a class can set out to study how he manages to live through the winter, how he gets food in the summer. The answers to such questions will require much close observation or description, and at the same time preserve more organization among the multitude of facts collected.

A few of the many good books dealing with the facts of nature are the following: Madam How and Lady Why by Charles Kingsley; Sharp Eyes by Wm. H. Gibson; Wild Animals I Have Known by Ernest Seton Thompson; The First Book of Birds by Olive Thorne Miller; Neighbors with Wings and Fins by James Johonnat; and Birds and Bees by John Burroughs. A few of the best helps to teachers are Nature Study and Life by C. F. Hodge (the best); Nature Study by W. S. Jackman; Special Method in Elementary Science and Nature Study Lessons, both by McMurry.

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Courtesy of Doubleday, Page & Co.

Courtesy of Doubleday, Page & Co.


Courtesy of Doubleday, Page & Co.