Encourage Outdoor Observation – Nature Classification

Nature Classification

Charlotte Mason and Outdoor Observation

Charlotte Mason wanted children to be given the skills of the scholars, starting simply yet with intention.

One activity she assigned great importance to was outdoor observation. However for those of us who feel illiterate in our nature identification this can seem daunting.

Here are some tools and ideas to help make your nature walks a success.

“It is infinitely well worth the mother’s while to take some pains every day to secure, in the first place, that her children spend hours daily amongst rural and natural objects; and, in the second place, to infuse into them, or rather, to cherish in them, the love of investigation…” Charlotte Mason Series Volume 1, p.71

Direct contact with nature and teaching a child to notice what is going on around them is a deliberate activity that can be worked into the fabric of your homeschool routine. Nature study, nature walks and backyard science observations are to be encouraged. Think of these activities as part of your science lesson not as optional extras.

“In science, or rather, nature study, we attach great importance to recognition, believing that the power to recognise and name a plant or stone or constellation involves classification and includes a good deal of knowledge…The teachers are careful not to make these nature walks an opportunity for scientific instruction, as we wish the children’s attention to be given to observation with very little direction. In this way they lay up that store of ‘common information’ which Huxley considered should precede science teaching; and, what is much more important, they learn to know and delight in natural objects as in the familiar faces of friends.” Charlotte Mason Series Volume 4, p.237

The Thing I Hate About Nature Walks – Classification

One thing I hate about going for a nature walk is that I see so many different plants and birds and I can never actually name them. Whilst walking recently in the bush we found many small orchids. However we couldn’t work out the name of a single one (and I only knew it was an orchid because my nature walking buddy told me).

This can be discouraging when you are trying to teach your children nature study and you are personally hopeless at it. Even with a carry around field guide I often can’t find the species that presents itself before me.

Nature Classification – An Opportunity To Learn With Your Kids

Keep learning about science and nature yourself so you will have information to give your child as he desires it.

“The mother cannot devote herself too much to this kind of reading, not only that she may read tit-bits to her children about matters they have come across, but that she may be able to answer their queries and direct their observation” (Charlotte Mason Series Volume 1, p. 64, 65).

I’m a suburban girl and I didn’t really learn to appreciate nature as a child. As a homeschool mum I have found Charlotte Mason’s admonitions to do nature study a challenge but I have also learnt that I can learn more. Our nature study has become a time of us all learning about nature together. Whilst I’m still an advanced beginner in nature study I have had some successes with classification that I’d like to share.

Three Tools of Nature Classification

    1. Take a knowledgeable person on the walk with you. This can often work both ways if you both have some knowledge so you can share it with each other.
    2. Take a specimen home, however this is often an impossible thing to do but you can take a photo or put an entry in your nature journal.
    3. Use a field guide or dichotomous key in a book, or online, to identify your species when you get home.

Field Guides

I have a small pocket general field guide that I have taken with me on walks but it’s been pretty useless. I only find what I am looking for about 5% of the time. Most times I find I have to search quite specifically when I get home for what I am looking for.  Here are a few useful sites for online identification.

For Australian Plants – Royal Botanic Gardens

Australia Birds

Dichotomous Keys and Identification Keys

Recently a friend showed me how she identified a small snake they found in their backyard using a dichotomous key. This is a checklist that requires you to make observations of the specimen in a series of couplet characteristic observations in order to eliminate and work out a species.

You do need to have some knowledge of biology to use them for they use the correct terminology for identifying parts of your specimen. These keys while great to use if the species clearly can be separated into this linear process.

Here are some Australian identification and dichotomous keys for:

Eucalyptus Trees

Australian Snakes

Australian Snakes in SA

Australian Fish – an interactive online key

Does a lack of knowledge on classification impair your nature walks?

Nature Journaling With Kids and Nature Calendar will help.

Nature Journaling With Kids

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  1. Claire  November 6, 2014

    I took part in the Australian Backyard Bird count recently, and downloaded the app – which has a built-in bird identification key. Not dichotomous, but easy to use – you start with bird size and shape and then select the colours you see – brilliant. And it didn’t stop working after the official bird count week.FTW!
    I also love my Tasmanian Field Guide app (free download and they exist for other states, too), but it’s only fauna. I look forward to using some of these dichotomous keys for flora. I have some fold-up weather proof guides called ‘tree-flip’ and ‘euca-flip’ but they only have maybe a dozen on each, and we haven’t had much success with them. I have found the info displayed at National Parks and our local Arboretum can be a good starting places for tree identification.

    • Michelle  December 8, 2014

      Yes local places are often the best for getting some facts.

  2. Vanessa  October 15, 2014

    Thanks for the links, Michelle. I also find identification hard. I have improved my knowledge of birds in our neighbourhood using a huge field guide given to us by a friend, but most trees and flowers are still a big mystery to me. i wish one of my many knowledgeable relatives lived closer or had time to spend with us.

    • Michelle  October 16, 2014

      Yes I’m pretty good with birds also. I can also get many of the common Australian wildflowers but trees I find hard.


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