The Importance of Nature Study
Nature study was an educational movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Prior to that, most scientific study in schools, if it existed at all, was from a book. When you consider how many school children in the United States were actually in the country, this idea doesn’t really make sense. Even in the heart of most cities you can find some animal and plant life to observe, if you try…and this is especially easy with young children who are dying to learn about EVERYTHING!
I don’t need to take up the space to convince 21st century parents and teachers that observation is a great way to learn, right?
If you have ever read Gene Stratton Porter’s The Girl of the Limberlost or Freckles, you may have heard some of these ideas before. If you don’t know these books, you can find out more about Stratton Porter on The Lois Level: Could the greatest Young Adult Novel have been written in Indiana in 1908?
The great thing about the nature study movement is that since it is based on observation, the books that were written for schools that came out of this period are still usable! And they are FREE!
The people who wrote these books also seemed to be mindful of the fact that many children had limited access to school, and when they did, their teachers may have had little, if any instruction in how to teach, so the books were designed to be easy to follow with a minimum of background knowledge…so if you are are parent, these books should be great for you.
Some of the selections here might seem a bit strange to modern readers because of their strong narratives and the tendency to give the animals human qualities. But if you read the stories carefully, you will see that some sound information about animal behavior is embedded in each of the stories. Putting the information into a story makes the information easier for very young children to understand and remember.
Everyone learns better when they are adding bits of knowledge to a coherent whole…think of how you put little bits of string or rubber bands together to make a ball…isn’t the ball more than a sum of its parts?
The story is one of the most basic ways of putting knowledge together, and that’s why it works well for the little ones…and pretty much everyone else.
I would also argue that personifying the animals helps the children develop empathy for the animals, which help influence the effort they put into protecting the natural environment as they get older…and also the way that they vote!
You can also see that the authors also use personification to teach other ideas about how to be a good person and get along well through animal behavior.
The authors I have selected for this article are those that have stood the test of time well: the style of the writing is interesting and engaging, and the stories devote space to descriptions of animal behavior that would not be easy for kids to see for themselves or view in pictures or video, which of course is readily available to a degree that wasn’t even imaginable 100 years ago.
For the Grownups: Everything you need to know about nature study with kids
Anna Botsford Comstock’s Guides for Teachers
Anna Botsford Comstock came to the study of nature through her husband, who was an entomologist. She became interested in insect illustration, and for long time, worked with her husband informally.
This is a pattern you see quite often if you start reading about female scientists. I suppose some women got access to ideas that weren’t as easily available to them directly.
At any rate, eventually Botsford Comstock returned to university, got credentials in her own right, taught at the university level, and published both nonfiction and a little fiction on her own.
Her Handbook of Nature Study is so well regarded that it still costs $6.99 on Amazon (rather than costing a dollar or two like most of these texts), but I have also found an easily linkable full-text version online, complete with her drawings.
The content is in the public domain, but apparently the information is valuable enough that the format is updated and published in a modern looking book.
Save the website in your phone so you have it for easy reference when you run across something interesting when you are out and about with your kids.
Note: The various sections of the books are divided at the link above for ease of navigation. Be sure to start with the Introduction to understand the methods that will lead to success with the kids. Then you can easily navigate to the section you want to use. I strongly recommend Wildflowers: it includes stories that explain the flowers’ common names.
If you’re interested in reading more about Comstock, her autobiography, The Comstocks of Cornell, is below.
Studying Animal Life with Kids
If you can get outside, you can probably find a way to spot some sort of animal life with your kids, especially in the spring and early summer. What you can’t spot in person, you can probably find online.
While a sense of curiosity is all you really need, these stories can help you along the way. They were mostly written by experienced teachers and educators to help teachers with less training and experience explore the world with children. Even though they are vintage stories, which is also the reason they are free, they are based on observation of animals, the basics of the scientific process and something that doesn’t change with advancements in science.
These stories are (legally) free or almost free because they are in the public domain, and for many of them I have provided direct links through the website “Gateway to the Classics” that can be shared without any logins.
These stories are great for taking outside and reading while observing.
Note that using a dedicated e-reader (such as Kindle Paperwhite) is easier to read in sunlight than tablets or smartphones and is also less sensitive to heat. There is also a kids’ version of the Paperwhite.
Nature Tales for Kindergarten (ages 4/5) and up
Stories by Clara Dillingham Pierson
Dillingham Pierson began as a kindergarten teacher, then after her marriage, turned writer. I find her titles just a tad confusing that she typically titles her books, “Among the…people” because she isn’t writing about people, she’s writing about animals.
But the thing I’m complaining about I also like because each collection focuses on the setting (the meadow, the pond, etc.) as an integrated habitat and ecosystem, with emphasis on the interaction between the animals.
What’s really impressive is that she, along with the other authors mentioned here, manages to combine “life lessons” along with specific information about different animals species.
It all sounds silly, but I told one of the stories I read from “Among the Night People” to my adult daughter. Somehow, the story I told her about the “Spanish Black Chickens” came out sounding a bit suggestive* (I promise you it’s appropriate for children), we also found ourselves enjoying the story, which confirmed in my mind the stories’ value.
*The one about the Black Spanish Hens, if you want to know.
So there’s something good about that.
All of the editions I looked at on Amazon seemed to have the original illustrations, but double check. The books cost around $1 there, but some free links are given below.
Links to full text online versions of the books:
Stories by Arthur Scott Bailey
Unlike many authors in this genre, Arthur Scott Bailey was a publisher who wrote down stories that he made up for his two stepchildren, whom he raised as his own. He was known for “weaving natural history” into his stories while still making them entertaining for children, and he was popular enough to also have a syndicated comic strip called “Animal Whys”.
Although his stories are meant for very young children, the stories about each animal is divided into short chapters, which make a great introduction into the idea of a continuing story for young children, even though the stories are meant to be read to children more than they are meant to be read by them, or at least those learning to read.
Some of the protagonists in his stories are animals that children might be able to observe for themselves, such as common insects and birds, but others are not ones they will be able to see, so you may need to get on Youtube!
Finding Bailey’s books
There are several editions, but these are the collections as originally published.
Avoid the giant “collected works” edition because the stories are center-aligned. Looking at them gets on my nerves, as an experienced read, and they could be confusing for the little ones who are still learning the conventions of print. At this stage, they should definitely be exposed to stories that are properly aligned.
Most of these books are $2.99, but there are links below for Project Gutenberg, where you can get them for free with a little bit of extra work on the download.
FREE (and legal) downloads from Project Gutenberg: Arthur Scott Bailey’s books
Direct Links to selected books (no downloads needed):
Nature Tales for ages 6 and Up
Thornton W. Burgess
Thornton W. Burgess was a prolific author of children’s stories about the natural world and also a significant activist who worked on projects to preserve that natural world throughout his life. For many years, he also had a syndicated newspaper column called “Bedtime Stories”.
Environmentalism is not a new thing!
Burgess’ use of language is considered a bit better than Bailey’s, but he is also a bit more complex so perhaps not as good a choice for the youngest children.
A good quality collection of his stories, with original illustrations, is available on Amazon for $.99US, but I’ve also provided some direct links I’ve found along with links to his work on Project Gutenberg.
These stories for a series in that the same animal characters appear in different stories.
One-click web versions WITH AUDIO
When you click on the chapters some of these books, you will find an audio link at the top of each page (double check) for times that kids don’t have anyone to read to them.
Links for individual chapters can be sent directly.
The Adventures of Reddy Fox (with audio)
The Adventures of Peter Cottontail (with audio)
The Adventures of Danny Meadow Mouse (no audio)
The Adventures of Jimmy Skunk (with audio)
The Burgess Bird Book for Children (with audio)
Know of any great resources for nature study we missed? Please comment below!
How do you teach your kids about nature?
For more great FREE reads that kids will love…and learn from…click on The Lois Level category Family Reading.