Science Friday: Phooey on Nature

We’re a bit behind on science and I’m even more behind on my science blogging, but to anyone who might actually be reading with interest on the matter, it will be back.  Maybe next week or certainly the week after that.  In the meantime, I wanted to share some (probably disorganized) musings on science instead.


I sort of hate nature.  Yes, that’s right.  I’m a nature hater.  Well…  I take it back.  Nature is fine.  I like hiking and we try to get out in nature as much as possible.  My kids certainly know our national parks around here very well and we’ve explored nature all over the place when we’ve traveled.  While they’re city kids at heart, I’ve shown them the swamp, the rainforest, the desert, the mountains, and the oceans.  But if I hear one more person say that all you should do for elementary age science is take nature walks and do a few leaf rubbings, then I may go nuts.  If you want to ignore science to that extent, then I don’t think it will ultimately harm a child.  And I’m sure some people have a plan where they ramp science up in the later grades.  I also don’t mean people who do a year of environmental science or biology with a focus on nature study as part of a larger science curriculum during the elementary school years.  However, just taking nature walks and drawing pictures of leaves in a nature journal isn’t a science curriculum to me.  It’s P.E. and art class, if it’s anything.  I grew up in the middle of nowhere, taking “nature walks” every day of my early childhood.  It instilled in me a love of the outdoors and an appreciation for the beauty of nature.  It did not, by any means, provide me with a firm grounding in science or even a love or appreciation for science.

In fact, I don’t feel that I actually got a decent science education.  I remember being in nature, but can’t remember a single thing I learned about science in elementary school.  Nor can I remember anything about science from 6th or 8th grade – I can’t even picture the teachers or recall the general outline of topics, which is unusual for me since I could probably list dozens of things about my middle school math, English, drama, French or history teachers.  However, in 7th grade, the teacher made us do at least one lab every single week without fail and I remember a great deal about that class in vivid detail.  We dissected no less than 6 different animals that year to my memory: perch, grasshoppers, earthworms, starfish, frogs and mice.  I remember that the day we did the fish, the cafeteria also served fish.  A nasty coincidence.  This is just to say that the intense focus on scientific demonstration and experiment did have an effect on me.

However, it proved too little too late.  By seventh grade, I already had decided that science, as a rule, was boring.  I had already staked out my identity as someone interested in English and the arts.  I didn’t pursue science in high school and took no AP science classes.  After struggling through chemistry, I took the easy way out by avoiding physics the following year to take anatomy and physiology instead.  I didn’t take a fourth year of science so I could do extra English electives.  In college, I took geology, which was positive in a way because I did learn about a subject I knew little about, but still a bit of an easy way out because the lab component for the survey class was extremely simple.

It took me growing up and finding books about science to discover an interest in it.  Now, I love science and science books.  Physics, that subject I completely skipped at every level of my education, is something I’ve read about for pleasure many times.  So I desperately want to give my own kids the exposure to science that I lacked as a child.  Being taught mostly by humanities lovers and being naturally interested in reading and writing myself meant that I missed out on a lot of good science.  If they want to be grow up to be writers or artists, then that’s great, but I don’t want it to be because they didn’t have the right exposure to science.  So I don’t want to take the easy way out by hanging out at the nature center and walking around in Rock Creek Park and somehow imagining that it comprises a proper science education.  We do both those things anyway and they’re certainly a piece of an overall education, especially for two such urbanites as my boys are.  However, they’re not enough.  Nor would I ever say that they comprised a curriculum.  I’m glad we did biology last year and glad we’re exploring physics this year.  Next year, we’ll do earth science and I’m excited about that as well, but I won’t let it just be nature walks.

13 thoughts on “Science Friday: Phooey on Nature

  1. I think you have to decide how people are really defining nature study. There is a huge difference between nature study and a nature walk. In nature study there is the expectation that one is using that nature walk as a spring board into science. It is really no different than that lab class you mentioned in 7th grade. It is hands-on learning. Through nature study my children have learned far more than I ever did about the flora and fauna of their local area. They can name every bird & explain to me the migratory cycles of the birds they see. They can explain which plants in our are are edible and which are poisonous. They can tell me which trees are native to our area and which ones are likely not to thrive. They can explain the geological features in our area.

    For us, nature is just a giant laboratory. It does you no good if you never scientifically examine what you are experiencing. I’d say the same thing of a science kit, though. And I’d say the opposite of a book or video. If all you did is examine and never experience, you are also not doing science. It takes all of it. And yes, I absolutely agree that parents need to make science a priority and not assume a walk through the park is enough. That is just the beginning.

    1. Totally in agreement. Popping in a couple of videos or giving your kid a science kit is yet another way of pretending you really did science when you didn’t. And I think some homeschoolers do amazing things with the topic of “nature study.” It can even bridge multiple years or be an organizing point for exploring other topics like chemistry, biology, earth science, etc. I’m mostly just sick of feeling like homeschoolers are supporting each other in thinking that reading a few picture books and taking a few nature walks is really a decent science curriculum for the elementary years. I wish homeschoolers would make science more of a priority. As a person mostly trained in the humanities, I feel very odd that I’ve found myself in this position where I feel like one of the subjects I end up touting most often to other homeschoolers is science.

  2. Can you think of any books that particularly shaped your overall approach to teaching science? I really enjoy your topical recommendations for kids, but I’m thinking here of something written for parents/teachers, or something with a broader perspective on how to weave things together into a “big picture” so kids aren’t left with just a bunch of disconnected facts about frogs or volcanoes.

    I love science, and now that I think about it I did learn it primarily through “nature walks” and cooking until high school. My parents were always pointing things out to me on family hikes, helping me examine them carefully, and then reading with me about them at home (it helped that one of my parents is a scientist and one a teacher!). But, I agree that a lot of “nature studies” can easily devolve into nothing more than craft activities without adequate guidance, and some supposed “programs” don’t seem to give that guidance.

    (And while I’m asking for things… If you ever feel like posting any particular highlights from your biology studies last year, I’m all ears.)

    1. You know, I don’t have a book that I really rely on to inform my sense of science education. I did finally give in and get the book Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding by Bernard Nebel, which many homeschoolers use. It’s very good. He says not to borrow ideas here and there from it, but I probably will at least a little – though honestly, much of the way he laid out his program is similar to what I’ve laid out for us.

  3. It seems to me that classical homeschooling advocates continually discount the importance of science. It always seems strange to me that grammar is apparently worth studying every year (sometimes with multiple curricula), but science is dismissed as something that can easily be covered by the interest-led use of library books.

    Not sure whether this is cause or effect, but I also see a strong undercurrent of skepticism of science and scientific evidence in homeschooling circles, either from the conservative Christian anti-evolution side or the New Age anti-medicine side. Why go out of the way to teach your kids science when it’s all just biased incorrect stuff that people made up to serve their own agendas, you know?

    1. It’s clearly a problem that’s strong in classical homeschooling, but I hang out on a number of other homeschooling online spots and I feel like I see it many other places too. I used to think that there was some sort of conservative Christian agenda against science in homeschooling, but I don’t really buy it anymore. Obviously, Christian homeschoolers have more strongly influenced the science offerings out there than in other fields (or, at least, from the point of view of non-creationist/youth earth proponents, limited it). However, I think many Christian homeschooling families take science more seriously than a lot of secular families. I think it cuts across the grain. You’re so right that there’s a sort of new agey hostility from a lot of homeschoolers on the other side.

      But I wonder how much of it is ideological and how much of it is the amount of effort involved. I think for a lot of families, they find it onerous or difficult to do – you have to buy all kinds of stuff, and really set it up. Even with a good curriculum, you have to do a lot more than pull out the workbook and the materials box like you can for so many other subjects. Every subject takes work, but I think science is harder to do on the fly. Unless, of course, you think taking nature walks or doing a little leaf identification every once in awhile is a whole science curriculum.

      1. I’m sure it’s also affected by the lousy science education most of us got. If you don’t feel like you understand science that well, getting all those materials and plans together is even more intimidating.

        It’s a shame. I’ve really been struck by how much good learning and thought is provoked by incredibly simple science experiments, at least at this early age. But this is precisely the age at which people advise against teaching science.

  4. I especially enjoy your posts on teaching science to your boys, Farrar. I love that as a reader I get to follow you on your planning journey as you think about what you want to teach and how to do that. You seem to do an excellent job of finding ways to encourage the understanding of scientic principals through hands on experience and fun.

  5. Hmm…I respectfully disagree, although you make your point well. Interest-based study, which might include nature study but could also include science and technology projects, daily life science, following up individual interests, reading about science and scientists and visiting museums seem a perfectly adequate way to me to introduce younger children to the idea of science.

  6. Stopping by from Semicolon. I was attracted by your blog name (love the reference). Totally agree with this post. One of the things I’m most consistently disappointed by in homeschool books is the science education. I also love nature and nature walks and journals. But to me it’s a separate subject in a way from science.

  7. Ok. To me, h/s younger children is like feeding them. Make sure they’re getting their basic nutrition ( literacy/numeracy ) then add exposure to all sort of other ‘tastes’ ( like exploration of the natural world/forces ).

    When they are somewhat older, start helping them learn to cook and understand how meals go together/create basic nutrition ( start on curricula/programs that begin to teach in depth ). Keep experimenting with new tastes.

    When they are even older, let them focus and take responsibilty for areas that interest them. One child may adore making the family’s sourdough ( so they’re the kid who is following up on art history in depth, having tried and mastered to a certain level basics and some extras )

    So, this analogy is getting a little strained, but all to say that I honestly don’t see how having a nature study based focus for littlies is doing them a disservice. I really like what you do with your boys re science Farrar and you’ve inspired me to do more with my ds for interest’s sake but I think there are many ways to skin the cat, especially in the early years.

    1. I think this is definitely a case when I’m being strongly informed by my own experiences instead of by my usual educational philosophy or by studies or other evidence. I didn’t get any type of systematic introduction to science in the early years at all. I went to a slightly hippie, slightly classically oriented private school where science was decidedly up to us to explore through projects, if it took our fancy, that is. Like I said, I got lots of nature from my time creeking, swimming, and helping my mother garden and I was certainly introduced to how things work and my mother was an excellent guide to that sort of thing when I was little. However, none of this ever helped me connect with science or develop any interest as a child. Perhaps I wouldn’t have under any circumstances, but I feel like I wasn’t given any chance to try. So, of course, I’m trying to make up for it.

      I guess when I think of the approach you’re talking about, Melissa, I think it absolutely could work – it’s like a sort of guided unschooling in the early grades – keep introducing new tastes and let them play with it all. But I still think all the different “tastes” of science shouldn’t be unduly focused on biology or nature study. I think with things like math and reading, deficits get seen very easily. With things like social studies, it’s very easy to encounter all the topics you might need with just a little effort. With history, I think, while I love history, if you only covered a few topics, it’s not such a big deal because the skills to understand it can convey to other topics. But for science, I think it can be very easy to end up with big gaps in knowledge about the world if you’re not really being aware of it. So the challenge would be to be really aware that you had to try all the different aspects of the world and look for opportunities to make that happen. Otherwise, to try to continue your analogy, you’re just eating from one type of taste and never making it to all the rest.

  8. Yes, I see. I think I’m informed by the nature study book we use which covers geology and physics as well. I can see that a biology bias is like feeding your child vegetables but only orange ones. And as this analogy is getting beyond ridiculous and I now understand where you are coming from, I’ll leave it there 🙂

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