When I happened upon Charlotte Mason and became determined to understand the philosophy, I quickly found out it would not be a week-long crash course and quick implementation of the curriculum. At the same time, I knew I needed something for homeschool and wanted to be authentic to the philosophy. It was April of 2017, and we decided to take a break from our current homeschool program. Things were not working, and for the sake of my relationship with my son, we halted formal learning.
The first concept that I began exploring in the Charlotte Mason world was nature. To be completely transparent, that is all I knew: that being out in nature several hours a day was essential to a true CM follower. I understood nature to be crucial in the whole philosophy and that being outside as much as possible with your children observing nature was of utmost priority. So, that is just what we did. We put away all our curriculum and found a local park that offered a nature path. It was 15 minutes from home, so if things went south quickly, I could retreat swiftly. I was expecting the worst with three boys six and under and a city-raised mom. You can picture how this could go wrong in so many different ways.
We put on our tennis shoes, grabbed hats, and sprayed ourselves with some DEET. I dusted off a random garage-sale-purchased hiking backpack and strapped my 15-month-old on my back. My six- and three-year-old boys began to run ahead on the paths. Trying to keep up with a 30-pound baby on my back wasn’t going to work. I began questioning myself: “Should I have implemented this now?” Or even on the opposite spectrum: “Well, they are just boys let them be wild.” Then, as I began reading volume one, Home Education, and I learned of the importance of habit-training, I realized I needed to train them to observe nature. How could I just set them loose and imagine they would fulfill my expectations of nature observation? What a rookie mom mistake.
The second week of nature outings went much better. On the way to our nature path, I explained to them that we were on a mission to see all the beautiful and glorious things God made. With the help of the word “mission,” the idea of a nature walk became more alluring; my six-year-old was intrigued and asked for clarification. We began discussing Genesis and the sequence of creation, the fifth day filled with birds of the air and animals of the sea, the sixth day with “all kinds of animal life: domestic and wild, large and small” (Genesis 1:24, GNT) and the culmination of creation ending with humans. These big concepts were not fully comprehended at this moment by my two little humans; however, it allowed me to open the dialogue to bring the language of God and nature into one conversation. Then I started to explain that because we were going to observe God’s creation we needed to be respectful, so walking rather than running would be a good option. Walking would also let us see things we might miss and give us a chance to talk to each other. We began our walk and immediately I stopped and observed a small weed-like flower and shared my thoughts regarding this flowering plant to my boys. They didn’t respond, but there wasn’t any arguing or running, so, hey it was a start. During this walk I continued to periodically stop and vocalize my observations to them, sometimes asking them questions. Once they began walking and just taking in nature, I stopped sharing as many thoughts and allowed them to soak it all in. Little did I know that Miss Mason advises this exact idea on page 192 in Home Education:
Nature will look after him and give him promptings of desire to know many things, and somebody must tell as he wants to know; and to do many things; and somebody should be handy just to put him in the way; and to be many things; naughty and good, and somebody should give direction.
My nightly reading was paying off. I began to see the fruit of implementing Charlotte Mason in nature. Embracing nature with three littles: two weeks completed.
Since our second nature path seemed positive, I began to research other possible places for animal and plant sightings. Our state has a local parks system, and our city also provides different nature paths and resources. To keep track of our outings while also providing a listing of resources on the state and local level, I found an app called AllTrails. This app allowed me to know the length of the hike, see pictures from previous users, and rate my experience for future reminders. (Currently my husband and I utilize AllTrails and REI’s Hiking Project app.) Thus our venturing began. We took to the trails once a week, visiting a new site each time and returning to our favorites. Embracing nature with three littles: six months completed.
My continued reading of Mason in volume one confirmed my observations from being in nature with my children. In Home Education Part II, entitled, “Out-of-door Life for the Children,” Mason calls for ample time outdoors so the eyes can be trained and observation can occur, and to allow for time to be in delight with nature. Nature grew on my children, and pure joy encompassed their being on the days of hikes, and the charm of nature spilled into non-hiking days. I no longer had to explain why we were going out into nature. More and more often I could let nature do the talking. Mason describes how this works:
The mother’s real difficulty will be to keep herself from much talk with the children, and to hinder them from occupying themselves with her. There are few things sweeter and more precious to the child than playful prattle with her mother; but one thing is better—the communing with the larger Mother, in order to which the child and she should be left to themselves. This is, truly, a delightful thing to watch: the mother reads her book or knits her sock, checking all attempts to make talk; the child stares up into a tree, or down into a flower—doing nothing, thinking of nothing; or leads a bird’s life among the branches, or capers about in aimless ecstasy;—quite foolish, irrational doings, but, all the time, a fashioning is going on: Nature is doing her part, with the vow—
“This child I to myself will take:
She shall be mine, and I will make
A lady of my own.” (Home Education, p. 79)
When I began to lay out the subjects of a Mason education, I kept wondering where the science experiments fit in for my six-year-old. Why would Mason start her educational philosophy with outdoor life? The primary subjects most commonly known for education are not listed first in Home Education. After a few short months of being in nature, I was able to see how precisely Mason laid out the scaffolding of science. Just as creation lists nature before man, so does Mason. In her writings, being outdoors with her suggested nature activities comes before ideas on lessons. Mason says:
The consideration of out-of-door life, in developing a method of education, comes second in order; because my object is to show that the chief function of the child—his business in the world during the first six or seven years of his life—is to find out all he can, about whatever comes under his notice, by means of his five senses; that he has an insatiable appetite for knowledge got in this way; and that, therefore, the endeavour of his parents should be to put him in the way of making acquaintance freely with Nature and natural objects; that, in fact, the intellectual education of the young child should lie in the free exercise of perceptive power, because the first stages of mental effort are marked by the extreme activity of this power… (Home Education, pp. 96-97)
As our time in nature grew, so did our strength and stamina for hiking. But in all our time outdoors, it is the shorter hikes I enjoy the most with my children. The shorter hikes allow them to meander and to choose multiple spots to stop and paint or discuss observations. If we miss our weekly outing in nature, I begin to yearn for the warmth of the sun, the smell of pine, and the time of being unplugged with my children.
Charlotte Mason, while a pioneer in education, was not the only one to note the benefits of nature. We have several memorable examples in history to choose from. Personally, one of my favorites is Anne Frank. Anne Frank said:
The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature and God. For then and only then can you feel that everything is as it should be and that God wants people to be happy amid nature’s beauty and simplicity.
As long as this exists, and that should be forever, I know that there will be solace for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances. I firmly believe that nature can bring comfort to all who suffer. (The Diary of a Young Girl, pp. 246-247)
Frank knew the importance of nature in the soul and how it could assist in bringing you back in tune with the Creator.
For me, exploring new hiking trails felt a bit risky. Luckily the weather was cooperative during our ventures. It was early enough in the season not to be eaten alive by mosquitos and too cold for snakes to be very active. So while those scenarios and worse were always possible, I went ignorantly into the wild. Many people suggest getting to know your backyard tree or your neighborhood plants to start your CM nature examinations, but we chose to start with trails. Either way, just go and get started, in your backyard or the wild yonder. I know very little about identifying trees, animals, birds, plants, or basically anything in nature, so we spend a lot of time taking a specimen or taking pictures and researching when we get home. We learn one animal or one plant per trip and sketch it in our nature journals. I can’t believe we have made it through six months of ritually implementing nature hikes. I am pretty impressed with myself, an urbanite now turned conservationist.
We have found that being outdoors gives us the awe and wonder of our Creator. No need for formal science lessons yet; we are enthralled with the first science lessons revealed by the Creator himself. My three-year-old recently observed how the leaves are falling because the sun doesn’t come out as much now. My six-year-old doesn’t try to kill a spider; rather he respectfully observes and makes inquisitive hypotheses on what the spider’s agenda may be. Being outside refreshes our stamina to continue on those rough school days, and it creates memories for our family.
Reverence for nature is essential in implementing a Charlotte Mason philosophy:
It would be well if all we persons in authority, parents and all who act for parents, could make up our minds that there is no sort of knowledge to be got in these early years so valuable to children as that which they get for themselves of the world they live in. Let them once get in touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life. (Home Education p. 61)
Mason’s recipe for being in nature as an all-encompassing priority for mothers and children has genuinely changed my life. As a former city-slicker, I have parted with my to-go size hairspray and traded it in for homemade bug spray, hiking boots, and a love for observing God’s beautiful creation. Carl Boberg was a native Swede who published a poem we know now as the hymn “How Great Thou Art” in 1885. When I think of being outside and enjoying all God’s creation these sweet words resonate in my head:
When through the woods, and forest glades I wander and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur,
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.
Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee, How great thou art, How great thou art.
May this post inspire those who are apprehensive about taking on uncharted territory in nature and rouse the simple pleasures from our Creator for those already participating in nature study.
Stacie Johnson lives in Saint Clair Shores, Michigan with her husband Tim and three young boys. Stacie has a bachelor’s degree in communication and a master’s degree in education. She currently teaches English to children in China and homeschools her older boys. In between refilling her coffee cup multiple times a day, she enjoys hiking with her family, listening to podcasts, reading, and writing.
©2017 Stacie Johnson