Outdoor Life & Nature Study

In Janary at the Saint Emmelia Homeschool Conference, I had the privilege of co-leading a session with a wonderful colleague on incorporating nature study and outdoor play in the home school. Elizabeth Lewis did a fabulous job discussing the hands-on details of gardening with children. An audio recording is available online (see our talk titled, “Land Ahoy! Making Gardening and Natural Play Part of Your Homeschool” from the 2019 South Conference). While I don’t have Mrs. Lewis’s material to share, here are the notes from my part of the presentation dealing with outdoor life and nature study:

Research & Trends—Nature Time Is Critical to Spiritual, Psychological & Physical Well-being

  • Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (2005) drew attention to the alarming, growing divide between nature and children.
  • Screen time is replacing outdoor time and is leading to depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, low academic performance, and other problems. (See www.waituntil8th.org/why-wait/.)
  • A growing profusion of studies continue to investigate the psychological benefits of the natural world:
    • People who lived in city neighborhoods with at least 20 to 30% vegetation cover showed reduced levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.[1]
    • The number of visible birds of any kind in an urban neighborhood correlate with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.[2]
    • The Japanese forestry ministry coined a phrase—shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”—for the increasingly popular pastime of intentional relaxation in forest environments which has been shown to heighten feelings of well-being, lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, and even improved immune system functionality.[3]
  • Even short visits to urban green spaces have positive results and benefits.[4]
  • There is a “forest school” movement in western European with roots reaching back to the 1800s; currently there are over 1,500 waldkindergartens (forest kindergartens) in Germany which have resurrected educational reformer Friedrich Froebel’s ideal of children learning through hands-on outdoor experiences.[5]
  • Building on the Scandinavian heritage of friluftsliv, literally, “fresh air life,” hundreds of nature schools similarly thrive in Denmark and Sweden.[6]
  • More than one-hundred Japanese waldkindergartens (a number that was expected to double by 2014) address the worries of many parents “that Japan is becoming too stressed and high tech and there is not time to communicate with nature.”[7]
  • In the U.S., a small but growing number of forest kindergarten leaders have joined together to found the American Forest Kindergarten Association which shares information about the many benefits supported by “the growing body of compelling scientific evidence” which indicates that “introducing children to the natural world at an early age has a profoundly positive impact on their mental, physical, and social well-being.” A handful of similar organizations—such as Natural Start Alliance, Nature Explore, and Forest Schools USA—are also devoted to helping establish nature preschools throughout the country.

Foundation for Nature Learning in the Christian Home

  • Many saints have shown us how holiness reunites us with nature: St. Francis, St. Herman of Alaska, St. Seraphim of Sarov, St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, St. Blaise, Bishop of Sebaste, and many more!
  • The garden of Eden remains an important image of a full life with God. Like Adam and Eve, we are entrusted with stewardship over creation. And, like Adam and Eve, our vocation begins with wonder and enjoyment.
  • The natural world directs us to the Creator and heavenC. S. Lewis describes nature as a “first sketch” of “that greater glory”[8] promised to those to thirst and who overcome. “We are summoned,” says Lewis, “to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.”[9] God summons us to experience a foretaste of his glory in the riches of his creation.
  • Familiarity with nature awakens and sustains the aesthetic sense, a right sense of beauty, and also a love of creation that motivates stewardship.
  • “Forest Schooling” approaches involve a deep respect for children that is essentially compatible with a Christian understanding of persons as image-bearers and participants in divinity. Nature learning flourishes with child-led exploration where teachers are guides and fellow learners before God, the Creator.
  • Many contemporary homeschoolers are revisiting the writings and wisdom of Christian educator, Charlotte Mason, who advocated for nature immersion play, or “out-of-door life for the children,” in 1886, long before it was trendy.[10]

Nature Study & Outdoor Life in Practice

Charlotte Mason’s recommendations from more than a century ago remain sound. She suggests ways to weave in informal, age-appropriate lessons during outdoor time in subjects as varied as language arts, geography, botany, biology, physical education, and world languages.

1.     Meals & days in the open—Mason recommends dining outside whenever the weather permits and also taking the children out for “long hours” (4 to 6 hours) on “every tolerably fine day” or as much as possible. Children should be allowed to wonder and explore for most of that time, but some “vigorous play” and a short “lesson or two” can also be worked in. This applies mostly to children under 9, but is wonderful for all ages.

2.     “Sightseeing” & “Picture-Painting”—Habits of attention and observation can be honed through narration games/activities and “taking mental photographs.” E.g., “Tell me all you can about [an object or “some patch of landscape”].” Supply names for flora, fauna, items, or concepts so that vocabulary and concepts expand.

3.     Flowers, Trees & Living Creatures—Explore, identify, and learn to recognize and name the flowers and trees, birds and insects, lizards and mammals of your neighborhood and region. Use field guides, keep nature notebooks, and track cycles of growth and change in a “Nature’s Firsts” calendar. Don’t underrate the “kindly fellowship” of family pets. Encourage careful observation and beginning habits of deduction.

4.     “Living Books”—Read books, fiction and non-fiction, that portray facts about flora and fauna in a beautiful and compelling way that sparks the affections and imagination.

5.     “Out-of-Door Geography”—Parents can weave in informal lessons in geography by drawing attention to and naming geographical features of the land and waterways; directing children’s attention to observe the position and movement of the sun, moon, and stars; asking/answering questions about clouds, wind, and weather; introducing children to concepts of distance, time, and direction, as well as to compass and map skills.

6.     “The French Lesson”—Mason encourages oral instruction in a modern language starting informally at a young age. The lesson should be short (~10 minutes; 2 to 6 new words per day + review) and worked naturally into the outdoor time as the words taught tie into the sights, sounds, and activities at hand.

7.     “Noisy Games”—Part of the outdoor time can be devoted to vigorous games that involve the whole body and contribute to well-rounded physical health, e.g. jumping rope, climbing, and various games children select for themselves and pass along to each other.

8.     Scouting, Stalking, and Imaginative Play—In the outdoors, children can track small animals and birds by sound, scat, paw prints, etc. They can re-enact adventures from their readings and role-play characters who captivate them such as Robin Hood or Sacagawea.

9.     “Walks in Bad Weather”—Mason encourages parents to not only take their children outside in temperate seasons but also to celebrate the unique offerings of each season. She suggests “an hour and a half in the morning and as long in the afternoon.” 

10.  “The Child and Mother-Nature”—While Mason encourages parents to integrate short lessons, she is firm about respecting the child’s personhood. She insists on child-led exploration with a caregiver near to answer the occasional question or provide the occasional name or fact. “The mother must refrain from too much talk” so that Mother-Nature can teach directly. Mason encourages the infrequent “look and gesture of delight” as the parent models delight in God’s creation.

Practical Considerations & Resources

Finding nature:

  • Your back yard and the street where you live
  • Neighborhood parks and green spaces
  • Local arboretums, Audubon societies, parks, and nature preserves

Scheduling nature time:

  • Regional climate
  • Homeschool routine and yearly rhythm

Staying safe:

  • Weather-appropriate clothing
  • Bug spray/repellent
  • Sunhats & sunscreen

Nature study supplies:

  • Nature notebooks
  • Pencils, colored pencils/dry-brush watercolor tools
  • Nature’s Firsts calendar
  • Field Guides
  • Living books


  • Start wherever you are, and do what you can.
  • “Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good.”
  • Play to your strengths, and consider outsourcing for non-strength areas.

“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. We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.” — Charlotte Mason


Books & Links for the Parent:

“Nature Study.” Ambleside Online. www.amblesideonline.org/NatureSch.shtml

Kenny, Erin. Forest Kindergartens: The Cedarsong Way. Cedarsong Nature School, 2013.

Mason, Charlotte. Home Education: Training and Educating Children Under Nine. Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois, 1989 (1935).

Sobel, David., Ed. Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens: The Handbook for Outdoor Learning. Redleaf Press, 2015.

Living Books to Read Aloud:

Ambleside Online: (geography/natural history/science by year) amblesideonline.org/curriculum.shtml#years

Memorial Press: www.memoriapress.com/curriculum/science/ (esp. Insects and Trees)

Simply Charlotte Mason: simplycharlottemason.com/planning/curriculum-guide/individual-graded-subjects/nature-study/

Nature-Immersion Learning Support Organizations & Research (Benefits & Best Practices):

American Forest Kindergarten Association: forestkindergartenassociation.org.

Arbor Day/Dimensions Foundation: dimensionsfoundation.org/research/research-findings/

Natural Start Alliance: naturalstart.org

Nature Explore: natureexplore.org

North American Association for Environmental Education: naaee.org

Christianity & Nature:

Aidan Hart Sacred Icons, Icon commissioned by Panorthodox Concern For Animals, aidanharticons.com/this-is-a-new-icon-commissioned-by-www-panorthodoxconcernforanimals-org-two-of-its-themes-is-that-we-ought-to-treat-animals-with-love-and-respect-as-creations-of-god-and-that-christ-has-come-to-red/

Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, Orthodox Environmentalism—www.theoria.tv/orthodox-environmentalism/

Orthodoxy and Animals—facebook.com/orthodoxyandanimals/

Theology and Ecology: English Saints and the Animal World— orthodoxengland.org.uk/ecology.htm

Safety Standards:

“Child Care Weather Watch,” Iowa Department Public Health, Healthy Child Care Iowa. Champaign Urbana Public Health District. 2009. c-uphd.org/documents/wellness/weatherwatch.pdf  See also usa.childcareaware.org/advocacy-public-policy/crisis-and-disaster-resources/heat-index/

Texas Master Naturalists:

Texas Master Naturalist certificate program, Texas Parks & Wildlife Foundation: tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/wildlife_diversity/master_naturalist/

Texas Master Naturalist organization, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension: txmn.org/

[1] Daniel T. C. Cox, et al. “Doses of Neighborhood Nature: The Benefits for Mental Health of Living with Nature.” BioScience, vol. 67, no. 2, 2017, pp. 147-155. doi: 10.1093/biosci/biw173.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Livni, Ephrat. “The Japanese Practice of ‘Forest Bathing’ Is Scientifically Proven to Improve Your Health.” Quartz, 12 Oct. 2016, qz.com/804022.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Quetteville, Harry de. “Waldkindergärten: the Forest Nurseries Where Children Learn in Nature’s Classroom.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 18 Oct. 2008, www.telegraph.co.uk/education/3357232/Waldkindergarten-the-forest-nurseries-where-children-learn-in-Natures-classroom.html.

[6] Guy, Geoffrey. Forest School Essays. Academia.edu, www.academia.edu/4813212/Forest_School_Essays.

[7] Quoted in Neate, Rupert. “Campfire Kids: Going Back to Nature with Forest Kindergartens.” Spiegel Online, 22 Nov. 2013, www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/forest-kindergartens-could-be-the-next-big-export-from-germany-a-935165.html.

[8] Lewis, C. S. “‘The Weight of Glory.’” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996, 25–40.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mason, Charlotte. Home Education: Training and Educating Children Under Nine. Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois, 1989.

[This post originally appeared on a personal blog and has been revised.]

Image attribution: Bureau of Land Management #conservationlands15 Social Media Takeover, May 15, Top 15 Trails to Blaze on BLM’s National Conservation Lands https://www.flickr.com/photos/mypubliclands/17514129400 used under Creative Commons license

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