Homeschooling: An Outdoor Learning Experience For Families

What does it mean for a young person to study “science”? It can involve textbooks, tests and exams, a microscope here and there, and more textbooks. The typical public education of biology, ecology, botany, silviculture and chemistry — if public education includes these subjects at all — often lacks the hands-on integrative teaching methods on which young people thrive.

This short-coming, however, can be mended by homeschooling, literally going to school at home. Thousands of families homeschool their children in an effort to provide them a more in-depth and personal education. Some homeschool for religious reasons, others for medical reasons, others to emphasize a particular lifestyle or philosophy. In this respect, the study of ecology and other Earth Sciences can flourish.

To learn “science,” the website suggests that families go to books, computer science games, curricula, courses at local colleges, correspondence schools, science educational products, and the internet for their educational material.

But what about actually getting out in nature? What about the appreciation of ecology, the spiritual growth that comes with getting your hands dirty or climbing a hemlock? recommends that older homeschoolers can “raise guide dogs for the blind, volunteer at marine sanctuaries or animal shelters, and work part-time with veterinarians.” Here are other suggestions for truly homeschooling oneself or ones’ children about the wonders of our natural world.

Fun Science

Every family chooses what format for learning it will follow. For instance, various homeschooling methods include “structured” (using a set curriculum with tests and grades, very similar to government-run schools); “unschooling;” “co-op or shared learning;” “eclectic” (which involves some structure coupled with some free time); and other formats.

One popular method is dubbed the “Charlotte Mason Method,” named after its founder. This method emphasizes experiential education and living in the moment. An activity it promotes for students of any age is “nature sketching,” in which the child keeps a nature sketchbook or diary.

During outdoor time, the child is encouraged to observe flora, fauna, weather patterns, water and other elements, etc., and either collect specimens or draw what is seen. Collected specimens can be pasted into the sketchbook or drawn. The child may add poetry or song lyrics to accompany his or her chosen “artifact,” and may label it with its appropriate English name or Latin binomial. This simple project is an ongoing lesson that adds interest to the study of science while engaging the child’s “right brain,” as well. English, history, mycology, folklore, chemistry, nutrition, and forest ecology could all be incorporated into a day’s study of a ring of mushrooms found in the woods.

The Charlotte Mason method also promotes the “Century Book.” Buy a blank sketchbook or fill a 3-ring binder with sketch paper. Begin at the back of the book and label the top of the page “22nd Century” or “2001” or both. Proceeding backwards, allot two pages per century going into the BC centuries as far back as desired. The purpose is to associate historical events with their correct time; the handbook makes history a visible rather than abstract concept. Family visits to a museum can offer information for sketching, while magazines, newspapers and books allow for cut and paste. Your child has created his or her own “portable timeline”!

Another approach to experiential environmental education is the Moore Formula. The formula “focuses on a child’s readiness for formal learning, their interests, and a balance of study, work and community service.” A homeschooled teenager interested in animal rights might choose to incorporate textbook study of biology and anatomy, a self-imposed vegetarian diet, creating a portfolio of his animal drawings, or a part-time job at a local animal shelter. All of this, through homeschooling, provides credits toward the child’s education, while, even more importantly, helps to mold an ethical, responsible and productive citizen.

Families Outdoors

Many families experience the joy of being outdoors when they pursue a homeschool education. Betty Kramer of Kingsport, TN, homeschools her 15-year-old son, 11-year-old daughter, and plans the same for her 7-month-old girl. She advocates creative solutions to educational needs, rather than focusing on the limitations.

“I think the best activities have been just spending time outside,” she says. “Learning as you need to rather than with a set curriculum seems to make the learning real and important. By this I mean things such as, what kind of bug is eating my plant, does it have any natural predators, how can we deal with it and so forth. We garden organically so these things matter.”

In addition to “regular” schooling subjects, Betty’s children benefit from learning “real life” lessons on their 24-acre farm. The family raises and sells blueberries, gardens, and has raised beef cattle in the past. Her son, now registered as a 9th grader, raised chickens for three years as a 4-H project. Betty recommends such useful books as The Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock, as well as Cedar Creek Learning Center in Greene County, TN, where her son learned about water testing, visited a sewage treatment plant, and learned about environmental interactions.

Linda Bradshaw of Sugar Grove, NC, originally began her homeschooling days in eastern Tennessee, when her son Tommy was born. “I used to read to him every time he nursed,” she says. “Now he’s an avid reader and always has a book in his hands.” Linda’s homeschool routine for Tommy (10), Becky (5) and Andy (3) includes play, reading, table-top crafts such as making all-natural “playdough” and stickers, cooking, and outdoor projects such as water sampling and tree identification.

On a sunny day this spring, Linda and her children created I.D. books (made from printer’s scraps) and collected leaf and flower samples from various trees growing around their house. With the help of a tree field guide, the family studied and identified white ash, weeping willow, tulip poplar and witch hazel, and learned the growing habitats associated with each tree. By taping leaves and flowers into their books and labeling each specimen, the children discovered the differences in leaf shape, color, flowering time, and bark for each tree.

Such a simple exercise, but relevant: “By getting out of the house and out of the books,” explains Linda, “and getting out in nature, it’s much easier for the children to recognize how everything is interconnected. It’s obvious that this is related to that, whereas in books the relationship might not be very clear.”

The tangible experience lends itself to self-expression, as well. “Especially when the children are little, getting outside is an important part of the beginning education,” says Linda. “When Tommy was small, I’d lead him outside and say, ‘What would you like to learn about today?’ He’d pick up a rock, or a stick, or poke his hand in a puddle of water, and we’d begin. It’s meaningful when the child directs his own education.”

Suggested reading: Mary Griffith, The Homeschooling Handbook; Mary Griffith, The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World as Your Child’s Classroom; Matt Hern, Deschooling Our Lives; Anna Botsford Comstock, and The Handbook of Nature Study; David & Micki Colfax, Homeschooling for Excellence.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Comment