With summer almost upon us and those long lazy days stretching out before us, now is a fine time to introduce your child to books that suggest investigations in the out of doors. Seed Babies and Little Wanderers, both by Margaret Warner Morley, do just that. Seed Babies focusing on the sprouting of seeds is just right to use at the beginning of summer when there is still time to plant seeds in the ground, while Little Wanderers is better suited for late summer when seeds are maturing and about to disperse.
"Well, I never!"
Jack said that because all the beans he had planted were on top of the ground.
Jack was only six years old, and not very well acquainted with beans.
No wonder he was surprised to find them on top of the ground when he had tucked them so snugly out of sight in the brown earth only a few days before.
Jack looked at his beans and began to get red in the face.
He looked a little as if he were going to cry.
"When Ko comes I'll just punch him!" he said at last.
For who could have uncovered his beans but his brother Ko?
For Ko would rather tease than eat his dinner,—except when there was chocolate pudding for dessert.
Ko's real name was Nicholas, but it took too long to say that, so Jack called him Ko for short.
Jack picked up a bean to replant it, and what do you think had happened? Something had, for it did not look as it did when he first put it in the ground.
It had turned green to begin with. Jack had planted white beans.
He knew they were white all through, for he had bitten a good many in two to see how they looked inside. And now the coat on the outside, that stuck so tightly at first, had peeled half off, and the bean was green!
Something more had happened,—a little white stem had come out of the bean and gone into the ground.
Jack was so surprised at all this that he forgot he was angry at Ko, and when his brother came up only told him to look.
Ko tried to pick up a bean too, but it was fastened quite firmly in the ground.
"They're growing," said Ko.
"Did you pull them up?" asked Jack.
"No, indeed!" said Ko.
"They must have pulled themselves up," said Jack.
At this point in the narrative, the bean plant begins to talk! It shares some of its secrets, engaging Jack in discussion, and guiding him to further discoveries.
As their interest shifts to peas and other seeds, sometimes Jack and Ko talk among themselves, and other times the seedlings pipe up to explain some aspect of their growth. And at some points the plants refuse to answer any more questions, and suggest the boys figure out the answers on their own. Which, incidentally, they do.
If you are reading Seed Babies aloud with your children, we suggest that you don't rush through it. Rather, let them leisurely explore ideas in one chapter before offering another.
Time for them to wonder is important. If they ask you a question, you may want to provide an answer if you have one. But if you don't, or sometimes even if you do, we suggest you occasionally respond, "I wonder" in answer to their questions. That may prompt them to share their thoughts immediately or go away and take time to think about it on their own or even conduct further observations.
You may want to obtain in advance some packets of seeds of green beans, peas (such as sugar snaps), and pumpkins that are featured in Seed Babies, as well as a few that are not, but that germinate and mature quickly: sunflowers, radishes, and lettuce. Choose a prime space for your child's garden, not a weedy patch of clay in a far away corner of the yard, as I was given as a child. Pots on a windowsill work too. Any place nearby where they can check on seeds regularly and report back what they see.
Plan to plant enough seeds so that some can be pulled up to examine what is happening underground without decimating the whole harvest. Since children are not great at waiting, it is a good idea to presoak the seeds to hasten germination. Once you have decided on the day to plant, put the seeds of beans, peas, pumpkins, and sunflowers in separate containers to soak just before bedtime to plant the following morning. Lettuce and radish seeds, however, do not need to be presoaked.
Once you have established a place for planting of seeds, encourage children to plant seeds of fruit they eat: apples, pears, plums, peaches, and so on. The time to harvest for these is in terms of years, rather than weeks, but still an interesting experiment.
Seed Babies includes two interesting chapters on nuts. Successful propagation of nuts is trickier to do with children, because so many critters, including squirrels and blue jays, find the nuts tasty. Readers can consult Trees of Power (a book for adults) by my friend Akiva Silver of Twisted Tree Farm in Spencer, NY for reasons to grow chestnuts, hickories, and hazelnuts, along with detailed instructions on how to do so.
A final section in Seed Babies introduces eggs of a variety of animals, including bees, frogs, toads, and birds. These are more things for your child to watch for in late spring and early summer!
Children enthusiastic about planting of seeds at the beginning of summer may also be excited later in the season to see new seeds set. Little Wanderers, written in a narrative style, rather than in the conversational mode of Seed Babies, serves as a guide for how different plants disperse their seeds. Children may like to keep a list of what plants they observe dispersing their seeds: when it happens and how they do it. Like Seed Babies, Little Wanderers is a book that can be read slowly over time, even over years if need be.
Do your own observations along with your children. What do you notice? If you have questions, see what you can figure out on your own over time. Don't rush straight to Google for answers to your questions. Build your capacity for observation too!
For further information about both seeds and eggs, consult the Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock, especially the sections on Wildflowers, Cultivated Plants, Trees, and Frogs and Toads. Since the Handbook of Nature Study is a tome weighing several pounds, you may not want to take it out in the field with you. You may prefer our ebook edition of Handbook of Nature Study, broken up into 13 parts for ease of access from your digital device.
Take advantage of the long summer days and a freer schedule to spend more time in the out of doors exploring and observing, making new discoveries and building on old ones. In the process you may be instilling a habit that brings lifelong satisfaction.
What are you planning to do this summer to extend and enrich your time out of doors? Will you be visiting a locale new to you or returning to one long familiar? Will you be taking up a new study or pursuing an old one? We would love to hear!
When the first signs of spring appear after a hard winter, the urge to spend time out of doors is stronger than at any other time of the year. "How eager and restless a healthy child is for the fields and woods with the coming of spring! Do not let your opportunity slip," writes Dallas Lore Sharp in his The Spring of the Year.
In keeping with Sharp's proclamation, we believe that the springtime presents an ideal opportunity for taking your children out of doors and pursuing nature studies with them. And Sharp's nature book series serves as an excellent guide to this end. These books offer a variety of activities to try, along with a good idea of what to expect at each season.
Spring can bring renewed vigor to the practice of a family already exploring their natural environs several times a week. For those who have yet to start, it offers a strong impetus. At this time of the year, there are so many exciting things to observe, coming in quick succession. To begin with, you could take your children to a place nearby where they can see green shoots emerging. There, encourage them to watch for returning birds and buds bursting into bloom. Perhaps they will even begin a list of the birds you have spotted and one of the types of frogs you have heard!
In The Spring of the Year, Sharp shares some experiences in spring he finds exhilarating, then offers a whole chapter of Things To See This Spring. He doesn't merely list them, though. Sharp instead paints a vivid picture of each. Consider this description of the lowly skunk cabbage as an example:
You must see the skunk-cabbage abloom in the swamp. You need not pick it and carry it home for the table—just see it. But be sure you see it. Get down and open the big purple-streaked spathe, as it spears the cold mud, and look at the "spadix" covered with its tiny but perfect flowers. Now wait a minute. The woods are still bare; ice may still be found on the northern slopes, while here before you, like a wedge splitting the frozen soil, like a spear cleaving through the earth from the other, the summer, side of the world, is this broad blade of life letting up almost the first cluster of the new spring's flowers. Wait a moment longer and you may hear your first bumblebee, as he comes humming at the door of the cabbage for a taste of new honey and pollen.
In another section, Sharp describes the piping sounds of the spring peeper:
You should see a "spring peeper," the tiny Pickering's frog—if you can. The marsh and the meadows will be vocal with them, but one of the hardest things that you will try to do this spring will be to see the shrill little piper, as he plays his bagpipe in the rushes at your very feet. But hunt until you do see him. It will sharpen your eyes and steady your patience for finding other things.
Later, in the chapter on Things to Do This Spring Sharp inserts some advice to the budding naturalist along with the activity he suggests:
Boy or girl, you should go fishing—down to the pond or the river where you go to watch the birds. Suppose you do not catch any fish. That doesn't matter; for you have gone out to the pond with a pole in your hands (a pole is a real thing); you have gone with the hope (hope is a real thing) of catching fish (fish are real things); and even if you catch no fish, you will be sure, as you wait for the fish to bite, to hear a belted kingfisher, or see a painted turtle, or catch the breath of the sweet leaf-buds and clustered catkins opening around the wooded pond. It is a very good thing for the young naturalist to learn to sit still. A fish-pole is a great help in learning that necessary lesson.
Lastly, in the chapter on Things To Hear This Spring, Sharp describes a number of bird songs. Then, without delay, he encourages the youthful explorer to hear the grass grow!
What! I repeat, you should hear the grass grow. I have a friend, a sound and sensible man, but a lover of the out-of-doors, who says he can hear it grow. But perhaps it is the soft stir of the working earthworms that he hears. Try it. Go out alone one of these April nights; select a green pasture with a slope to the south, at least a mile from any house, or railroad; lay your ear flat upon the grass, listen without a move for ten minutes.
Sharp continues on by asking questions of the student. Although in part rhetorical, in doing so, he also encourages students to experience the wonders of the natural world for themselves.
You hear something—or do you feel it? Is it the reaching up of the grass? is it the stir of the earthworms? is it the pulse of the throbbing universe? or is it your own throbbing pulse? It is all of these, I think; call it the heart of the grass beating in every tiny living blade, if you wish to. You should listen to hear the grass grow.
Sharp gives six bits of sound advice for going afield in The Fall of the Year that apply throughout the year. We include the first two here as examples. To begin, Sharp's first recommendation is:
Go often to the same place, so that you can travel over and over the same ground and become very familiar with it. The first trip you will not see much but woods and fields. But after that, each succeeding walk will show you particular things—this dead tree with the flicker's hole, that old rail-pile with its rabbit-hole—until, by and by, you will know every turn and dip, every pile of stones, every hole and nest; and you will find a thousand things that on the first trip you didn't dream were there.
In the first place, start where you are even if that means in a small backyard. Within a small space you may have ants to watch or logs to turn over. (There you may even find pill bugs and centipedes hiding underneath!). To illustrate, in our small front yard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, we had a chipmunk living under our breezeway, a cardinal nesting in the bush outside our dining room window, a towhee scratching under the bushes by the walk, a skink who sunned himself on our front stoop, and a spider that spun webs crossing our path to the driveway.
Next, Sharp's second piece of advice is :
When you go into the woods, go expecting to see something in particular—always looking for some particular nest, bird, beast, or plant. You may not find that particular thing, but your eyes will be sharpened by your expectation and purpose, and you will be pretty sure therefore to see something.
Even if you do not encounter what you expect to see, the mere suggestion that you might activates the senses. As a result, you and your children will likely be more alert to whatever presents itself than you otherwise would be. As an illustration of this very phenomena, Nicole William has a remarkable story on her blog at Sabbath Mode Homeschool where she writes about what her family was able to discover in a familiar woods when they were primed to look for a particular thing.
Charlotte Mason herself writes, "The real use of naturalists' books at this stage is to give the child delightful glimpses into the world of wonders he lives in, to reveal the sort of things to be seen by curious eyes, and fill him with desire to make discoveries for himself." (Home Education, p. 64) We have found that Dallas Lore Sharp's seasonal books satisfy those criteria on all counts.
Although originally targeted for ages 12 to 14, The Spring of the Year, Summer, The Fall of the Year, and Winter can be enjoyed by all. Older readers, however, may find that they get more out of them than younger ones.
In the 2017-2018 Alveary, these books were scheduled for Natural History in Form 1A (Ages 7-8). Some students even reported the Sharp books among their favorites for the year!
To learn more about the use of naturalists' books, we especially suggest listening to Episode #21 Nature Lore from A Delectable Education.
In addition to In the Spring of the Year, Sharp's books on the other three seasons have similar content. All have chapters on Things To See, Things To Do, and Things to Hear, interspersed with stories of his own discoveries in that time of year.
Please share any experiences inspired by these books in the comments below!
Get access to the ebook editions of The Spring of the Year, Summer, The Fall of the Year, and Winter by purchasing the Yesterday's Classics Ebook Collection, Nature Study through the Seasons