Charlotte Mason

Unit 1: Getting our bearings. Length: 1 day.

“Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.” – Charlotte Mason

To learn a little about Charlotte Mason (1841-1923), an English educational reformer whose ideas encouraged a nature study approach to science instruction, watch this video about her life, works and ideas, and the digitization of the Charlotte Mason Collection (8 mins):

Mason argued that the best science education is not derived from scientific textbooks, nor does it consist in memorizing long lists of abstract facts, arranged systematically, which can be repeated on multiple-choice tests. Rather, one should begin with direct experience of nature in all its concreteness and familiarity. Older children should be outdoors during school time at least one full afternoon each week to experience nature in one’s own locality – back yard, community, park or countryside. Common plants and animals such as squirrels, trees, insects and birds, in nearby habitats such as forests, meadows, ponds and creeks or simply outside the window, offer inexhaustible opportunities for learning.

Three habits Mason encouraged as essential to nature study are going on nature walks, keeping a nature journal, and reading living books:

  1. Nature walks: Spend at least one class time a week in outdoor discovery and observation. Find object lessons, explore nature’s teachable moments, free from any obligation to gain exhaustive knowledge in a systematic way.
  2. Nature journal: Create a journal to record your experiences with nature in a way that is meaningful to you, whether via nature walks, field trips, lab activities together, experiences with pets or family trips, etc. Note your most interesting observations, keep a calendar of your first-finds for each season, discover relationships between living things and their surroundings, and draw connections between what you see and ideas you’ve learned. Include whatever you like, whether poems, quotations, stories, drawings, descriptions, anecdotes, diary entries, interesting observations, or object rubbings and pressings. The nature journal will not be corrected or graded. But warning: it may become a habit for life. 🙂
  3. Living books: Read real books, fiction or nonfiction, rather than textbooks that dispense information in a manner that makes the material dry and forgettable. What books have you read about nature that live in your memory and will remain meaningful to you for the rest of your life? What are some living books that you might read this year? Do any of the following titles intrigue you or arouse your interest: Julie of the Wolves, A Zoo in My Luggage; My Side of the Mountain; No Job for a Lady; Cry of the Kalahari; Golden Shadows, Flying Hooves; Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; All Creatures Great and Small… what titles would you put on your list? (Note: Our singing through the lessons of Lyrical Life Science does not quite make it count as a living book, but it’s not a typical textbook, either, and I hope the songs may well stay with you throughout your life.)

In the comments or by email, share any thoughts you have about Charlotte Mason, nature walks, nature journals, and living books. Has Charlotte Mason influenced your approach to homeschooling? How are her ideas relevant to your study of biology this year?

I came across Charlotte Mason in the first book about homeschooling I ever read, before we had children and even before I was married: Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Children’s Sake (Crossway Books, 1984). I recommend reading her description of science as it would be taught in light of Mason’s ideas: “Knowledge of the Universe,” pp. 133-139.


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