When I first had read enough about Charlotte Mason to feel that her teaching philosophy matched my own, one book title kept coming up, The Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Comstock. Nature study seemed to be an important piece to a Charlotte Mason education and this book seemed to be the agreed upon guide for it. At the next curriculum fair I eagerly located it and was surprised to find that it was over three inches thick! When I got it home, I was even more intimidated. Although it looked great and seems as if it had important things in it, I was unable to figure out where to begin. I put it aside for later. I would come back to it from time to time but never felt I knew what to do with this immense volume.
Then I heard about Barbara McCoy's blog The Handbook of Nature Study. Barb was obviously well informed and had a love for nature that was contagious. Her style is self-assuming, practical and very approachable. She has broken down nature study into weekly "challenges" for families, and she has broken down each of these challenges into easy step-by-step bits. Each challenge focuses first on a section in The Handbook of Nature Study, but it is just a small section. The teacher reads this, and ponders on this section, underlining parts that mean something to their family, until they feel ready to add this to their outdoor time. The outdoor time Barb suggests can be as little as 10-15 minutes. How attainable is that?
Now, about 40 challenges later I am no longer afraid of that Nature Study tome, but instead I feel that it is an ever-faithful friend. I now refer to it without thinking when something in our nature walks sparks someone's attention. I carried it with us on our summer vacation this past year, using it not as a field guide but getting from it questions to get us thinking about the subject at hand.
And now, Barb has done it again. She has come out with an Ebook version of her first 10 challenges. This book is so encouraging and impressive, we had a lot of fun going back and picking up a challenge we had not done previously. (That is another thing that is wonderful about Barb's Outdoor Hour Challenges - you can choose any of them and do them in any order.) When I first opened up the Ebook and look through it on the computer, I was initially impressed with how beautiful this book is. The layout is inviting and full of beautiful full-color photos. Although it doesn't contain a lot of white space, it does not seem at all cluttered. I skimmed through the book and found out that she had included pages with color photos of how her family had accomplished each challenge, which made it seem even more doable -one could just go out and do it themselves. The first few pages include a Getting Started page which is a good introduction to nature study and has a picture of their whole family, making the whole book seem friendly and approachable. Speaking of approachable, that is another thing about Barb -any time you have a question about her materials or nature study in general, she is so approachable, emailing back an answer so promptly. She really cares, and it shows through everything she does.
Then there is a General Instructions page, which gives lots of good information. For example, it cautions you not to think that the journal entries are the most important part of nature study -it is the experience of getting outside that is the most important piece.
Next is the Table of Contents, which I was pleasantly surprised to find out has a feature in which you can click on the entry you are interested in, and it will take you right to that particular page.
Let me now skip to the Notebook pages in the back of the book. There not only is one page custom made for each challenge but many blank pages that can be used for any nature study, and they are beautiful pages that are so inviting to fill out. I normally do not use notebook pages because I have felt that the fill-in-the-blank pages limits freedom and creativity. I decided, however, to try one with the Challenge we were completing this week, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much my boys loved it. They told me they had a more complete feeling by filling out the page as opposed to the open-endedness of a blank page. I think this has a lot to do with how good the page is; how the blanks are both practical and open-ended enough themselves. These pages would certainly be very helpful to someone beginning nature study to get them in the habit of what type of things go on a page.
This was such a positive experience that the boys all elected to do all of the beginning challenges, some of which we had already completed before! But this time they will be using the Outdoor Hour Ebook and its accompany pages. These pages will make a beautiful nature notebook, continuing on with the blank pages after we finished with the 10 specifically made pages.
The only disappointment I had with the Ebook was when I printed it out. Some of the photos did not come out well (the examples of nature notebook pages which were drawn in pencil) and they were so small they were a bit hard to see. If I were to give her any advice, it would be to make the photos larger, even if it meant that the book was longer and a bit more expensive. (At $9.95, it is the homeschooling bargain of the year!) The photos could easily be seen on the computer screen, however.
Going back to the meat of the Ebook, it includes the first 10 challenges, which can be found on her Handbook of Nature Study blog, but I highly recommend getting the ebook, especially if you are just starting out, because it is loaded with additional suggestions which are simple, attainable and easily adaptable to any family's situation. Barb has a way of weaving in previous challenges so that it becomes a fabric of nature study instead of separate threads. All through the book is a tone that makes you feel that she is a knowledgeable friend by your side helping you. It is this that makes it a living book itself.