Saturday, October 04, 2008

Nature Notebooks: Leaf Study

A rainy Friday nature outing with friends to Dorris Ranch Living History Farm. (More Dorris Ranch outings here and here. It's a beautiful park.) Dorris Ranch is a perfect place for a tree study, as there are many different kinds of trees to explore: Oaks, maples, walnuts, filberts. We found lots of oak and maple leaves, a few leaves we've not yet identified, acorns, and an odd fruit-looking thing that is probably an oak gall harboring a larval wasp.

The children were interested in exploring the park together and picking up leaves, but when it came to examining, classifying, discussing we seemed to lose them a little. All in good time, I found. When we got home, the fine young gents and I set up a tree study tray (see below). They both remembered quite well the ideas we'd introduced during our outing. At the park, I'd held an oak leaf up to the sky to show the beginning of the leaf's decay--we could see the lacy leaf skeleton beginning to emerge. At the park second-grade gent had given me a quick, "Cool," before he raced off to play. At home, he sought out that leaf and intently examined the structure under the microscope. He'd remembered what I'd shown him and was ready to explore. "That's what I want to draw in my book, Mom," he announced.

Kindergarten gent was delighted to tape a leaf to his notebook. He sifted through the leaves, looking for the right one. He remembered that I'd told him that maple leaves have five points, and he counted them. Eventually, he chose a different kind of leaf because he felt more confident drawing that shape. Did he want to try to identify it? I asked. No, he just wanted to draw and label the leaf --"leaf". That's what made him happy, taping the leaf into his book and writing about it. Fair enough.

Make a tree study tray. We've got a permanent nature exploration display on our cabinet in the dining area. Feathers, acorns and acorn caps, rocks, a praying mantis egg case, a butterfly cocoon. After this week's nature outing, we put our new treasures and some of the old onto a tray with the magnifying glass and microscope to make a tree study tray so that the fine young gents and I can explore at our leisure. Obviously it doesn't have to be a tray. It can be a table, a bin, a shelf, a drawer, a corner of a cabinet.

A nature tray allows independent exploration. Children need lots of time to explore on their own, to come to their own interpretations and conclusions, opportunities to be wrong, and to figure out the world on their own terms.

My lesson for this week: Try to balance guidance with hands-off exploration. Don't let my own ideas of how an exploration should flow or what it should look like get in the way of the interests of the children. We've got plenty of subjects in our day in which I am the leader and the teacher. In our nature study, sometimes my job is direct teaching; sometimes my job is to prime the pump, to pique their interest, to walk away without giving all of the information so that they've got the opportunity to learn on their own, to ask questions, to follow their own ideas.

Next week's tree study: Mid-week, we'll head to the cherry tree at the church down the street to do a fall sketch. We've got spring and summer sketches of the tree--tight green buds on bare branches, full bloom, raining white petals, in beautiful green leaf.
Adding later: A friend sent me the link to this lovely blog, Handbook of Nature Study They have a lovely tree study based on Anna Comstock's Handbook of Nature Study, one of our family's favorite nature study resources. Check it out!

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