Nature Study: Mammals

The boys and I are now in AO’s Term 2 nature study topic. This year that’s mammals. So, yeah, that’s basically a HUGE category. I thought I’d share some of our planned resources.

Nature Journal

Every good nature study starts with nature journals. We use spiral bound “mixed media” notebooks. 5.5″ by 8.5″ is a good size for our purposes — small enough to be portable and for little hands to fill the pages, but large enough to cover a subject.

Journal Supplies

We use colored pencils, markers, and water color paints. Each kid seems to have a markersfavorite. A10 is a fine-tip marker man, L7 loves erasable colored pencils, and J5 is all about the painting (made easy with these types of brushes that have the water stored inside). Each kiddo has their own nature supply pouch that carries supplies. In the winter we do a lot of journaling indoors out of field guides, but it is nice to know we can just grab and go if the weather is cooperative.

Field Guides and Books and Posters

I always start with Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock because that isHoNS the book from which Ambleside Online pulls its nature rotation. HoNS is really a book written to the teacher, intended to give ideas on how to present nature study observation opportunities. (Incidentally, it also includes a lot of poetry — it’s a real treat!)

I take a huge category like “mammals” and go straight to the HoNS table of contents. While planning this term, I saw that HoNS has 20180119_15003820 different categories listed under mammals. Based on the age of my children, the types of animals we are likely to encounter, and our current morning/circle time rotation, I chose 12 different animals on which to focus (one per week in this term). Specifically, I chose brown bats, opossums, skunks, black bears, flying squirrels, raccoons, wolves, foxes, dogs, cats, goats, and sheep. These are all Missouri animals that we might encounter in the wild or on a farm (hopefully we won’t encounter a bear, though my parents did have a bear in their front yard recently!).

Nature journaling is all about observation, which is the foundation of all science (and a skill used throughout the education process). When it comes to recording an observation (as in drawing what you see), for young children it’s often easier to first draw from a picture, and that’s where a great book or field guide can come in very handy. The key is to get a quality guide. This term we have started using Princeton Field Guide’s Mammals of North America app on the iPad. This interactive field guide not only features hand drawn illustrations of the animal (including closeups of key features like paws and of the animals tracks — and some cases, scat), but it also features photographs, sounds/calls, and a map showing the animal’s geographic locations. It also, as you may expect, provides a summary of the animal’s habitat, body stats, lifespan, etc.

Because my youngest is quite young, we are also using a book called “Animals Do the 20180119_150009Strangest Things.” This is one in a whole series of Birds/Fish/Reptiles/Insects Do the Strangest Things written by Leonora and Arthur Hornblow. These books have a very living and conversational tone designed for a young student and work well as a read aloud science field guide. The simple illustrations by Michael Frith are easy for young students to replicate. I can’t say enough how much I like these books! Many of the 12 animals I chose from HoNS are also in Animals Do the Strangest Things (this is not a coincidence).

Each term, I secure some kind of wall art to display our nature category. Typically, this is a poster from our local Department of Conservation, which is a government agency that gives away nature materials.

Rabbit Trail Alert: This is a good time to note that, yes, my 5 year old does participate in nature study with us. Even though he his too young for AO Year 1 and extended amounts of “seat work,” he is old enough to participate in our family circle time (this is the equivalent of “morning time” ala Cindy Rollins except we do ours after lunch because of my work schedule). Our circle time rotation includes hymns/folk songs, bible memory, Shakespeare retellings, poetry reading, and composer study (as well as nature study). It’s a rotation, so not all of these every day.

Nature Outings

Walking and spending free spontaneous time in nature on a daily basis is ideal. I must admit that for us (besides backyard play on the swing set) it’s closer to a weekly event. And, even at that, it’s often a walk through our urban neighborhood. This is not to be discounted, though. There is nature in the city. Some terms the nature is easier to find in the city that others. For example, last term birds were very easy to find.

Once you have your nature journals and portable supplies ready and you students have nature centerstudied a little bit from a field guide, that’s a good time to take a planned nature outing. Because we live in town, that’s most likely going to be a trip to the zoo, nature conservation center, or a farm. Luckily, we live near the zoo, we have an amazing local nature center, and my parents live on a farm. Sometimes we bring our journals to make entries on the spot. Other times we take pictures and draw from them later. Sometimes we just focus on observing and asking questions, then returning home to make a journal entry (or add to one already in progress). Ideally, I like to do this at least twice each term. For mammals, I’m considering a trip to the local no-kill animal sanctuary (dogs and cats) and another trip to a friend’s farm with baby goats. We might also end up at the zoo, though I’d prefer to see the animals up a little closer. I’m sure we will end up drawing our pet cat and pet gerbils as well. Pets are a great resource for up-close observation!

Films, Documentaries, and YouTube

Nature documentaries and films that heavily feature nature can be a nice addition. I would never rely on these as primary sources, though, because typically the observation part is handed to you on a platter — the voice overs on a documentary and the camera angles used actually tell you what to see. We especially enjoyed a scripted film (not a documentary) called The Fox and the Child (2007) that had very little dialogue and heavily featured a fox pretty much in its natural setting.

But, any sort of natural exposure to nature can round out the observation process. The term that we studied invertebrates, the boys and I found a YouTube video of a man who catches crawdads/crayfish for a living. His little how-to video on setting the trap and transferring trapped crawdads into live buckets was fascinating.  He was no nature (or film) expert, but he moved and spoke like a person who spent a lot of time in nature, and his simple one-camera setup gave us a window into his daily activity. He was the perfect guide!

Just Do It

Above all, don’t overthink nature study. Yes, make a plan of attack. Yes, gather some supplies to record your observations. But, no, do not overthink it. Just go outside. Put your kids in front of some nature and encourage them to notice details. Don’t preach or over-teach. Let them come to you with questions and just be in nature. I would, however, insist that they (and you) make nature journal entries. Once you have a collection of entries, everyone will be so proud to look back over them.

Until next time, I’m reading


Moderately challenging books:

Stiff books:



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