nature study for the suburbs
Nature Study

7 Ideas for Nature Study When You’re Stuck in the Suburbs

Spring is upon us! Soon the weather will be warming up and the inspirational Instragram posts will start flooding in, distracting us from our math lessons and laundry piles. Beautiful photos of wildflowers blanketing a mountainside, nests full of little blue eggs, and children romping through muddy, fresh-green fields will flash past us on our feed, urging us to bring out our inner-Charlotte Mason and dive full-throttle into the glory that is nature study.

But nature study’s accessibility can seemingly vary, depending on your proximity to “wild spaces.” If you’re in an urban area, or 30-minutes deep into the suburbs in any direction, nature study can seem like a distant dream, reserved for the occasional week when enough time frees up to drive somewhere with more oxygen, less concrete.

One reader recently emailed me, asking if I had any recommendations for how to fit nature study in when you’re “stuck in the middle of the suburbs.” She was so inspired by Charlotte Mason’s imploring advice to take to the outdoors as often as possible, but struggled to see how she could when the “outdoors” meant mile after mile of postage-stamp lawns and tidy sidewalk paths.

It’s true that nature study is seemingly easier and more “Insta-worthy” when you live on a century-old farm in rural Oregon, or in the middle of a forest teetering on Maine’s rocky coastline, but a great many opportunities for outdoor investigation, observation, and inquiry are nestled around you, no matter where you live. Here are 7 easy ways to incorporate nature study, even for the suburbia-bound:

nature study for homeschooling in the suburbs

1. Raise and Release Your Own Butterflies

Watching a caterpillar transform into a butterfly in front of your very eyes is one of the most magical experiences a child can have. You could use this one activity to do an entire month of nature study, incorporating classic selections like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Waiting for Wings to guide discussions. The science-minded child can make predictions about how long it will take for the new butterfly to emerge from a chrysalis. All you’ll need is a butterfly house and a delivery of caterpillars, like these from Earth’s Birthday Project.

nature study for the homeschooler in the suburbs

2. Observe and Record the Weather

Spring is a great season to do a unit study on weather, because it tends to be dynamic at this time of the year. Spend a little time each morning going outdoors to make observations on the weather and the temperature. Then track the day’s notes in a simple sketch book or notebook. At the end of a month (or two) make a chart or a graph with Legos to see which kind of weather happened the most. Were there more sunny days or rainy days? Was it usually warm or cold?

Weather-centric nature study can splinter into a bunch of different directions. You can spend time “finding rainbows” in your home, or making them by reflecting CD’s against a blank wall. You can learn about thunderstorms or make a “cloud in a jar.” You can make sun prints by laying interesting leaves or branches on top of dark-colored construction or solar paper. The possibilities are endless!

nature study for homeschoolers in the suburbs

3. Start Natural Collections

Children love collecting things. They love to collect rocks and shells, leaves and acorns, feathers and pine cones. Even in the suburbs, there are lots of interesting natural items to collect together. Encourage your child to start a collection, which you can grow every time you take a walk or visit the park. Use the collection to spark conversations comparing the items (which rocks are smooth and which ones are bumpy) or talking about where they came from (which feather came from a crow, and which one from a pigeon?) An empty egg carton is a wonderful vessel for storing small items like seeds and shells, and a cereal box covered in colorful paper can make an excellent place to keep feathers, leaves, and sticks.

nature study for homeschoolers in the suburbs

4. Go On a Mini-Beast Hunt

Even urban and suburban areas are positively filled with interesting insects, isopods like roly-polies, and arachnids. Armed with a small, ventilated box or even just a magnifying glass, a child can have many an adventure finding and observing mini-beasts in their neighborhood. Want a more up-close and personal experience? Earth’s Birthday Project also has giant moths, hornworms, ladybugs, beetles, praying mantis, ants, and worms available to ship to your home. (We are planning to raise both moths and ladybugs this spring so we can compare them in various stages of growth!)

nature study for suburban homeschoolers

5. Hang Up a Bird Feeder

Bird feeders make excellent year-round stations for nature study that you can access from a window in your home. Watching birds as they come and go, and perhaps even a squirrel or two, can fill a child’s year with wonder and opportunity for learning. Charlotte Mason encouraged parents to help their children identify and memorize many species of local birds during the early and elementary years. One of the best ways to do this is to keep a local bird guide, a notebook, and some colored pencils near the window closest to the bird feeder. As your child identifies new birds, they can look them up and record them in the notebook.

nature study for suburban homeschoolers

6. Set a Track-Trap for Urban Wildlife

A really fun activity for nature study is to set a simple track-trap. Simply fill a large, shallow box with dirt, set a bowl of cut-up fruit in the center, and leave it out for the night. In the morning, you can visit the track-trap to see if any animals came to gather the fruit during the night. Then use a local nature guide to see which animal left the tracks. This works best if the dirt is slightly damp. (And you may want to distance the trap a bit from your home.)

nature study for homeschoolers in the suburbs

7. Grow Seeds in the Window

Seeing a tiny seed transform into a sprout, and a sprout into a plant, is pure magic. It’s also cheap, and incredibly easy. You do not need fancy seed-starting equipment in order to do it–just a sunny windowsill, a few plastic cups, some potting soil, and quick-sprouting seeds like radishes (pictured above), beans, grass, or sunflowers. Keep soil damp, and be sure to poke holes in the bottom of the cup for drainage. Like the butterfly study, you can use this to inspire a month (or more) of nature study by incorporating books like The Tiny SeedThe Carrot Seed, and Planting a Rainbow. And, like the butterfly study, there are myriad opportunities to incorporate science and math as well. Which seed will sprout first? How much does a sprout grow each day? What happens if you move the seed further away from the window?

Nature study does not require you to be immersed in a mountain meadow, knee-deep in a tide pool, or swinging from centuries-old oaks to be beneficial for your child. It can be done wherever you are, in whatever space you have available to you. And please, I encourage you to share those pictures on Instagram too! Share the pictures of the dandelions pushing through the cracks in the pavement, and the roly-polies your child dug out of the sandbox at the playground. Share the pictures of the milk-carton bird feeders and the bean sprouts overlooking the parking lot. The more we can show other parents how easy it can be to incorporate nature study, the more they’ll feel inspired and encouraged to give those experiences to their children, too.

New Spring Book Seeds are coming soon! This April, we will be launching an entire series of them, full of nature-based STEAM activities, and inspired by beautiful children’s books. Don’t forget to grab your free sample issue of Blossom and Root Book Seeds by filling out the form below!

Get Your FREE Trial Issue of Book Seeds By Blossom & Root!

Book seeds  the three sunflowers

This FREE issue, inspired by the book The Three Sunflowers by Janet Lucy, includes two weeks of activities including nature study, STEAM, art project, recipe, and exploring language and poetry. Suitable for ages 3 - 8. Grab yours today!

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nature study ideas for homeschoolers in the suburbs, Charlotte Mason, nature-based learning, simple natural science explorations for homeschooling in urban and suburban neighborhoods
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2 Comments

  • Reply Jen March 21, 2018 at 10:44 pm

    These are really great ideas and we’ve done all of them except for the track trap, which we’ll have to do next! We’ve also had success finding pockets of wildness in drainage ditches, pollinator gardens, community gardens, or edges of public parks. I also make it a priority when the weather is at all cooperating to invest at least 1 day a week to visiting a wilder destination, usually within a 1-hour drive. Within 1 hour of most suburbs, you can find nature preserves, state and county parks, reservoirs, bike paths through varied habitats, etc. And if the pickings are slim, going to the same place over and over can be better than exploring new places anyway.

    • Reply Kristina Garner March 21, 2018 at 10:51 pm

      Thank you Jen. I love the ideas you added here! And I agree about visiting the same place, again and again. We have a little creek area behind our apartment building that is our go-to most days. Because we’ve become so familiar with it, we notice every little change–new green poking up from last fall’s leaves, the water level in the creek rising and falling, and new bird song as the seasons change. I can’t remember who said it, but there’s a quote that goes something like “it’s better to know one mountain well than to visit hundreds.” Of course, we like to do both! 🙂

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