T HE study of Nature now takes a prominent place in the curriculum of many schools, and while many teachers regard it as being a valuable aid in the training of infants and junior scholars, others have fully recognised its usefulness as a study for children throughout the whole period of their school life.
But we must, at the outset, state precisely what we mean by the term 'Nature Study.' It is the careful and thoughtful observation of natural objects and natural phenomena by the children, under the guidance of the teacher—a process of research on the part of the children by means of which natural objects and phenomena acquire meaning.
It will be clearly seen from the above definition that we have nothing whatever to do with the old type of object lesson in which information acquired by the teacher is imparted to the class, not even if such a lesson is illustrated by the exhibition of the object to question, as well as by the best of pictures or diagrams.
Such a lesson is merely a lesson of information, in which the children gain second-hand knowledge; and the acquisition of the facts given is only a matter of memory, unaccompanied by those important mental processes which assist in the development of the growing mind. The true nature study lesson is one in which each child closely observes an object placed before him, or studies a phenomenon that presents itself to him at the time, and in which he is encouraged to form his own conclusions, and to realise, as far as possible, the true nature of the thing seen.
Thus nature study, as we are to understand it, is to be looked upon rather as a method than as a subject. It is, with the teacher, an effort to bring the children in direct contact with things, to cultivate the habit of careful observation and discrimination, to create a living interest in the surroundings, and to encourage independent thought. It teaches the child not only to see, but to recognise; and it produces a habit of sensory alertness at a period during which the mind is particularly plastic and impressionable.
There is a vast difference between nature knowledge and nature study. The former simply denotes facts acquired, while the latter is rather a spirit of inquiry and research by which natural objects and phenomena arouse a living interest and encourage investigation. In the latter case the work of the teacher is not to give information, but rather to stimulate the children to observe and discriminate for themselves, and to form their own conclusions.
Of course, in the case of young children, the ideas formed and the conclusions framed will always be more or less vague and imperfect; but since these ideas and conclusions are the result of the children's own efforts, they are of far more value than the clearer conceptions imposed by the teacher on a class that is merely passively receptive.
The value of nature study as a means of training children can hardly be overestimated. The habit of close and thoughtful observation that it cultivates will not only have a great influence on them during their period of school life, but will also assist them in their future careers. It will help them to see and understand various natural objects and the phenomena associated with them that would otherwise remain practically unnoticed, and will have a very great influence in determining their tastes and pursuits.
This cultivated habit of closely observing natural objects and phenomena will give the child a practical grasp of the whole physical world, enabling him to recognise all things and occurrences as a set of conditions that form his own environment. It will produce a keenness of the senses and precision of observation that, coupled with an appreciative interest in the surroundings and a natural inquisitiveness concerning things in general, will put him in a much better position to carry out the work demanded of him in his future career with initiative, self-reliance, and a productive method.
The training which nature study gives not only causes the child to see with the mind as well as with the eye, but teaches him to observe with a purpose; and the mental discipline it enforces provides a splendid foundation for the future study of the experimental sciences. A good systematic course of nature study will also lead to neatness, accuracy and dexterity in all work undertaken, and do much towards the cultivation of patience and perseverance in the worker.
If the effect of a good course of nature study is to produce in the child all that we claim for it, it is clear that the training must have more or less influence in connection with the teaching of all school subjects. But some of these subjects are so closely allied to this study that they should be worked hand in hand with the latter. Thus the drawing lessons and the clay modelling exercises may be continuations of the study of the natural objects examined, and the teaching of geography may be conducted as an extension of the outdoor observations of natural objects and phenomena.
Then, again, a very large proportion of our best literature teems with references to natural objects and phenomena, and thus the study of Nature enables us to understand and enjoy much that would otherwise be meaningless or vague.
There is yet another aspect of the subject well worth consideration. Nature study is certainly of great value as an aid towards the culture of æsthetic tastes, and many of our best teachers further recognise in it a powerful aid in moral training. It cultivates the judgment and the imagination, and thus leads to such thoughtful and intelligent observation that the child not only becomes acquainted with the facts of Nature, but sees and appreciates her beauties and realises her wonders. This appreciation of the beauties and wonders of Nature leads to a sympathy with all living things, thus correcting the natural tendency to destructiveness; and it also tends to create a broad human sympathy. No study so thoroughly arouses the æsthetic and emotional elements of a child's character, and no school study can do more to brighten the lives of the children.