by Meredith Hanson, contributor

As a homeschooling parent, I’m frequently asked why I choose to homeschool my kids. I always find myself a little at sea on how to answer this question, because there are many reasons that my husband and I have chosen to homeschool our three children. To add to the difficulty in responding, the reasons we choose to homeschool have grown, expanded, and shifted as we continue on this journey as a family. Yet, there is one reason that I have held steady in my heart from the the very beginning of the journey, and it is the reason I frequently share with people who ask me this question: my belief in the importance of time spent in nature and a connection to the natural world in the development of human beings.

The flexibility of homeschooling allows my children to spend much more time outdoors than would be available to them if they were enrolled in a traditional school environment. It also allows our family to place nature education and the natural sciences at the forefront of our schooling. If you are curious about learning more about the value of a connection with the natural world on child development, I recommend checking out Richard Louv’s bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods.

We incorporate nature and nature education into our days in many ways. The children and I begin each morning cuddled together on a couch that faces toward a large window. We watch the sunrise and as the light grows, we watch the birds begin to visit the feeder. We keep our Minnesota Birds book close at hand to quickly look up any unknown arrivals. Sometimes in the dawn light, we spot deer wandering the hillside next to our house. Once, a black bear ambled past.

When we’re ready, we shift to our morning read-aloud. This is usually a chapter book or a collection of fairy tales. For the last couple of weeks, we have been reading a story or two each morning from the Usborne Illustrated Stories of Horses and Ponies. Children’s connection to the natural world is so innate and commonplace that children’s literature abounds with nature. So many books have animals for characters and most of the adventures take place outdoors. It makes finding books with nature themes very simple!

I consider myself an ‘eclectic’ homeschooler. I find particular inspiration in the educational philosophies of Waldorf, Charlotte Mason, and unschooling, and our homeschool is a mix of all three with our own unique twist. We do the bulk of our ‘school work’ in the morning and try to keep our mornings mostly unscheduled to make sure we have the time and focus to give our projects and learning the attention they deserve.

Our connection with nature frequently drives us outside, yet also influences the types of activities and projects we choose to do when inside. When my oldest child was a toddler and I first began to see that homeschooling was the path that we were headed toward, I researched lots of learning activities online. When trying to replicate these at home, I found myself uncomfortable with the materials called for to create different ‘sensory bins’ and preschool art projects. It felt so wasteful to buy materials made from fossil fuels that were meant to be used once, or possibly just a couple of times, and then to throw away into landfills where they would be polluting the Earth for generations to come. This is when Waldorf inspired art projects began to inspire me. Waldorf art projects use natural materials like beeswax, wool yarn, and paper which are far gentler on the planet and less toxic for children, as well.

An example of ‘ephemeral art’ – art made from nature that is meant to be

We also love to create ‘ephemeral art’ – art made from nature that is meant to be temporary – think stone cairns and sandcastles. We’ve explored ephemeral art often in the last year. Ephemeral art is a great activity if you have a child who struggles with art due to perfectionism. The very fact that the art is not meant to be permanent helps ease some of the pressure that creating art brings up for some children. If you are interested in creating ephemeral art, I highly recommend the book Make it Wild by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield.

Our afternoons are spent mostly out of doors, except in the very worst of weather. We do a lot of free play and unguided exploration during our outside time. We live in the country on six acres, which is a mix of woods and meadow, and we are less than a mile from a state park, so we have a lot of room and variety to explore.
We keep a large garden and each year try to grow more and more of our own food. We’ve been establishing an orchard, adding a few trees each year. We also keep chickens and ducks. We try to keep the kids as involved as possible in these projects, so they can learn these skills alongside us. In the summer, we hike, canoe, swim, and camp. In the winter, we snowshoe, sled, and cross country ski (when there’s snow!).

The kids and I keep nature journals throughout the year. This is a place for us to record our nature observations in both drawings and words. It’s also fun to keep track of things like sunrise/sunset time, temperature, and the stages of the moon in a nature notebook. This year we are keeping a ‘weather tree’. I drew a large tree on a piece of posterboard. The tree has 365 leaves and each day we color one leaf to represent the weather for that day. At the end of the year, we should have a colorful, visual representation of the weather.

When we are done playing outside, we have a late afternoon tea time, outside in fair weather, indoors in foul. We have snacks and tea, and this is our special dedicated time to read picture books. There are so many great nature picture books out there. Some of our favorites are: Winter is Coming by Tony Johnston, Far from Shore: Chronicles of an Open Ocean Voyage by Sophie Webb, and Parrotfish and Sunken Ships: Exploring a Tropical Reef by Jim Arnosky.

Evenings are spent outdoors when weather allows, with swimming, gardening, having campfires, and stargazing as favorite activities.

One of the great joys and surprises of providing my children with a nature based education has been not just in witnessing their knowledge grow and their connection with the natural world deepen, but also in experiencing the same thing for myself. I didn’t anticipate that I would become a person who could name the various birds as they flew past, or a person who would put her hands on a tree and talk to it quietly and listen in return. These things came to me as a slow and gentle surprise. Nature education has been a journey we’ve taken together, rather than just an educational practice. I’m certain that as my children grow, our reasons for homeschooling will continue to shift and evolve, but I hope to always be able to keep a relationship with the natural world at the heart of it.