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What Is Nature Study?

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What is nature study?

Have you heard of nature study – perhaps in the context of nature walks, or even within homeschooling? Perhaps you really love the sound of it, the idea of doing it… but, you have no idea where to start or what to do? If that is so, then this is the page for you! 

Let's get you started!

What is natural history?

Before we dive into nature study, it is helpful to first introduce natural history. What is natural history? It is a living, breathing, exciting and ever-changing adventurous field of study!

Imagine shaggy yak on ice-capped mountains; lions prowling through the African Savannah; herds of buffalo grazing on the prairie; shoals of fish darting through the depths of the ocean; or colourful parrots in a lush, green forest. 

Because, natural history, is the study if life in its natural environment. So, plants, trees, birds, butterflies, animals, spiders, lichens, mosses; the earth itself, with its rocks and soils; the water flowing through the ocean depths, or bubbling and laughing in mountain streams. The wind and the rain; and sunshine and rainbows. Commets and asteroids, moon and stars…

What is nature study?

Natural history in action is called nature study, and nature study encompasses many different elements. 

For example, 

  • Botany – the study of plants
  • Mycology – the study of fungi
  • Zoology – the study of animals
  • Ornithology – the study of birds
  • Entomology – the study of insects
  • Oceanography – the study of ocean life
  • Astronomy – the study of stars
  • Geology – the study of rocks
  • Herbalism – the study of medicinal plants

The list could go on and on! But, in general, nature study looks at how life lives and grows and breathes and changes; how it interacts with its own and other species; and how it changes and adapts and moves in its environment.

Consider a tiny ant.

  • What is the role of that ant in its ant hill?
  • Does it communicate with the other ants?
  • How does it communicate?
  • What does it do if an enemy approaches?
  • How does it find food and let the others know about it?
  • Does it use any tools to help carry that food home?
  • What if there is no food? What does it do then? What do all the ants do?
  • Do they change their diet? Do they move their hill?
  • How do they feed and rear and care for all their little baby ants?

Now imagine these questions applied to every form of life you can imagine!

Who is a naturalist?

The name given to someone who studies natural history, is a naturalist. A naturalist could be anyone with an interest in nature and in life itself – a scientist, a poet, an artist, a philosopher. 

For example, a poet looking for inspiration in nature, will want to accurately depict all the sights and sounds and feels and smells; write about the heart-stopping thrill of a predator’s chase;  perhaps the swoop and soar of a bird in flight; the way the sunlight moves and dapples through the trees on a windy day; or the way leaves or snowflakes fall to the ground.

An artist painting an ocean scene, would study the waves upon the sea – how they rise and fall; how they ripple and foam, and spray and splash; the way the colour changes to reflect the sun and the clouds, or the swell of the storm.

Even a family on a nature walk are being naturalists – you might look up at the sky and study the weather – is it going to rain? What is that bird you can hear singing? Has that spider caught any flies in its web? How many types of leaves can you find? If it is autumn, are they changing colour yet?

The naturalist’s toolkit

So, what does a naturalist need in order to study natural history? What do they keep in their toolkit?

The answer, is little more than a keen eye, keen ears, a nose for opportunities and an open, imaginative mind. 

Of course, there are things that can help a naturalist along, but these can play a supportive role, rather than being essentials. 

For example,

  • A notebook
  • A nature journal
  • Pencils
  • Colours
  • Field and identification guides

Other items in the naturalist’s toolkit might include:

  • Magnifying glass
  • Binoculars
  • Microscope
  • Compass
  • Butterfly net
  • Fishing net
  • Camouflage 
  • Bucket
  • Camera

But, these are extras and required more by the serious and academic naturalists than by families wanting to explore and enjoy a nature adventure. Though, I know, kids big and small enjoy waving butterfly nets through a meadow of flowers or splashing with a bucket through rock pools by the sea!

How to get started with nature study

Are you ready to try your own hand at a spot of nature study? Here is a quick guide to getting yourself started.

  • Use all your senses – sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste
  • Keep your mind open and inquisitive
  • Hone your powers of deduction and imagination
  • Practice your nature study everywhere
  • Start recording your observations
  • Keep practicing and getting better
  • Remember to keep it enjoyable and fun

A few famous naturalists

Have you been inspired to become a naturalist yet? If not, here are a few well-known people who were great naturalists. How many of them have you heard of? Did you know they were naturalists?

  • Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
  • Gerald Durrell (1925)
  • David Attenborough (1926)
  • David Bellamy (1933)
  • John Muir Laws
  • Chris Packham (1961)
  • Steve Irwin (1962-2006)
  • Ray Mears (1964)
  • Steve Backshall (1973)
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