Exploring Together: A Little Piece of Paradise - by Louisa Wells

The roar of the outboard motor drowned out all sounds as we raced across the bright blue ocean. My husband, Patrick, and I had left our children with my parents the day before. Together, he and I had flown to a tiny Tongan island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Upon our arrival, we learned of a snorkel trip planned for the next day. Following my life’s motto that “it is cheaper to do it now than to come back again later,” we had signed up immediately. I felt nervous about swimming in unknown waters, yet thrilled to try snorkeling for the 2nd time in my life. As the sun warmed us perfectly, we zipped along towards our destination.

Arriving at the preplanned anchor spot, our guide inspired me to regard him as a teacher instead of a beach bum. Initially, he surprised me with a bit of useful information. It was significantly more academic than I had expected from a sunburned Aussie on a barely-inhabited island. So, I asked a question I had been pondering: “What kind of rocks are on the beaches here?” I had begun wondering about the rocks on our first day at the beach. They were porous and very sharp. They appeared dark and yet not at all volcanic. This surprised me because prior to the trip I had read that the Tongan Islands were atolls. I could not make sense of it in my mind, and I was the only person in my family who seemed bothered by the discrepancy. When our guide quickly and easily identified the rocks as coral limestone- essentially petrified coral- I felt euphoric and knew I could learn volumes from this unlikely mentor.

The remainder of my experience changed from a sight-seeing trip to a nature study excursion. Once I determined that our snorkel guide could help me study nature, rather than simply observe it, my approach changed. Rather than simply looking for interesting or colorful fish, I was looking for questions. I tried to find things I did not understand to ask him about. He would answer each question and explain what else I would observe nearby. I would jack-knife dive down to the coral reef searching for what he had described. One by one, the other participants boarded the boat and waited for me to finish. I swam alone until I felt it would be impolite to keep everyone waiting any longer, and then I climbed aboard. The others had blank stares in their eyes- they really appeared bored. I felt breathless and enlivened. I wished I could stay longer. I wanted to study every inch of that coral reef.

Our morning in the ocean was not my first, nor certainly my last, nature study journey. I had grown up spending time hiking and camping with my dad. Some of my earliest happy memories had taken place in the Wasatch mountains. I had always enjoyed being out in nature, but I had been a fairly passive participant. I enjoyed the outdoor activities, but I did not give much specific thought to the creations around me. A change in me occurred when I began studying nature with my children. Their incessant questions taught me to be more curious. Children wonder so many things; nature study comes rather instinctively to them. Thankfully, we homeschool moms get to enjoy the journey with them.

Nature study adventures have been an integral part of our homeschool from the very beginning. When my oldest was in preschool and we were choosing a curriculum, I learned that early literacy will improve more and easier if children are given something to be literate about, rather than simply taught literacy skills. Nature was an obvious place to start because it is such a tangible topic to introduce to children. It is fascinating, encompassing, and abundant. Children can learn about it by observation, experience, and reasoning, not just by regurgitation. We have found available nature to study wherever we have lived - even in a city center apartment. We have also found many friends whose willingness to join us in our excursions has increased safety, accountability, and fun. Most importantly, we have strengthened our relationships and come to regard our time exploring together as a little piece of paradise. Although the annual amount of time we can devote to nature study varies with life’s changes, we make sure to include it on the schedule of each semester’s school plans.

Including nature study in your homeschool is simple, but not necessarily easy. Most of us feel more comfortable with a curriculum to follow and a rubric to assess our efforts. Nature study does not lend itself to those structures very well. Instead, we must look around ourselves, find the resources that we have, schedule a time to go exploring, and then follow through regardless of the weather. In addition, we have to accept the fact that sometimes there are no perceptible “outcomes” until much later. The challenge, then, is to find a way to keep it simple while providing enough structure for your family’s learning life style.

At the LDSHE convention this May, I will explain how to make nature study simple and achievable in my class entitled “Exploring Together: Every Family Can Do Nature Study.” The class will not be based on any particular philosophical approach. Instead, I will provide some practical, down-to-earth advice about why and how to accomplish nature study, and how to improve it if you are already doing it. Although I am not an expert, nor a scientist, I am excited to share my passion about nature. I hope that at the end of my class, you will feel encouraged that your family can explore nature together no matter where you live so that you, too, can experience a little piece of paradise.

- Louisa Wells loves experiencing nature. Some of her earliest memories are of hikes and camping trips with her dad. She is a mother of five children, and she has been sharing nature with them their entire lives. Although her children definitely learn from their adventures, Louisa feels that she is really the one who is learning the most.