About Nature Study

Washington, D.C., children on a field trip, c. 1899. United States Library of Congress/Frances Benjamin Johnston.

Washington, D.C., children on a field trip, c. 1899. United States Library of Congress/Frances Benjamin Johnston.

Nature study curriculum introduced elementary science into the public schools of the United States and Canada at the end of the 19th century as part of a significant expansion of topics deemed important to progressive education. Based on a new child-centered pedagogy that emphasized age-related education and the importance of using all the senses, nature study encouraged hands-on learning in the out-of-doors. Teachers were to use the nature they found close at hand, sometimes supplemented by projects that beautified school grounds or by school gardens on otherwise underutilized property in their neighborhood. Curricular content differed in one-room country schools surrounded by farms and borderland wilderness and in the inner city schools of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. It also varied considerably by geographical region, from coastal cities to inland prairies and from desert landscapes to northern forests. Nature study was both versatile and demanding in its implementation as teachers learned more about the plants and animals in their locale. Public support for nature study drew on contemporary enthusiasm for conservation and preservation, and much of the study of local natural history encompassed an ecological or environmental outlook.

Scientists initially welcomed nature study as a method that introduced children to the study of nature early in their lives. Progressive educators, particularly those at the University of Chicago, Teachers College, Columbia University, Clark University, Stanford University, and the leading normal schools in Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, and California, noted the evident interest among students for subjects that engaged them directly. Teachers, the vast majority of them women, found the work challenging but rewarding as they learned with their pupils. Anna Botsford Comstock of Cornell University lectured on nature study, Anna Gallup created a program for teachers and pupils at the Brooklyn Museum, and Ruth Marshall taught at Rockford College and helped establish a regional nature center. The movement for nature study education generated numerous textbooks by national publishers as well as a considerable range of syllabi that identified local topics for the upper grades. In 1903 Liberty Hyde Bailey summarized many of the principles he and his colleagues advanced in teaching nature study to teachers in a book entitled The Nature Study Idea. In 1905, a new journal, Nature-Study Review, provided a forum for administrators and teachers to discuss their pedagogical methods and share examples of successful projects. Thus, for a generation between 1890 and 1923, nature study dominated the approach to pre-high school science teaching.

After World War I, however, a growing emphasis on testing and standardization meant that larger school systems, in particular, turned to elementary science that would teach the rudiments of natural and physical sciences as preparation for continuously advancing work and in ways that meant students could readily transfer from school to school and encounter the same subjects. By this time, many of the elements of nature study—teaching with local plants and animals, studying these subject in natural context, and starting with children’s observation and imagination—were part of informal education in scouting, summer camps, and regional and national parks across the country.

The legacy of these programs is found today in schools that have active learning curriculum, in the nature centers that provide educational opportunities for youth and adults, and in the active efforts of many who are doing home schooling today. Whatever the location, environmentalists, science teachers, and parents are keen to discover and encourage activities and programs that get children outdoors. Nature study has been revitalized, sometimes using different terms such as environmental education, by those who seek legislation to leave “No Child Left Inside,” by educators and parents who blog about their positive experiences on the Web, and by nature centers that often concentrate their limited resources on programs for children.