Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Educating with Nature’s Own Book

Prominent naturalists like Louis Agassiz encouraged parents and teachers to teach children directly from nature as such study became increasingly important to the educated middle class in the 19th century, but their lectures and a growing number of handbooks hardly reached into general classrooms. Significant advocates and textbook writers included Almira Phelps, Mary Peabody Mann, Jacob Abbott, Lucretia Crocker, William T. Harris, and Harlan Ballard, who founded youthful clubs under the Agassiz Association.

Chapter 2: Devising a Curriculum for Nature Study

Prescient educators in Chicago, affiliated with Cook County Normal School and then the University of Chicago and led by Wilbur Jackman, produced a new nature study curriculum in the 1890s. Advocates introduced it at meetings of the National Educational Association and taught nature study methods in leading teachers’ training schools, including the experimental school established by John Dewey and others at normals schools across the country.

Chapter 3: Framing Nature Study for the Cities

"The Life History of the Toad." Author's own collection.

"The Life History of the Toad." Author's own collection.

As New York and other large cities consolidated their schools and recognized that immigrant pupils often had limited background in the country life experienced by earlier generations, nature study provided practical programs like school gardens, aesthetic projects like flowering window boxes, and outdoor excursions to identify plants and animals in local parks. Clifton Hodge of Clark University initiated a particularly practical program for the working class schools of industrial Worcester and described his projects in Nature Study and Life.

Chapter 4: Revitalizing Farm and Country Living

New York State, concerned about the declining agricultural economy, gave money to its agricultural college at Cornell to produce a very different nature study program, designed and taught by Anna Botsford Comstock and Liberty Hyde Bailey for rural schools in one- and two-room buildings. Their leaflets and books became core for the nature study movement that took hold literally across and beyond the United States, promoted by educators from George Washington Carver at Tuskegee to David Starr Jordan at Stanford University as well as into Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Chapter 5: Deliberating Theory, Texts, and Topics

This new curriculum seemed to fit so many agendas and to work well with various pedagogical and psychological theories, but nature study educators found themselves needing to decide what approach to take, what topics to include, and what outcomes to expect. Fred and Frank McMurry and others influenced by German educational psychologists like Wilhelm Wundt and William Rein introduced child-centered practices, but many of their colleagues became increasingly interested in quantifiable outcomes.

Chapter 6: Establishing Professional Identities

Nature study was unlike many other subjects in that it required particular training and considerable effort to plan and provide outdoor educational opportunities. It thus offered unprecedented opportunities for women interested in science to pursue this subject, including supervision of nature study in major school systems where they created educational linkages to museums, botanical gardens, and zoological parks; those with advanced degrees also found positions in museums and teachers’ training colleges.

The Nature Study Review offered tips on introducting nature study into the classroom. Courtesy of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, University of Minnesota.

The Nature Study Review offered tips on introducting nature study into the classroom. Courtesy of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, University of Minnesota.

Chapter 7: Forging an Institutional Base

Nature study was an established curricular topic by the early 20th century, and those teaching the subject wanted a forum to discuss theoretical issues and exchange practical advice. The Nature-Study Society, established in 1905, and subsequently the Nature-Study Review, edited by Maurice Bigelow, provided opportunities for members to meet and to exchange ideas.

Chapter 8: Reframing and Extending Nature Education

Positivist outlooks and skepticism about how to measure learning outcomes of the often informal techniques of nature study education led to its gradual subordination to elementary school science in the interwar years. By then, however, nature study activities had found new expression extracurricular sites like Boy Scouts, Campfire Girls, summer camps, and educational programs in the growing number of state and federal parks and in regional nature centers, some of which were created in order to encourage nature study.

Chapter 9: Conclusion

The legacy of the nature study movement is evident in the still available nature study facilities for children in schools, public parks, and museums, and through extracurricular programs. Another important outcome of the early movement was a generation of individuals who came of age in the middle of the century, including Rachel Carson, who imbibed nature study philosophy and expressed it in both her writings about nature and her environmental activism.

You can pre-order Teaching Children Science: Hands-On Nature Study in North America from the University of Chicago Press.