Gentle + Classical Nature is a Christian, Charlotte Mason style program for science. Eventually, each volume will be usable with children in pre-kindergarten through seventh grade. Volume 1: Inland Waterways and Forests, a one-year course, is available as I write this review, and two more volumes are planned. According to the website, the second volume will be about shorelines and oceans, and the third will be about gardens, farming, and "around the world" topics.
Volume 1 is a newly revised edition (released in July 2020). It has a total of 18 units which are split between three terms. The intent is for you to spend two weeks on each unit. The three terms and topics they cover are:
- Term 1: Inland Waterways - amphibians, freshwater fish, aquatic insects, freshwater birds, freshwater mammals, and reptiles
- Term 2: Critters: Great and Small - inland birds, temperate forests and animals, butterflies, bees, arachnids, and worms and decomposition
- Term 3: Forests - coniferous trees, mosses and mushrooms, tree anatomy, deciduous trees, nocturnal animals, and nature in motion
In accordance with Charlotte Mason’s methodology, outdoor exploration, nature observation, and nature collection are essential parts of this course. Lessons are arranged in a somewhat seasonal fashion for those living in the northern hemisphere, but you can switch the order of lessons to fit your location.
The course has a teacher’s guide, your choice of three levels of difficulty for a student notebook, the Nature Collection Journal, and sets of memory cards. Level 1 is recommended for children in prekindergarten through first grade. Level 2 is for grades two through four, and level 3 is for grades five through seven. (The third-level student notebook is due in the summer of 2021.)
A few core books are required in addition to the books I’ve described above. Nature Anatomy: The Curious Parts and Pieces of the Natural World by Julia Rothman is used throughout the course. Over and Under the Pond and Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, both written by Kate Messner, are used in the first and second terms, respectively. Ellie’s Log: Exploring the Forest Where the Great Tree Fell by Judith L. Li is used in the third term.
Read-aloud books are also used to foster the child’s imagination. Three titles are recommended per year for each of levels 1 and 2. For the first level, the recommended books are Frog and Toad Storybook Treasury by Arnold Lobel, Thimbleberry Stories by Cynthia Rylant, and The Adventures of Geraldine Woolkins by Karin Kaufman. The books for level 2 are Among the Pond People, Among the Forest People, and Among the Night People—all by Clara D. Pierson.
Many other books are recommended but not required. Among these are the DK Encyclopedia of Animals, The Tree Book, The Little Book of Backyard Bird Songs, One Small Square: Backyard, and bird identification guides. The teacher’s guide lists the other books that will be needed for the first and second levels, and the forthcoming student notebook for level 3 will have the book lists for older students.
How It Works
The first 49 pages of the 135-page teacher’s guide explain the course's philosophy and methodology. Parents are strongly urged to read Home Education by Charlotte Mason for a deeper understanding of Mason's philosophy of education.
Lessons involve nature walks; reading from living books; identifying birds, trees, and wildflowers; collecting plant samples; memorizing key information; discussing topics; narrating observations; learning some French or Spanish words for nature terms; memorizing and reciting nature poems; completing projects (such as caring for a caterpillar through its life cycle); and working in both the student notebook and the Nature Collection Journal.
The memory work I mentioned above is reinforced by other elements of the lessons, especially by work with the Memory Statement Cards and the 3-Part Montessori Cards that come with the course bundle. You will create a homemade Memory Statement Board where you will hang the Memory Statement Cards with illustrations and key information for topics that you are studying at the time. The Three-Part Montessori Cards are optional, but they help with visual and name identification of the living things being studied. French or Spanish flashcards can be used to help introduce nature terms in either of those languages.
The student notebooks each have age-appropriate information on the topics of study, accompanied by illustrations, poems for recitation, copywork, activity pages that reinforce information, and space for drawing and writing. The Nature Collection Journal has pre-formatted pages for students to mount their specimens, write information, and make their own drawings or paintings. The journal also has some information along with a few images that help with plant and tree identification.
The program uses the word “attainments” to identify what are called objectives in other programs. Among the objectives for this program are to memorize and recite six poems; to be able to describe the boundaries of their own (the child’s) home; to be able to describe their choice of a lake, river, pond, island, or other body of water “within reach;” to create a scrapbook of wildflowers (one wildflower per week); and to keep a caterpillar and be able to tell its life story based on the child’s observations. There are more items on this list, and even these few might sound daunting. However, they are taught over three levels, so children will not meet all of these objectives in one year and through just one course. Expectations for a preschooler will be much lower than those for an eight- or nine-year-old child.
Gentle + Classical Nature has many different types of activities, and they might not all fit your needs. So the author encourages parents to use this course as a tool, either using all of it or only selected parts.
The book components of Gentle + Classical Nature are available in either digital or print formats. However, the Three-Part Montessori cards, Memory Statements Cards (for all three levels), and both Spanish and French nature flashcards are only available as PDFs. The teacher’s guide is available free as a PDF file, but the printed version is not. You also need to purchase one or more student notebooks in either PDF or printed format. The author, Erin Cox, says that you need to print the student notebooks (in color) and have them spiral bound, so it might make more sense to purchase printed versions. Likewise, you will need to either buy the printed Nature Collection Journal or print out the PDF on cardstock. It makes sense to me to use the PDF teacher’s guide, but purchasing the other books might be the better choice. The least expensive option up front is the Gentle + Classical Nature Volume 1 digital bundle. This bundle includes PDFs for the teacher’s guide, student notebooks for level 1 and level 2, the Nature Collection Journal, the 3-Part Montessori cards, Memory Statements Cards (for all three levels), and both Spanish and French nature flashcards. You will need to purchase or borrow the other required books on your own.
Gentle + Classical Nature is a stand-alone program, but it was designed to be used in conjunction with their preschool programs. Of course, this works only for your preschool-level students. The teacher’s guide explains how to coordinate the programs. Nature can be used alongside Preschool Level 1 by substituting activities from Nature in place of those already in the lesson plans. It can also serve as the entire science component for Preschool Level 2 which has no built-in science.
Using Gentle + Classical Nature can be a great way for parents to begin to implement Charlotte Mason’s methodology. It teaches parents about Mason's methodology, while helping them teach their children in a multi-sensory fashion that connects them to the real world of nature.