Artillery Row

Part Three: Home Education? Help!

How can children learn about the planet when they cannot leave their home?

Well, let’s start with the good news. We might be on course for a “silent spring” – not the terrifyingly silent spring predicted by Rachel Carson, who worried that the use of pesticides was destroying the ecological systems on which our world depends, but a spring in which our house-bound lifestyles decrease noise, pollution and waste, and give the world a chance to catch its breath. Already we’ve seen the benefits of reduced human movement in places like Venice, where for the first time in many years there is clear water in the canals. You might be able to see similar things from your kitchen window – an early bee, perhaps, or migrating geese – signs of more hopeful times, as if the world were beginning a slow and precarious recovery.

Your efforts will be encouraged by the fact that children are natural scientists. They are fascinated by living things. And they are curious about themselves

Here’s more good news: you don’t need a white coat, a dismembered frog or a Bunsen burner to understand why all this matters. Your home is an ideal place to learn about how the world is made. Of course, the ever-expanding breadth of the cosmos and the depth of geological time are too vast in scale to be understood by younger minds. But these kinds of concepts are not where scientific knowledge begins. We learn about small things before we learn about big things. Think of Edmund Gosse, learning geography from his father, Philip Henry Gosse, the eminent Victorian naturalist, working from a diagram of a carpet, to a plan of the back garden, eventually to study the maps of continents. Gosse understood that children will want to see the world from their own perspective. George Eliot made a similar point: human life should be “well rooted in some spot of a native land … At five years old … the best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.” She was right. Maybe we understand the world best when we see it from where we belong.

Your efforts will be encouraged by the fact that children are natural scientists. They are fascinated by living things. And they are curious about themselves. So why not begin there? Tape together enough paper to draw a life-size silhouette of your smallest child. Plot out the digestion system and draw in the major organs (on the paper, that is). Stick it up on a wall. Does your little one recognise herself?

It’s great to get outside, and in normal circumstances you might have enjoyed working through a nature studies curriculum like this one. But now your movements are restricted. So take a look out of the window. Can you see plants, trees, animals, or birds? Can you name them, draw them, or find a poem written about them? Can you see any stars, or observe the phases of the moon? Why not diagram the universe on your wall: if you wanted to represent the Milky Way to scale, how small would the sun and earth need to be?

Start a nature journal – write, draw and diagram your way through the living world. What about a nature scavenger hunt for the younger explorers in your home? Take a look at some of the nature posters available online, like these inspiring schoolroom charts: they make science (and your home) beautiful.

Then, if you can get outside, measure out a square foot of grass, and begin to dig it up – remember that hands-on learning is learning at its best. How many worms can you find? Does the answer help you guess how many worms might be living in your garden? And what are they doing anyway? What do you discover if you use a magnifying glass? Hang up some bird feeders, or spread some honey for bees. Can you attract any more wildlife to your home?

But maybe it’s raining, or you need to stay inside. So plant a seed, or watch a bean sprout (this takes a few weeks longer than watching drying paint). Draw a flower, and name its parts, with inspiration from Julia Rothman’s Nature anatomy and Celia Lewis’s An illustrated country year. Think about how living things fit together. Buy some caterpillars, and watch the butterflies emerge. Play with magnets, and think about why opposites attract. Try your luck at some experiments – build a lava lamp, construct your own volcano, or magic up a rainbow in a glass.

Then take a break with a favourite book. Check out the Usborne Starting Point Science series, with titles like What makes you ill? and Why do tigers have stripes? Use science books as read-alouds – you could start with Is a blue whale the biggest thing there is? and other books by Robert E. Wells. Have the children colour in while you read about the sea.

And have a rest: remember that the quality of the learning experience is often determined by the teacher’s energy. So, while you experiment with the coffee machine, set the children in front of Netflix, where the fifty-two episodes of “The Magic School Bus” describe everything from microbes to dinosaurs and from the immune system to meteorites. Let’s hope you don’t need to use every one of those episodes. But if you do, and you haven’t run out of coffee or nature documentaries, the SciShow Kids on YouTube or this virtual marine biology camp will be your next best friend.

Taking time out is important, for, as any scientist will recognise, you need some time to think. Remember that “science” is never an end in itself. Scientific knowledge can raise some very important questions. Younger children might want to think about what makes us different from animals. Older children might want to think not only about scientific narratives, but also about the political purposes to which those narratives are put. Should governments try to control “natural selection”? If something is “natural,” does that mean that it is good?

This way of approaching the study of science might help primary school-age children understand their place in the world and develop the “love and feeling for home” that Roger Scruton argued would drive a healthy environmental concern. Our study of science should teach us that our lives – all lives – have purpose and meaning. But science cannot answer the question of where this meaning comes from. Yes, it is only here, on this “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” that we witness the extraordinary drama of life. But for whose pleasure is this performance? This beautiful, fragile planet is amazing: encourage your children to wonder in this unusually silent spring.

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