I. Be outside as much as possible, including meals if you can. The first six years should be as free as possible.
“In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mothers first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it spent for the most part out in the fresh air. And this, not for the gain in bodily health alone––body and soul, heart and mind, are nourished with food convenient for them when the children are let alone, let to live without friction and without stimulus amongst happy influences which incline them to be good” (43).
I don’t think Mason would fit in the group of those who believe the natural person is sinless and that it is the influence of society that corrupts. But she evidently does believe that nature fosters goodness in some way. Of course she is talking about relatively safe nature, with the benefits of a home and a society nearby; “nature” for her does not conjure up images of storms without shelter, scarcity of food, dangerous wild animals, and the like. In the same way, I imagine for some people “society” calls up images of peace, comfort, support, encouragement, lively (but not overstimulating) conversation, and the like… So is Mason focusing mostly on this lack of friction, pressure, and overstimulation, or mostly on fresh air, beautiful scenery, space, interesting plants and animals and objects? Is the benefit (from either area of focus) really only to be found in nature, or merely more likely to be found there, given Mason’s context in time and space? Does it matter whether one is introverted or extraverted — or any number of other personality differences?
Mason goes on to argue for whole days spent in nature, as often as possible, even if it means city-dwellers take a picnic on the train every day. Her prescribed method for these long hours outdoors includes a lot of time for the kids to be left alone, plus opportunities for training eyes and ears, plus a few lessons, plus the planting of “seeds of truth” (44).
II. Sight-seeing: Don’t bring any entertainment, including books. Nature itself is entertainment enough. Start with free physical activity — running around, shouting, whatever comes to their minds. When the kids come back ready for something new, send them to observe and see all they can about something, and report back to you. If they have observed carefully, answer their questions about “what is it” and so on. Gently correct any exaggerations. Ask clarifying questions (i.e. which side was x on?). The kid who doesn’t describe in sufficient detail should be sent back to do better before his questions are addressed.
I’m not sure about this treatment of the kid whose descriptions are considered insufficient. I imagine her expectations here take development and maturity into account, and I suppose she is not implying that the mom shame or have a punitive response to the child.
III. (Mental) Picture-painting: Have the kids study a prospect and form a mental image of it, studying and testing themselves with shut eyes until they can see and describe every detail. Mom can do some as an example, and she might also call the children’s attention to details she thinks are worth noting. This exercise should not be given too often, as it can be “a strain on the attention” (49). Anyone can learn to see in such a way as to form such mental images, which can be comforting and refreshing to remember later in life. Moms must be careful not to spoil the simplicity and objectivity of the children’s descriptions by repeating them to others as some cleverness to be admired or found amusing.
I’ll add that Mom should not assume that the details she finds interesting or noteworthy are universally interesting or noteworthy, but be willing to concede that other people, young or old, might be drawn to other details.
IV. Flowers and trees: children should become familiar with the local plants — their names, where each kind is found, when it blooms, what the leaves are like, and all other kinds of details. A field guide can be a useful reference. Children can collect and press specimens, and / or make drawings of them. Children might choose some particular trees to observe through the seasons. Parents should be careful to take, or at least not hinder, the perspective of the children, for whom each flower and tree is a new and wonderful thing. A calendar can be interesting and useful for keeping track of the first sighting of certain flowers, leaves, animals, fruits, and so on. Children should keep a nature-diary as well, in which they record in words and pictures the things that they noticed each day outside. (Mom can write for her if she is not yet fluent in writing.) Painting instruction should be limited to such things as how to mix colors, and not what to paint or which colors to use. Instruction in drawing should be saved for another time and place. The child who complains “I can’t stop thinking” should have some definite work to settle to, and it should be this kind of concrete work with real things in their own contexts.
V. Living Creatures: Children should be encouraged to carefully watch the animals and insects they see. They can bring home a tadpole or an ant colony to observe at greater length; Mason describes a way to make an ant farm. If parents and others demonstrate an interest in and respect for creatures, the children will follow suit; kids aren’t naturally afraid of insects or other critters unless others in the home are.
Mason goes on to discuss what creatures town children can likely observe, then points out that the learning that is meaningful to children is what they explore for themselves in real life, and not what they read in a textbook. She argues that nature is the best place for this kind of learning, that the habits and skills of the naturalist are applicable to all other fields, that finding much occupation in nature prevents much boredom — and then she talks about how especially good nature is for girls, because they are so idle, so prone to ugly tempers, so feeble, and so petty. Oh my!!
VI. Field-lore and naturalists’ books: First of all, don’t begin dissection, even of plants, this early, but model a reverence for natural life. Some terms can be useful — parts of a flower, ways to describe leaves, distinguishing between animals with backbones and those without, and so on. The children should sort, group, classify their specimens themselves, rather than learning classifications from books. Naturalists’ books should be a source of pleasure-reading, not objects of study and testing. Moms should read widely in this area so as to better answer the children’s questions and guide their explorations.