Account/Log In

Book Review

Teaching Children Science: Hands-On Nature Study in North America, 1890-1930

My daughters were fortunate that right in the heart of Ann Arbor they were able to attend an elementary school adjacent to a large woods. The school system zealously guarded this nature area and routinely turned down offers from developers to buy it. I remember when a sawmill owner discovered that the preserve contained a huge black walnut tree. He offered the schools thousands for it, but, thankfully, it is still there.
Someone told me that some scholar from the University of Michigan published the definitive work on salamanders based on his or her observations at a pond in the woods. When my kids were young the teachers at their school routinely used the woods for nature study. I remember in particular when they gathered and then investigated the contents of owl pellets to discover these birds ate.
I used to think that it would be fun to be an itinerant elementary school science teacher if I had access to places like the Eberwhite woods. It would be fun to introduce the kids to books like Euell Gibbons’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus and then take them out into the field to find the things Gibbons described. One could also use parts of books like Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to hone students’ powers of observation.
In this new book, Kohlstedt, who is professor in and director of the Program in History of Science and Technology at the University of Minnesota, describes a curriculum known as nature study that flourished in the early twentieth century in major city school systems, streetcar suburbs, small town, and even rural one-room schools. This object-based approach to learning about the natural world marked the first systematic attempt to introduce science into elementary education, and it came at a time when institutions such as zoos, botanical gardens, natural history museums, and national parks were promoting the idea that direct knowledge of nature would benefit an increasingly urban and industrial nation.
The definitive history of this once pervasive nature study movement, Teaching Children Science emphasizes the scientific, pedagogical, and social incentives that encouraged primarily women teachers to explore nature in and beyond their classrooms. Kohlstedt brings to life the instructors and reformers who advanced nature study through on-campus schools, summer programs, textbooks, and public speaking.  Within a generation, this highly successful hands-on approach migrated beyond public schools into summer camps, after-school activities, and the scouting movement. Although the rich diversity of nature study classes eventually lost ground to increasingly standardized curricula, Kohlstedt locates its legacy in the living plants and animals in classrooms and environmental field trips that she says remain central parts of science education today.