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NaturExplorers Unit Studies Review by Shauna Rumbaugh

By Cindy West and Melissa Leach
Shining Dawn Books

Though never a Charlotte Mason-style homeschooler, I'm impressed by this homeschooling method and have wanted to incorporate more nature study into our homeschooling routine, especially after reading Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. But sometimes I've gone outside with my girls with the best of intentions and then found myself wondering, "What do we do now?" Veteran homeschoolers Cindy West and Melissa Leach have designed NaturExplorers to provide parents with as many ideas for learning about and in nature as possible. Their e-book nature studies can be adapted and customized to meet the styles and needs of individual homeschoolers. Whether you want to choose one or two activities for a field trip or nature walk or study a topic in depth over several weeks, the unit studies enable you to do just that. You don't have to utilize Charlotte Mason's method of home education to use the books.

Each NaturExplorers unit features a different nature topic or theme. Currently, there are 17 units available. I received three to review: Fruits and Nuts, Butterflies Flutter By, and Constant Conifers. The studies are geared toward elementary students. The topics aren't covered with a great deal of text or lengthy explanations but rather through many hands-on activities, real books, notebooking pages, and outdoor explorations. The authors recommend that you read three articles--"Why Study Nature," "Where to Study Nature," and "Gearing Up and Being Safe"--before you begin. These articles offer valuable tips and are included in each NaturExplorers unit study.

All of the unit studies follow the same basic format. Literature Launch suggests children's books that relate to the unit's featured topic. Inspiration Point provides general inspiration to the teacher and tips to keep in mind as you begin the study; it's essentially a pep talk. A Bit of Background gives the teacher some background knowledge related to the topic.

Getting Outside is the core part of the unit study, where you will find dozens of ideas for what to look for and talk about with your student on nature walks. Some of the outside activities are simple and don't take much time to complete, such as scavenger hunts or comparing different types of nuts or seeds. Others call for a longer period of time to complete, such as choosing a tree in your yard or neighborhood and observing and recording information about it regularly to see how it changes over time.

Branching Out incorporates many other subject areas so that interested teachers can make a complete unit study based on the featured topic. Additional hands-on activities, craft projects, writing/journaling exercises, research ideas, Bible lessons, poetry, artist and picture studies, composer and music references, and other related literature and links are included. The authors also provide ideas for including younger children in the nature study as well as how to challenge older students. Suggestions are also provided for those who would like to use the unit studies with a group. (The books' copyright states: "Permission is granted to copy individual pages of this book for single family use or for use in a club or class environment.") The Shining Dawn Books website provides links to many of the art and music recommendations made in the Branching Out section.

Finally, a large section of the book provides printable graphic organizers and notebooking pages that you can take with you outside or use to follow up on your nature study afterward. Most of these colorful pages are referred to in the Getting Outside portion of the unit.

The Fruits and Nuts book contains 64 pages that teach kids about the fruits and nuts they might see on a nature walk. Topics include What Fruits and Nuts Are, Where to Find Fruits and Nuts, How to Use Fruits and Nuts, and How Fruits and Nuts Have Been Used Historically. Some of the intriguing projects and activities involved making mosaics from dried seeds, making nut and fruit dyes, and making berry watercolor paint. Fruits and nuts are edible, so the unit also includes several fruit-based recipes to try. You may need to adapt some of the activities depending on your location and the availability of orchards and various nuts and berries.

Butterflies are a favorite outdoor creature for both of my daughters, and the 60-page Butterflies Flutter By unit provides many ideas for learning more about them. Topics in this unit include Habitat, Life Cycle, Migration, Body Parts, Predators, and Endangered Habitats. In addition to the expected activities, such as raising your own butterfly and watching its transformation, you can try building the life cycle of a butterfly with uncooked rice and pasta or doing art projects based on the symmetry of a butterfly's wings.

Constant Conifers, a 60-page book, focuses on cone-bearing trees. It covers Conifers vs. Deciduous Trees, Parts of the Tree, Reproduction, and Coniferous Habitats. Unlike some other units, this study includes activities that can be done year-round, even in winter. You can take a conifer scavenger hunt using the included notebooking page, start a pinecone collection and classify each one, or dissect a conifer leaf. Another suggested activity is to go on a measurement hunt with a tape measure to record the length, height, and circumference of different conifers.

I'm impressed with NaturExplorers and look forward to doing more of the activities this spring and summer. Because I use my iPod Touch as an e-book reader now, I can easily carry around multiple e-books with me--even outside on a nature walk. At only $12 per PDF e-book, NaturExplorer units are quite reasonable. I recommend that you browse the list of available units and plan a nature walk with your students soon.

Product review by Shauna Rumbaugh, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, February 2010