Nature Study Part 1: Confessions of a Former Free Range Kid


“The woods were my Ritalin.
Nature calmed me, focused me, and yet excited my senses.” 

― Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

There is a curious term applied to kids who play outside beyond their backyards: Free-Range Kids.

I was a free range kid in the seventies, but we all were. I ran wild, free, and barefoot through the woods with my little brother and our feisty wee terrier dog and sinister-looking Doberman. Usually a half dozen neighbor kids ran with us. My dad would holler at us to put on shoes because we might step on a scorpion, but we never did and it never happened, probably because we were so loud they all skittered away before we could trample them. On occasion we were met with copperheads who would suddenly poke their evil heads up through the copper-colored leaves. Ra, our Doberman, unlike us, moved silently and elegantly through the forest shadows, and would suddenly emerge to kill them in a wink. Sometimes he would get bit and his head would swell for days. He looked more like a Rottweiler after a snakebite.

We always ended up in the creek, where there was a tree that grew right out of the creek bank, parallel to the ground. Most times, the creek was dry, and we considered it to be our “Indian camp” (we usually pretended to be Native Americans). There we held war councils, stirred meals of stone soup and pine needle salads, and sometimes pretended to be Pa and the girls searching for beads in the abandoned Indian camp.

Every tree was known to us, every bit of red earth had touched our feet, every bird witnessed our comings and goings, and sometimes we witnessed theirs. The wildflowers delighted us in the springtime, and found their way into our play, as did the nuts and cones and leaves of the seasons. It was our world, and parents rarely figured into the equation. Yet, they were near, and when my dad loosed his ear-splitting whistle, we bolted home, lickity-split.

Many times, it might have looked as though we were idling in the woods. Not so. In a place teeming with life, there was so much to see. Uncovering a simple stone revealed a micro world of minibeasts, or a closer look at our parallel tree revealed an ant assembly line storing up food for the winter. Glancing through the lacy pines could reveal a spider web so intricate and so full of ghastly victims that surely it must have been Shelob’s labor, and not that of the more friendly Charlotte.

“On inspection it turned out to be a tiny toad, a quarter of an inch long, hopping mightily after an escaping millipede, itself no bigger than a thread, both going for all they were worth until they disappeared in the grass. Then a wolf spider, startling in size and hairiness, streaked over the gravel, either chasing something smaller or being chased by something bigger, I couldn’t tell which. I reckoned there must be a million minor dramas playing out around the place without ceasing. Oh, but they were hardly minor to the chaser and the chasee who were dealing in the coin of life and death. I was a mere bystander, an idler. They were playing for keeps.”

― Jacqueline Kelly, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Our senses were full in the woods: the smell of the earth, different when wet than when dry; pine needles underfoot, silky when fresh but pokey when dry; sunlight reaching through the trees to the forest floor, sometimes dappled and sometimes in ethereal columns that revealed a floating world of organisms otherwise unseen; the rare drifting of a quiet snowflake. Later, as a Christian, I would understand the meaning of “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” – the fullness was personal. It is the fullness of beauty bestowed on our souls by our lavish Creator who spoke it into existence, the One who never tires of calling out the sun every day or the moon every night, nor crafting humble daisies:

It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

― G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy


My husband was raised similarly, very close to nature, and would certainly have been called “free-range” today. His personal knowledge of every fish, crab, snake, and prawn in our resaca reveals a childhood spent swimming and fishing in the big lake in the center of Olmito with the neighborhood kids. As a teenager, he widened his love of the water by getting acquainted with the fish and wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico. As a young man he planted trees, and as a lumber salesman he appreciated the details of the finest of woods. Today he grows our food.

It was important to us to provide this type of childhood to our children, and we did, in spite of the fact that kids cannot be quite so free range today. In future posts, I will share how we created an atmosphere of nature study, how we practiced Charlotte Mason’s ideas to enjoy nature right here in the Rio Grande Valley, resources we found helpful, and how and why nature study builds virtue.

“A love of Nature, implanted so early that it will seem to them hereafter to have been born in them, will enrich their lives with pure interests, absorbing pursuits, health, and good humour.”

– Charlotte Mason, Volume 1

Internet Resources:

Ambleside Online’s free Nature Study Curriculum

8 Reasons to do nature study

Linda Fay’s fantastic website on applying CM’s methods; here is the nature study page

Podcast on Free Range Kids




Shelob v. Charlotte: