Nature Study

The boy is always nearer to the heart of nature than the grown man. He has a passionate love of the open air and of the fields and woods; he is never really happy indoors. Nature has planted this outdoor instinct in the boy’s heart for the good of the race. Day and night teach him their lessons. The boy will absorb much that is interesting and also much that will be of real value in giving him a broader outlook upon life. Camping gives abundant opportunity for the study of nature…

A Full Chapter Excerpt from Camping for Boys: A Growing Up Great Guide for American Boys and for the Parents and Teachers Who Love Them, by H. W. Gibson



If nature is to be a resource in a man’s life, one’s relation to her must
not be too exact and formal, but more that of a lover and friend.

–John Burroughs

Outdoor Instinct

The boy is always nearer to the heart of nature than the grown man. He has a passionate love of the open air and of the fields and woods; he is never really happy indoors. Nature has planted this outdoor instinct in the boy’s heart for the good of the race. Day and night teach him their lessons. The boy will absorb much that is interesting and also much that will be of real value in giving him a broader outlook upon life. Camping gives abundant opportunity for the study of nature.

.Nature study is not a fad of modern times. Nearly three hundred and fifty years before Christ, Alexander the Great placed at the disposal of his tutor, Aristotle, the services of one thousand men throughout Asia and Greece with instructions to collect and report details concerning the life, conditions and habits of fishes, birds, beasts and insects. To this magnificent equipment of assistants, Alexander added fifteen thousand dollars in gold for books and laboratory supplies.

Prof. L. H. Bailey says, “The modern idea of Nature Study is to put the boy in a sympathetic attitude toward nature for the purpose of increasing the joy of living. Nature study is not science. It is not knowledge. It is spirit. It is concerned with the boy’s outlook on the world…. This Nature spirit is growing, and there are many ways of knowing the fields and woods. A new literature has been born. It is the literature of the out-of-doors.”


Boys are natural born collectors. They are interrogation points, full of curiosity, like the “man from Missouri,” they want to know. The wise leader will say, “Let us find out some thing about this tree, or plant, or bird, or whatever it may be, and together we will be learners.” The text-book method will not work in a boys’ camp. “Go find me a flower” is the true method, and let us see what it is. Nature study books and leaflets should be used merely as guides, not as texts.

Arousing Interest

Arouse interest by encouraging the boys to make collections of leaves, flowers, etc., found in the vicinity of the camp. Leaves and flowers may be pressed in a home-made press and mounted upon heavy paper or cardboard. The following suggestions are given by Dan Beard and quoted by permission of Charles Scribner’s Sons from his Book, “The Field and Forest Handy Book.”


“The illustration shows how the press is made. In using the press, first place the plants or leaves, enclosed in their wrappers and dryers of newspapers, on the bottom board, put the top board over them, bring the hinged lever down and bind the whole together with a stout strap put around the end of the lever and the handle of the bottom board. As this strap is drawn tight the lever bends, and so keeps a constant pressure on the plants and leaves even when they shrink in drying. Dryers should be changed at least every day. Mount specimens on separate herbarium sheets of standard size (1-1/2 X 16-1/2). Each specimen should be mounted with name (common and botanical), where found, date and any other facts of interest. This label is usually pasted in the lower right hand corner of the herbarium sheet.”


If the camp has a permanent building, these specimens make a most attractive decoration as well as help to recall the happy days of “the hunt.” The material equipment for nature study should consist of a good loose leaf note-book, something that will stand the out-door wear. Get quadrille ruled sheets. They will simplify sketching in the matter of proportion and scale. A pocket magnifying glass will serve for identification of the specimens. An inexpensive combination tweezer and magnifying glass is made by Asher Kleinman, 250 Eighth Avenue, New York (50 cents). Best of all is a high-power microscope, especially where the camp has a permanent building with suitable room, having a good light and table facilities. A camera will help in securing permanent records of trees, ferns, flowers, birds, freaks of nature and scenes other than the usual camp groups. A few reliable books on nature study are needed to complete the outfit.


A “bird hunt” was a popular sport in one of my camps. We started off early one morning, a group of boys, each “loaded” with a big lunchbox crammed with good things, a note-book, a book on bird-life, and a “gun.” The “gun” we used was a powerful pair of field glasses. On the way we counted the number of bird-homes we saw. Just as we were thinking about stopping and having breakfast we heard a most ecstatic song. Creeping close to the place where the sound came from, we discovered the songster to be a song-sparrow. Focusing our “gun” upon the bird we made note of its coloring and marking, making sure that if we heard or saw another we would recognize it at once. While we were eating our breakfast, there was a dash of white, yellow, and grayish-brown, a whirring sound and, as the bird lighted upon the low bushes nearby, a clear, piercing whistle came from its throat. Our “gun” revealed to us a meadow lark. By this time the boys were as much excited over the bird hunt as over a game of ball.

Walks Afield

A “flower walk,” observing the wild flowers; a “fern walk,” discerning the delicate tracery of the fern in its cool haunts; a “tree walk”, noting the different trees–all are natural ways of interesting boys in nature study.

Night Sounds

G. B. Affleck in the April, 1910, number of Physical Training tells his experience in studying nature with several groups of boys.

“The night sounds surrounding a camp in northern Minnesota were a puzzle to boys and to the counselor of the tent at the end of the row. This problem continued unsolved for more than a week, despite all attempts both by day and night. Finally, one moist, warm night, Ned, after stealthily approaching the sound, satisfied himself of its location in a certain tree and in the morning was rewarded by the discovery of the ‘toad’ camped on a branch near the source whence the sound had issued. Replacing the frog so that the coarse tubercles of its back corresponded to the bark, Ned enjoyed a merited reward at the expense of his tent mates who, though often ‘hot,’ required some minutes to find the hidden treasure. Then came the wonder of the stick toes and fingers, the feeding with flies, and the result was–a new pet for the tent. In the next letters written to the folks this find was the central theme. How much better this discovery and the examination of the peculiar colors and structures, also the conclusions, based upon observed structure, as to the life and habits of the tree frog than would have been a scientifically learned discussion of the family Hylidae!

“In a camp of fifty boys the writer remembers three who had special delight in collecting pebbles, and they made several all-day trips to distant brooks and beaches in the search for new specimens. Another group became so fascinated with the study of the food of fish that they begged the ‘privilege’ of cleaning the catch of each returning party. Proud was that lad who incidentally located the heart of a pickerel, and because of his school knowledge of physiology he could not be convinced that the fish breathed without lungs till he had spent many hours in the vain endeavor to locate said organs. Then he knew that his former idea had been inadequate.


“Fortunately, nature is so interrelated in her various phases that an attempt at exploration in one direction soon opens other fields, until with the growth of experience there comes a corresponding expansion of interest. Thus the lads, searching for pebbles, were perforce attracted by the plant and insect life of the brook, and the one delving into the mystery of breathing oxygen without lungs developed a new interest in the physics of fluids, while those who located the tree frog enlarged their sphere by the knowledge that their pet rejected some of the ‘bugs’ offered it..

“The leader, commencing thus with the limited or special interest of each group, may evolve in his own mind the plan which most naturally will lead the boys not only into a wider field of concrete facts, but also into the habit of seeing relationships, of drawing conclusions and of raising questions for further investigation.

..“A group of boys interested in a study of fish may well be organized for an all-day trip to the root of the rapids or the bay of springs; others with geological preferences may spend a night on the top of the distant hill which offers outcroppings of interest; the embryo botanists cannot do better than to take a bog trot for the rare orchid, anomalous pitcher plant, or glistening sun dew; lovers of the deep shade may paddle to the inlet of the creek and there enjoy a side trip on the fragrant carpet of hemlock and pine needles; thus it will be found that by anticipating the probable findings in which the particular group is interested the leader gives a point and purpose, adding not only to the enjoyment of the outing, but imparting, in addition, some satisfactory knowledge of the vicinity.”

.Longfellow said that a “strong evidence of goodly character was the thoughtfulness one displayed in caring for a tree.” One of the best things at Camp Becket was a series of out-door talks on nature given by Silas H. Berry. Seated on a huge rock, he told the boys about the shaping and clothing of the earth, foundation stones, mountains and hills, lakes, ponds, and rivers, the beginning of vegetable life, the variation and place of the freak, the forest and its place in the world’s progress, the alternation of the forest crop, man and his neighbors. Another afternoon the boys went into the woods and while they squatted on Nature’s mattress of fragrant pine needles, he told about leaves and their work, cells and their place, roots and their arrangement, tendrils and their mechanism, flowers and their devices, seeds and their travels.

The third talk was upon the evolution of plant life, law and logic of creation, perpetuation of life in the lower forms, edible and poisonous mushrooms, and the perpetuation of life in the higher forms. The boys had a different conception of life thereafter and they possessed that nature-love which always tends toward naturalness and simplicity of living. They could sing with feeling:

I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills.

Making a Walk to the Beach-Camp Wawayanda

“Nature Study” is a Chapter Excerpt from Camping For Boys: A Growing Up Great Guide for American Boys and for the Parents and Teachers Who Love Them, by H. W. Gibson. Learn more at

Originally published in 1913, Camping for Boys is a classic “… handbook of suggestions for those in charge of camps for boys and for boys who go camping…” based on H. W. Gibson’s 23 years of experience in the late 19th and early 20th Century “boys’ camp movement,” out of which arose such positive, character and culture-shaping organizations as the Boy Scouts of America. While aimed chiefly at leaders planning camp activities for groups of six to one hundred boys (especially Christian leaders hoping to build youthful character with an inspiring blend of outdoor fun, Bible study and Traditional moral instruction), Camping for Boys includes a treasure trove of exciting woodcraft lore sure to thrill every red-blooded American boy, with instructions for building tents and lean-to’s, making – and using! – real bows and arrows, etc., along with useful lessons in Camp Cooking, Personal Hygiene, First Aid, Athletics, Games, Nature Study, Weather Forecasting and much, much more!


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