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The Delight of Impromptu Nature Study: Keeping it Intentional, Real, and Relational

September 15 2019/Cheryl Bastian/

“Children, come here, quickly!” I beckoned, careful not to frighten the awkward four-foot tall heron which landed abruptly on our porch. Within seconds, five pairs of excited eyes peered intently through the kitchen window to partake in an impromptu nature study.

Lanky legs carried the water fowl nearer his prey; a green anole hiding in the corner shadows. With each precise step, the great bird lurched forward, raising his spear-like beak higher, poised. Beady eyes stared attentively. Children watched both predator and prey, enthralled by the bird’s every move. It was a family moment of discovery.

The moment was real and relational. It mattered. Curious children whispered questions and subsequent comments.

“What will the bird do?”

“Why is a long-legged water bird stalking a lizard on our porch? He should be looking for fish.”

“Watch him! He’s amazing!”

“The bird is getting closer to the lizard!”

Then, with one quick step forward and a snap of the beak, the anole was gone, swallowed whole. Together we witnessed an amazing wonder of creation.

Learning did not end at the window. One child asked for our Florida bird guide. Another asked if we could Google herons, hoping to accurately identify our visitor. The youngest learner pretended to stalk a lizard, walking with stiffened legs. Nature study took place that morning—unplanned, but welcomed.


When the heron landed, I was standing at the kitchen counter refilling my coffee cup. I have to confess, my initial off-the-cuff thought was to stick with the predetermined plan which was well underway—math! Yes, the unfolding events in the porch were rare, but I doubted I could reign the children back in after the observation. Thankfully, in the next split second I reconsidered and defaulted to watching the heron. Thankfully, my predetermined plan didn’t sabotage our real and relational learning


As we observed the heron together, our children participated in a multi-level, multi-sensory experience. They watched. They reacted. They listened to one another marvel and question. The kitchen was abuzz with excitement! It was something I could never plan! I simply had to seize the moment provided.

Learning is about participation; doing something, making a difference, experiencing. Therefore, children who actively participate, contribute, and engage retain at a greater level. They remember what they see, feel, hear, and smell. In our situation, watching a real heron stalk real prey provided a lesson in food chains which proved more powerful than any textbook diagram.


Our heron observation, like many other nature study adventures we’ve enjoyed, allowed our children to experience an aspect of life together with the people who are most significant in their lives.

I could’ve allowed the heron to stalk his prey quietly without anyone noticing (and we would’ve finished math sooner). However, I knew from past missed opportunities that taking in those few precious moments as a family would be remembered and talked about for years to come. And, indeed, we still talk about the heron!

Nature study encourages my children to work together and learn from one another. Younger learners inevitably ask questions older siblings can answer. Older children review concepts as they teach younger children, and ask questions which spark curiosity. There’s a natural circle of learning whereby everyone involved contributes and participates.

When Mike arrived home, our children greeted him with delight.

“Dad, we saw a heron! He ate the lizard!” One child recalled with glee.

“Dad, it really was amazing! Just like that, snap!” Added another learner.

As we sat for dinner, all four children relived the moment, retelling the details of the moments we experienced together. Each recounting was unique, each narration an outpouring of excitement. Recall and comprehension abounded. Active listening practiced. Our children knew we were interested in their day, their discovery, and their questions. A heron came, stalked, and ate making our nature study an engaging thirty minutes of unplanned, life-impacting learning. We utilized what was intentional, real, and relational and it mattered, every moment mattered.

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