Building a reflective homeschool, sharing the wonder

Picking up from where I left off last week with Koysdar’s poem, To Know a Thing, I have been reflecting on how to encourage my children to “look closer.” I found it interesting that in a quick google search, I found numerous sites discussing the benefit of observing children in education, including some research papers. I am yet to find anything about encouraging your children to observe. It is time-consuming, and seemingly unproductive. After all, how much more quickly can a teacher transmit information to a child through lecture than through even the best crafted opportunities in discovery learning? But as Professor Seymour Papert (pioneer of artificial intelligence) once said,

You can’t teach people everything they need to know. The best you can do is position them where they can find what they need to know when they need to know it.

In other words, you give them the tools they need. And observation is perhaps the foundation of learning. More than simply seeing, observing requires attention and perception. It is noticing fine details and subtle differences. It is looking closely. When you see a fern, do you see a fern, or do you see “tiny worlds framed in dew drops?” Observation is the beginning of wonder. The closer we look, the more we see and the more we find there is to know.

For a simple exercise, lay under a tree and watch the breeze rustle the leaves. All of my children loved this as infants. It is nature’s mobile, something I never appreciated until I joined my then six month old son lying under a tree. The light dances and the undersides of the leaves appear to change shape and color in a fluid gambol.

To observe takes practice. It takes time. And it takes the patience to look at the same things in in new ways. The Impressionist Claude Monet practiced capturing moments and the impressions of those moments. As the first “painter of light,” he explained,

I know that to paint the sea really well, you need to look at it every hour of every day in the same place so that you can understand its way in that particular spot and that is why I am working on the same motifs over and over again, four or six times even.

In many ways, children seem natural observers. A simple walk through the neighborhood used to take an hour because my son would stop every few feet and lie down to watch an ant. He studied it, touched it, felt its tickle. He placed obstacles in its path to see what it would do. It was in tearing him away from these observations that I began to wonder how much we train our children for a short attention span.

From this, I’ve discovered a few simple ways to encourage my children to observe the world around them, making discoveries and collecting experiences:

  1. Get out of the way and give them time to explore.
  2. Study an object myself.
  3. Take things apart. Study their parts and the whole.
  4. Draw things. It is amazing how often in a sketch you tend to draw what you “know” is there rather than what is actually there.
  5. Ask questions. Draw attention to shape, color, texture, scent and even taste.
  6. Play with nature. Looking at the plants around our home as potential play things has changed the way my children and I look at plants.

To know a thing, we must first observe it. Patiently, frequently, thoughtfully.

What do you do to encourage observation in your children?

For more posts in this series:

Horizontal learning vs. vertical learning
The treasure of experience
Sharing the wonder
Unanswered questions
The grace of a hippo
Tools Not Toys

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T. F. Stern

“To know a thing, we must first observe it. Patiently, frequently, thoughtfully.”

I’ve noticed a common thread with many of your writings, the topics are well observed and presented. It goes past a casual observation and gives me insight to your appreciation for all that has been given; gratitude is an important aspect of charcter.


Well, you know how to compliment a person! Thank you.


btw, those are my two year old’s eyes. You might recognize the one on the right (her left eye) as my gravatar which shows up on my comments on your site! It’s the same picture I took that from.


As a teacher myself, I have always encouraged my students to dig deeper and observe. As middle school students I rarely taught the observer but I relished the times I did.

The ones who did I taught to sketch (draw) and then write. But when writing they have to dig with words…adding adjectives, verbs, adverbs to their writing. I hope at least one child learned from this and I think they did.

What am I doing to encourage observation in my childen? I am relearning to observe them. It is amazing how much time and the daily grind take the observation right out of a person. The delight I used to have in observing my boys seemed to disappear somewhere along the way…and only recently have I been telling myself to sit back, relax and watch them, enjoy watching them, really take the time to watch them. And by doing so I am getting out of their way so that they have the space and time to observe what it is that… Read more »
Barbara Frank
John Taylor Gatto has said that teaching is not like painting, where you add paint to the canvas or knowledge to the student, but instead it’s more like sculpting, where you remove whatever is in the way, allowing the sculpture to emerge. His advice is to provide children with tools and get out of their way, and you are saying the same thing. Excellent post. As for how to encourage our kids to observe, I always found that if I made sure my kids had plenty of free, unscheduled time, I didn’t have to lead them to observe; it just… Read more »

Pickel, I’m sure you have more of an effect on your students than you know. I remember mine who took the time to encourage me.

Shawna, I agree. The more we get to know our children, the more we appreciate their little world. At least I know I have the tendency not to appreciate all their little discoveries enough!

Interesting, Barbara. I hadn’t read that, but then I am probably one of the few homeschoolers not well-versed in what Gatto has to say. I really need to take the time to read more!