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Teaching Children Science

Hands-On Nature Study in North America, 1890-1930

In the early twentieth century, a curriculum known as nature study flourished in major city school systems, streetcar suburbs, small towns, and even rural one-room schools. This object-based approach to learning about the natural world marked the first systematic attempt to introduce science into elementary education, and it came at a time when institutions such as zoos, botanical gardens, natural history museums, and national parks were promoting the idea that direct knowledge of nature would benefit an increasingly urban and industrial nation.

The definitive history of this once pervasive nature study movement, TeachingChildren Science emphasizes the scientific, pedagogical, and social incentives that encouraged primarily women teachers to explore nature in and beyond their classrooms. Sally Gregory Kohlstedt brings to vivid life the instructors and reformers who advanced nature study through on-campus schools, summer programs, textbooks, and public speaking.  Within a generation, this highly successful hands-on approach migrated beyond public schools into summer camps, afterschool activities, and the scouting movement. Although the rich diversity of nature study classes eventually lost ground to increasingly standardized curricula, Kohlstedt locates its legacy in the living plants and animals in classrooms and environmental field trips that remain central parts of science education today.

384 pages | 30 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2010

Biological Sciences: Natural History

Education: Education--General Studies

History: American History

History of Science


Teaching Children Science bears the fruits of a generation of scholarship on science and culture, gender and science, and science pedagogy. Sally Gregory Kohlstedt charts the richly layered history of North American nature study education with panache and deep knowledge. In her long-awaited study, we learn about key sites and institutions for this movement in experiential learning, and about the nature study handbooks, pedagogical manuals, reports, textbooks, and journals that brought teachers, school boards, and pupils into its progressive practices. Through vivid archival details, we meet early twentieth-century public school teachers and supervisors, primarily women, who guided elementary schoolchildren toward hands-on knowledge of the natural world.”

Ann B. Shteir, York University

“This imaginatively conceived and exhaustively researched study explores the fuzzy border between ‘nature’ and ‘science.’ Kohlstedt shows how primary and secondary education in the era of modern science maintained connections with the natural history traditions of earlier periods.  She argues that the emergence of nature study curricula must be understood in the context of changing educational norms, the development of the teaching profession, and the general movement toward progressive reform.”

Harriet Ritvo, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“Sally Gregory Kohlstedt’s rich and comprehensive account of the nature study movement brings new light and understanding to what has become a tired and over-studied period in the history of education. Focusing not only on intellectual leaders but also on rank-and-file teacher-leaders and on the details of teacher education and pedagogical practice, Kohlstedt brings alive the passion, intellectual insight, and organizational acumen with which certain late nineteenth-century educators pulled children out of the classroom and away from rote memorization and recitation to take up the study of nature, not books. In the process she also provides one of the most thorough analyses now extant of how real change takes hold in American education.  Ultimately, this study reveals the profound significance of the nature study movement as a progenitor of Progressive Era educational thought and pedagogy—where direct encounters with the world became the locus of inquiry and experience became ‘the mother of all discipline worthy of the name,’ as John Dewey famously put it.”

Nancy Beadie, University of Washington

“In Teaching Children Science, historian of science Sally Gregory Kohlstedt offers a meticulously researched, engagingly presented, and wonderfully perceptive history of the multifaceted nature study movement. . . . [This book] will appeal not only to historians of science, education, and the environment but also to environmental educators of all persuasions, who continue to struggle with the tensions inherent in trying to inculcate students with both a sympathy for and a scientifically informed understanding of the natural world.”

Mark V. Barrow Jr. | Science

“This is an excellent account of the history of nature study: the form of elementary school education that flourished in 1890–1930. . . . Kohlstedt follows the battles over the leadership of nature studies and how it shifted from the University of Chicago to Cornell University and then to Columbia University. We are introduced to Liberty Hyde Bailey, David Starr Jordan, the Comstocks, John Dewey, and other naturalists and educators who shifted the study of effective teaching to the universities.”

Elof Axel Carlson | Quarterly Review of Biology

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


Chapter One

Educating with Nature’s Own Book

Chapter Two

Devising a Curriculum for Nature Study

Chapter Three

Framing Nature Study for the Cities

Chapter Four

Revitalizing Farm and Country Living

Chapter Five

Deliberating Theory, Texts, and Topics

Chapter Six

Establishing Professional Identities

Chapter Seven

Forging an Institutional Base

Chapter Eight

Reframing and Extending Nature Study


Appendix A: List of American Nature-Study Society Officers to 1940 • 237

Appendix B: Anecdotal List of Nature-Study Supervisors





History of Science Society: Margaret W. Rossiter History of Women in Science Prize

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