Scouting for Wild Ones

by Brittney McGann

For the past few days I have been ruminating on the subject of scouting, thinking of how best to share something I have grown to love so much over the past couple of years. Some things that immediately come to mind, camping, tracking, nature knowledge, are all part of the practice of scouting, but they don’t encompass what scouting means. Like all subjects included in a Charlotte Mason education scouting is about more than acquiring skills. Much like the subject of sloyd, scouting has its own philosophy that dovetails beautifully with Mason’s philosophy of education. Scouting is about character. A scout at his best is duty-bound, honorable, loyal, reverent, brave and selfless. He learns to be resourceful, cheerful, observant, discerning, helpful and careful. After two years of teaching scouting to two different groups of children I have come to think of scouting in this way: scouting teaches children how to read the story of creation and then how to become a full participant in that story. 

My journey with Charlotte Mason began when my oldest daughter was about 3 1/2 and by the time she was 5, still too early for full lessons, I was already digging around in the Charlotte Mason archives, trying to understand the enormity of this way of educating children. I remember reading Sir Robert Baden-Powell’s contribution to In Memoriam, which describes a young boy ambushing his Brigadier General father from a tree alongside his Mason-educated governess. Immediately I went searching for Baden-Powell’s scouting book, and I put it in my someday wishlist. Then three years ago we moved an hour away from all our friends to a small piece of land between a pasture and a forest. With no prospects for neighborhood friends, my oldest daughter, 9 at the time, was seriously in need of community. So I decided to start a new one. And the thread to bind us together would be scouting.

Though I had already been studying nature for nearly a decade and though I had grown up camping and enjoying the out doors, I really had no clue how to teach scouting. But I recognized that scouting, like every other subject I taught as a homeschool teacher, was something I would learn as we went along. I read Sir Baden Powell’s book, Scouting for Boys, I found some old survival books and added tracking books to my field guide collection. There were so many things that were completely new to me. I had never used a compass before; I had no idea that there was a difference between true north and magnetic north. I didn’t know that tracking involved more than footprints. I wouldn’t have ever thought to turn around on a hike to observe the trail so I would recognize it on the way back, nor had I ever considered how the shadows later in the day could be confusing on the trail. Scouting covers so many things and overlaps with so many subjects: geography, nature study, art, handicrafts, physical education, math, citizenship. I realized that I needed a plan to systematically work through the subjects so that the skills would build upon each other and the children (and parents too!) would gradually grow in knowledge and confidence. What resulted were scripted lesson plans that I am so excited to be able to share through the publishing of A Gentle Feast!   

Observation

The beginning of scouting is observation. We have five senses that we greatly under-use. Like our muscles, our senses need exercise to develop and serve us well. Before we can understand what is going on in the world around us and react to it we need to notice what is happening in the first place. While all five senses should be intentionally cultivated, these three are the ones we can safely use for investigation and exploration.

Sight

Though we look we don’t always see the things before us. Mothers, please indulge me in a little exercise. Walk out of the room your family is in. Now that you are alone in a room try to remember what each person in your household is wearing. Can you do it? You probably remember the people you dressed or the one in the striped leg warmers, tutu and leopard cardigan (or was that just my daughter?), but how about the others? Or how about your husband? When I do this exercise with children few can remember what their mothers are wearing. They look at their mothers all day, but don’t see them. 

In scouting we are looking to train the sight along the lines of Sherlock Holmes or, if you are also a Psych fan, Shawn Spencer. Through games and challenges the children gradually learn to notice and remember the things around them. The more they notice, the more curious they become. I have been raising caterpillars for about 8 years. I know their habits, their food and even their skat (aka poop). All summer long I can’t help but find caterpillars everywhere. The things that were invisible have become glaringly obvious. 

Smell

We also take our noses for granted. We know they can lead us to freshly baked cookies or alert us to the consequences of forgetting to set the timer for said cookies, but they are capable of so much more. Our noses can distinguish between rosemary and sage, between cardamom and clove. We can use our noses to find black trumpet mushrooms hidden in the moss under a hickory tree or take shelter before a storm because we noticed the sweet, fresh smell of ozone in the air. Our sense of smell can alert us to dangers or increase our pleasure at new experiences. The thing that is often lacking is simply the thought to take notice. 

My favorite exercise for scent is a blind smell test. I take about a dozen covered jars filled with distinctly smelling items and ask the children to write down what they think they smell. Some things smell familiar, but they can’t think what it’s called. Realization of what they don’t know encourages the children to put names to smells and to follow their noses to investigate new scents. 

Hearing

Have you ever said a word so many times that it loses meaning? The phenomenon is called semantic satiation. It’s probably not scientifically true, but I think it’s a good way to explain how we often perceive the sounds all around us, meaningless and repetitive noise. But every mother knows that it’s necessary to maintain her ability to discern the meaning of sounds for her home to run smoothly. Five year old’s footsteps running across the hall upstairs, bump and thud, 10 seconds of silence, then more running; she fell, got up and is fine, no need to stop math lessons. Two year old was playing with cars in the next room, but has gone completely silent; better go make sure he isn’t using your mascara to draw on the walls.

If we only had the same care for the sounds of nature we would find that the squirrel (a very grumpy fellow) is warning the other creatures that a stranger is in the woods. We would hear the tiny voices of a nearby nest of Carolina wrens calling for their dinner from a mossy heap, or the sound of a wolf spider purring to attract his mate. There is a reason for ever sound; for every leaf that rustles and every cricket that chirps there is a chapter in a story.

Reading the Story

Learning to use our senses was like learning the alphabet. Once we had eyes to see, ears to hear and noses at the ready we could begin to read the story our observations were telling. 

As I mentioned before, when I started to learn scouting I thought that tracking was simply looking for animal paw prints in the soil. I now know, as do my scouts, that animals leave “sign.” They leave evidence of their presence beyond paw prints. We keep our eyes open for animal trails, broken twigs, gnawed leaves, discarded food, and scat. We listen for the sounds of movement on the forest floor or in the trees and our ears are attuned to the distinct calls of local birds. Our noses might take us to the remains of a mole that came out of his hole and never made it back in. When we are lucky enough to come across actual tracks we can see that two deer, a fawn and her mother, walked southwest at a leisurely pace, eating hearts-a-busting as they went, but later another deer ran north across the same space and slipped in the mud as he ran. 

We use these same skills of observation to learn about the stars, the weather, to find our way on the trail and choose the best place to make camp. Careful observation can also tell us a lot about people: what they do, where they have been, how they are feeling and sometimes that they need help. Like a book sitting on a shelf these things are always there, but it is up to us to open the book and immerse ourselves in the story. 

Participating in the Story

While many of the subjects taught in scouting begin with observation they also require action and skill. Only a couple of weeks ago my middle daughter, 9 years old, announced that she saw a doe with her late season fawn grazing in the yard. Before I had time to react she had slipped out the door, still in pajamas, and was walking silently toward the pair (a stalking technique called the fox walk). Every time the deer looked her way she froze, just as she had learned in our scouting exercises. The mother walked further off, but the fawn stayed behind nibbling the grass and my daughter got closer than she had ever been to a fawn. The deer did eventually notice her and run off, but my daughter cheered in triumph, feeling the privilege of being allowed to get so close. 

The skills taught in scouting are meant to teach children first how to be better observers, then they develop skills to make their way in the world as helpers and friends to all. The scouting motto is “Be Prepared,” founded on Sir Baden-Powell’s initials. In his book, Scouting for Boys, he explains the motto this way:

Be Prepared: which means you are always to be in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your DUTY.

Be Prepared in Mind by having disciplined yourself to be obedient to every order, and also having thought out beforehand any accident or situation that might occur, so that you know the right thing to do at the right moment, and are willing to do it.

Be Prepared in Body by making yourself strong and active and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and do it.

Most of us want to feel that we are making a difference in the world, but oftentimes we feel that the difference we need to make must be big, something that the world will notice. Scouting teaches us that it is our duty to make the world immediately around us better. Because we are trained to see the needs of our community, because we train as a team, because we are eager to use our skills to help those around us, we know that the biggest difference we can make is right where we are. We learn the meaning of duty. Again from Sir Baden-Powell:

A scout’s duty is to be useful and to help others.

And he is to do his duty before anything else, even though he gives up his own pleasure, or comfort, or safety to do it. When in difficulty to know which of two things to do, he must ask himself, “Which is my duty?” that is, “Which is best for the other people?”—and do that one. He must Be Prepared at any time to save life, or to help injured persons. And he must do a good turn to somebody every day.

In this particular scheme of scouting my hope is first to give families a start, an entry point into the story unfolding around them all the time, and then to offer a means and the desire to change the story for the better.

Order your copy of Scouting for Wild Ones HERE!

About the Author: 

Brittney McGann left her career as a high end hairstylist to homeschool her children in 2011. Since then she has researched and written on Charlotte Mason education, hosted and presented at retreats and leads two Charlotte Mason focused homeschool groups, including a family scouting group. Brittney wrote introductions to and facilitated the republication of sloyd books Paper Modelling, by M. Swannell and Cardboard Modelling, by William Heaton. She and her husband are working to restore native trees and wildflowers to their 3.5 acres in North Carolina. Along with their three children Brittney and her husband currently share their home with two guinea pigs, two rabbits, three guinea fowl and a few dozen luna moth cocoons.