Monday, August 22, 2016

Adventures with Beatrix Potter (on the occasion of her 150th birthday)

Some years you get a month into homeschooling and realize you need a reset button. Sometimes it's not even homeschooling's fault. I had gone into a year with high stress, no rest, mixed with sickness, disappointment and grieving. Now here I was staring down two weeks of work travel on my husband's schedule and trying not to panic. But then I realized that we had the car everyday (rare in our 1-car family) so I decided to reclaim our summer, to reclaim our love of learning, and go on some adventures.

About that time I learned that it was the anniversary of Beatrix Potter's birthday, and that there was a new exhibit of her unpublished drawings at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. The exhibits have been so good at the Eric Carle Museum this Fall! I feel so blessed to live so close by. It's been such a wonderful addition for our homeschool.

Beatrix Potter has been a hero of mine ever since I saw the movie Miss Potter about six years ago. Since then I've read several biographies of her life (and we also, maybe,  named our daughter Beatrix). The things I most admire about Beatrix are her love of learning, imagination, and her value for preserving old things.

She spent her childhood in an upper-class Victorian home where she rarely saw her parents and was very isolated from the world. Her butler is the one who first started sneaking pets up into her nursery to keep her company, beginning with a mouse named Hunca Munca from the kitchen. Soon Beatrix and her brother Bertram had a menagerie of mice, rabbits, bats, hedgehogs, snails, and an owl. Beatrix who was left to her own devices most of the time loved to draw. She drew all of her pets in great detail. She lived for her summers when her family would spend time in Scotland or the Lake District in England. She could explore nature and draw. As she grew older, she became more scientific in her interests. A local minister in the Lake District encouraged her to start collecting mushrooms and she collected and painted so many that she was able to write a scientific thesis about mushrooms. She sent her paper into a scientific society, but it was rejected because she was a woman.She never gave up, and instead turned her art toward a dream of making children's books. Despite her parents' lack of support, she became very successful.

The other thing I found surprising and wonderful about Beatrix Potter is her interest in farming and land preservation. After  her fiance died, she bought her own farm in the Lake District in England. As the area was threatened by development, she bought abandoned farms all around her property, with an eye to keep them as working farms. When she died, she left over 4000 acres of English farmland to the National Trust to be preserved. She also, in her later years, became a champion sheep-breeder, raising a particular heritage breed of sheep that live on the fells in the Lake District and whose wool make the tweed fabrics she loved to wear in her later years.

Here's how we spent two weeks soaking up all things Beatrix Potter (and ditching our math and reading lessons for adventures.)

We began by reading The Tale of Peter Rabbit and a picture book biography called Beatrix Potter by Alexandra Wallner, and going on a nature walk in a local park. We started with a river scavenger hunt. My girls remembered this from our study of The Raft and wanted to do it again. Then we went on a hike and  looked for mushrooms. We drew some mushrooms in our nature journals. Then a few days later, we saw some mushrooms that Beatrix Potter drew. We were blown away by the detail.

 We also had a Peter-Rabbit-inspired Poetry Teatime. We made currant scones and had honey-vanilla chamomile tea with fresh mint from our garden. We read Potter's two books of nursery rhymes: Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes and Applely Dapply's Nursery Rhymes and read all of our favorites from our Complete Peter Rabbit Library. We are a little obsessed with The Great British Baking Show, so we also had to watch the Victorian episode (which included making a Victorian game pie).

We colored birthday cards and went to see her art in the reading library at the Eric Carle museum. I do apologize to the people trying to listen to story-time, while my kids were running excitedly between the pictures. "Look, mom, it's her rabbits. Look, it's Mrs. Tiggy Winkle. It's Two Rabbits Eating a Turnip!" My soon is obsessed with turnips. I can't even begin to explain it.

Then we had to do some watercolors of our own...

The Rabbit Family by Mabel (7)
"Peter and Farmer McGreggie" by Beatrix (5)

In the day and a half that Brent was home, he managed a little Dad-schooling. He taught the kids how to plant houseplants from cuttings. It was raining that day, but we've had so little rain this summer, the kids happily splashed around filled up their pots in the rain. They decided to plant rose-scented geraniums, Christmas cactus, and a rubber tree from other houseplants we have at home.
By the end of my two weeks living as an extraverted homeschooler, I was so tired. So we watched the movie Miss Potter. I thought it would be too old for them and a little too sad, but we ended up watching the whole thing. My oldest especially loved it. Later she decided to make a diorama of Beatrix Potter's room using her toys. Notice Norman Warne in the back and the mushrooms on the shelf. 

She didn't have all the right parts, so she found clipart from Microsoft Word and I helped her shrink it down and she colored and cut out the brushes and paints. She also took the pictures of her set-up. I love how it turned out!

If you'd to learn more about Beatrix Potter, I recommend these biographies:
Picture Book: Beatrix Potter by Alexandra Wallner
Short Chapter Book: The Country Artist: A Story about Beatrix Potter by David R. Collins
Middle Grade Biography: Nothing is Impossible: The Story of Beatrix Potter by Dorothy Aldis
Adult: Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller, Countrywoman by Judy Taylor
Film: Miss Potter 
Also if you are a total Beatrix Potter geek and you like cozy mysteries and thinking of her as a detective, I really enjoyed The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter series by Susan Wittig Albert.


  1. This is a lovely post. I am a fan of Beatrix Potter also.

  2. Thank you for this post. I have the Beatrix Potter book set I have a biography on Beatrix Potter that my sister found at a library book sale.I enjoyed the drawings.

  3. Looks like you had an enjoyable day with your kids, and it’s great to know you’re a fan of Beatrix Potter. My son also loves her kids’ stories, and we had also celebrated his Peter Rabbit themed birthday party last week at one of the rental spaces for parties in our area.