Earlier this year, while attending a homeschool conference, I had a conversation with a mother about nature studies and nature journaling. She had decided that her students would do nature journals and had started off with a vengeance to see that goal accomplished.
She admitted that she had taken her children to the zoo with their journal books in hand and when they weren’t completely enthusiastic, she had told them they were not going home till they had sketched and written in their journals. She was looking at me expectantly, and I replied, “Well, that would certainly be one way to do it.”
“Not the best?” Then she smiled. I cautiously began to outline what I thought might be a better way to elicit genuine excitement from her students.
When it comes to nature journaling, have any of you ever faced this? It seems to me that when you teach nature subjects in school and even when you engage in particular field trips for outdoor discovery, it is a good idea to give assignments with specific parameters, such as “write a paragraph about . . . ,” “write five fascinating facts about . . . ,” “draw a diagram or sketch of the subject . . . ,” “research the classification name of a specimen, . . .” etc. These assignments, when completed, can be kept in a science notebook and would be considered part of routine schoolwork.
However, there may be a more creative and beneficial way to approach the somewhat different subject of nature journaling.
If you read the article titled “The Love and Lure of Nature Walking” in the Summer 2008 issue of The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, then you were introduced to many of the important reasons to lead your children out into nature—to observe and learn to appreciate the world the Lord created. You can help your children begin to make discoveries that can help them better understand the world in which they live. Once you’ve been on several walks, you and your students may find yourselves wishing for special ways to “capture” in a more permanent way what you’ve seen and what you’ve found. Nature journaling seems to satisfy this longing.
However, it is at this point that each person’s observations will probably be quite different. Each child has different ways that he would be happiest chronicling his adventures and the specimens he finds along the way. Some will want to draw or sketch in their nature journal, while others will want to use watercolors, colored pencils, or take photographs of what they find. A decision to include quotes, Bible verses, poems, or nature writings by other nature lovers is a choice that will delight one child, yet that choice may not be the least bit interesting to another child.
In the same way, one child might decide to make entries in his journal every day, while another falls into quite a fruitful routine of recording his or her entries once a week or once a month. The final effort (remember—the young start small) is the telling factor. What a child loves, he will be glad to do. Is he beginning to “see and feel” and express himself in creative ways?
Since our goal is to help our children find great joy in exploring nature, then we should attentively observe each child and discern how best to inspire him to grow to love what has been created. As far as nature journaling goes, this might not be the previously mentioned scenario of threatening to stay at the zoo until the journal entries are complete. Rather, encourage each one to explore and find his own way to record his discoveries.
Sure, a few children will need more inspiration than others to get them journaling. For one who has stronger interests elsewhere, a good general hands-on knowledge of the outdoors is still important, and though this type of student may not have a nature journal that is quite as creative or filled to the brim as those of others, that is okay.
Many books on the topic of nature journaling are out there. In the sidebar, you will find a list of my absolute favorites, and yet, each of them is very different. Even adults look, perceive, and express what they see in broadly different forms—true nature journaling!
As Mary Blocksma (one of my favorite authors) began to look around, she realized nature had such varied aspects that to try to learn about them all at once was overwhelming. So she decided to seek out one thing each day that was interesting. She would observe it, make note of it in her journal, possibly sketch it, and if she became more interested would do a bit of research on the subject and include that information in her journal as well. She began on January 1 and continued throughout the year, making a new entry each day. This method might appeal to some journalers.
Clare Walker Leslie chronicled her entries and drawings according to seasons of the year, while Kristin Pratt-Serafini filled an entire journal with observations of her own pond and all that she discovered there. Consie Powell sketched and made notes of canoeing trips in Boundary Waters, Canada. In the early 1900s, Edith Holden painted nature subjects and included poetry in her journals; Donald Stokes, a modern-day naturalist, penned his books to sound as if you were walking along with him on his adventures. Any of these models can provide inspiration, and your student can go from there to determine his own style to express that which he sees and experiences.
I’ll share a few age-related ideas that might be helpful. Let’s begin with 3- and 4-year-olds. Find or draw small pictures of things you know you will see on a short nature walk, such as a tree, a bee, a bird, an ant, a spider web, etc. Don’t worry about your drawing; your preschooler won’t critique your work—a simple impression will do.
Now, use a loop of tape to lightly fasten your pictures to a clipboard that you will carry. Purchase a small spiral notebook, the 5″ x 3″ kind. Show your child the board of pictures and talk about them briefly. Then go for your walk and ask your child to be looking for the things in your pictures. When he spots one, get excited along with him and bring out the little notebook. Let him know that this is his nature journal—just like Mommy’s. Remove from the clipboard the picture of the item he has found, leaving the loop of tape on the clipboard. From your pocket, whip out a glue stick—loved by all preschoolers—and let him glue the picture right on to a page in his very own book!
Continue your walk and keep gluing a picture per page. If your child stops and becomes captivated by a particular find—if he spends a long time carefully observing—then just save the rest of the pictures for the next walk. You might ask him if there is anything about his “find” that he would like you to write down in his book, and you can write it for him. Otherwise, just enjoy the walk together.
The goal of your walk and the little notebook is to lead your child to spend time outdoors looking at what God has made and to capture his observations in such a way that he can keep them. It is supposed to be great fun: time with you, time to play the game of “I Found It!” and time to take a moment to “make a note” of what he has found.
Remember that when it rains, or when it is too cold or too hot to take a walk, your young one can sit at the window and observe. Can he see something interesting even from within his own home? Help him journal that in some way, if he is interested.
The best way I know to inspire your elementary age child is for him to see you observing nature and enjoying journaling what you see as you walk along together. Keep a journal of your own, and make lots of notes in front of him. In other words, though it will take more outings, you start first. Take time to walk with your child outdoors and simply talk about things you see. Then produce your notebook and tell him that you are noting the date, weather conditions, and what you’ve found. Let your child see that you are enjoying this journaling process. Then let him catch you adding to your journal at home with an extra drawing, a quote, poem, or another fact you found through research.
After a few weeks, with several outings, your child will probably already have tried to make his own journal or asked for one to use. If this has not happened, ask him if he’d like a special place to keep notes of what he has seen. If he’s hesitant, then just carry along with you a small book for him to use if he decides that he wishes to join in.
I recommend that you not push the nature journaling unless it is an actual school assignment. The lessons slowly learned from being outside and discussing what you both see will be completely beneficial in their own right. Just keep working on your own journal and your child may yet become authentically inspired.
When you are working with junior and senior high students, it’s good to remember that privacy and self-expression are paramount. Make sure your student knows which types of requests are academic assignments to be turned in and when it is okay to work in his journal in his own way. This is very important at this age. At your library, search for books that tell about journaling, and bring home good ones that your student can peruse. These books will offer ideas about different types of books; covers; how to draw, paint, and letter; and how to take great photographs of nature.
There are countless volumes of poetry, quotes, Bible verses, and portions of writings by great naturalists (John Burroughs, Henry David Thoreau, Anna Botsford Comstock, Theodore Roosevelt, Gene Stratton Porter, Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley, and more) that your child may want to include to broaden his nature journaling experience. These can complement and support what he has seen and felt on his nature outings.
As your older child looks through various books about journaling, he may latch onto a tiny idea from one and glean an additional idea from another. He will know what he likes the moment he sees it. He won’t feel that you’ve “assigned” a particular way to do his nature journal, just that you have provided more ideas and encouragement to continue to broaden his expression. You may find some books to broaden your nature journaling experience too!
There is no “certain way” to create a nature journal. Countless thousands of nature enthusiasts have created a nature journal just the way it suited each one of them best. You have many reasons to want your children to love the nature that the Lord has created for them to enjoy, and they will have a better chance of enjoying capturing their discoveries on paper—journaling what they see and feel—if they are led very gently to find their own way.
Copyright 2008. Originally appeared in TheOld Schoolhouse Magazine, Fall 2008. Used with permission.