It is spring! Buds are abundant, temperatures are rising, water comes from the sky with some regularity, and the days are getting longer. As children head outdoors to play, explore, relax, or work, they are constantly using their senses, imaginations, and critical thinking skills to develop hypotheses and explain their observations. Exploring and observing come naturally to children. However, the skills of interpreting those observations need to be taught.

Nature journals provide children a place to document what they see. Often part of the science curriculum at school, nature journals can strengthen and refine students’ critical thinking skills by helping them become more aware of what they observe around them. They are unique and distinct from other types of science notebooks in that they focus on the natural world – whether students explore outdoors or observe natural artifacts brought in from the outdoors. They also allow for students to exercise skills in close observation that become detailed drawings.

Nature journals can be used successfully with students of all ages. Around eight years of age, children developmentally transition from drawing abstract symbols of what they observe to representational drawings that illustrate what they see. Once students make this transition, we can guide their focus to look closely at what they see and depict.

Nature Journal Prompts – Thinking by Analogy

  • Select a specimen
  • Look closely at the whole and all of its parts
  • Draw what you see; include details.
  • Describe what you see.
  • Think about these questions, and write brief responses in your journal
  • What does this look like?
  • What does it remind you of?

Training the eye to learn to look closely and see details – and striving to include those details in drawings – is so important for the nature journal process. Even while developing the ability to look closely and draw more accurately than abstractly, many people draw what they think they see rather than what is actually there. In other words, students draw a generic representation of a mushroom, rather than observing and documenting the unique features of the actual mushroom they are observing. Nature journaling can foster growth in scientific thinking, and we can prompt students to become better observers. Students who participate in field journaling – nature journaling in a specific outdoor location – become more aware of their surroundings, their communities, and their place in the world.

Benefits of keeping a nature journal

Sketching – and writing – in nature journals provides the important visual-verbal connections that provide a form of differentiation and that boosts learning for all students.

Sketching in nature journals can support students who may struggle in other classes due to difficulties with language or writing skills.
English language learners and many students with special needs prefer to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding through visuals first.

Teachers can view a student’s drawing and gain an immediate sense of the child’s observations and understandings.

Exploring Nature in Urban Terrain

Teachers in rural schools may find access to nature easy. If you are located in an urban setting, it might take more than a casual glance to find adequate examples of nature to record. And, please, don’t dismiss certain kinds of vegetation as “weeds”; they are a part of nature and just as worthy of study as any plant. In The Curious Nature Guide: Explore the Natural Wonders All Around You, Clare Walker Leslie illustrates these resilient plants in the abandoned lot in her city neighborhood.

In her book, Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You, Clare recommends the following material for starting nature journals with children.

Equipment for the Beginning Nature Journals with Younger Students

  • 3 sheets of 8×11” smooth, white copy paper.
  • Firm backing to support drawing papers. This can be anything from cardboard to classroom books to clipboards. Attach with paper clips.
  • Pencils. Carry along extra as they get dropped. Ball-point and felt-tipped pens are fine too.
  • Collecting bags for objects to draw and study indoors. Collect only fallen objects; pull no roots; collect only where permission is given.
  • Suitable clothing for the season – raincoats, warm jackets, boots, etc.

And here are some suggestions for sights and sites that are sources for nature journaling:

  • The lawn
  • The school yard
  • Gardens
  • Bird feeders
  • The sky
  • A river, stream, lake, or pond nearby
  • The seacoast or rocky shore
  • A nearby meadow or farmers field
  • Parks or nature centers
  • City streets
  • Plants and artifacts that are brought inside

Process recommendations:

Using a magnifying glass or a jeweler’s loupe – as recommended by Kerry Ruef in her book The Private Eye5X Looking/Thinking by Analogy: A Guide to Developing the Interdisciplinary Mind – provides the means to take a closer look at plants and other natural artifacts – rocks, nuts, feathers, etc.. Observing with these tools allows the viewer to see a plethora of detail that is not accessible to the naked eye.

Take brief notes. Include: What does this look like? What does it remind me of?

It’s a good idea, since nature journaling often happens over time, to document the date, place, weather, and time of day on each sketch.

Take time with the children to draw, label, notice, think, and record their initial entries in their nature journals. But, also keep field notes and sketches simple. Students can elaborate their drawings and label essential features at a later time if desired.

Some Extensions

  • Watch and sketch a tree during each season
  • Watch and sketch a seedling as it grows. Sketch at the same time each day. Describe the changes over time.
  • Observe and sketch the sky each day for a week.

Please Note: While originally written for classroom teachers, this article is meant for all teachers of children – parents, grandparents, after school program guides, and more.

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