Nature Journaling: Where Science, Writing, Poetry, and Art Come Together

The day was warm and bright as my children and I walked the long lane to our rural mailbox, when our neighbor stopped us to share that a fox had captured one of a pair of geese living on the mountain pond. My son asked if she’d witnessed the fox take the goose, and, when she replied that she hadn’t, he smiled wide and excitedly exclaimed that the goose wasn’t gone, but her babies must have hatched and she was with them. Sure enough, the next day saw the return of the new mother with five downy goslings trailing behind.

Now, on our little mountaintop, the Canada geese were always a topic of conversation as everyone in our rural neighborhood welcomed their arrival as the harbinger of spring. My boys had taken a more active interest in carefully observing their behavior and habits, though—gathering information firsthand to learn what nature had to teach them.

These weren’t formally staged science lessons. Rather, my children had formed a relationship with the geese that resulted in gladness of the acquaintances made—and a desire to learn more about their feathered friends. 

Charlotte Mason tells us that education is the science of relations. By this, she means our children have a natural desire to know about everything that moves and lives, about people and places, a wish to handle material things and to make, to run and ride and row, jump and sing. 

Our children are curious about everything.

There are relations to be established with God through prayer, praise, love and duty; relations with our fellow man in history, literature, and our duties as citizens; relations the universe; with nature and the world around them; with the earth and their bodies on it via exercise, play, hiking and dance; and relations with materials through handicrafts and painting.

In other words, our children are curious about everything. Our job as parents is not to pour knowledge into them but to give opportunity, encouragement, and a little guidance for these relationships to develop. Rather than dry facts from a textbook, they receive vital knowledge touched with emotion in a variety of ways—one of these is the multidisciplinary practice of keeping a Nature Journal.

What is a nature journal?

The name pretty much says it all. It’s a dated record of what is observed in nature. Charlotte tells us in School Education, p. 236:

The children keep a dated record of what they see in their nature note-books which are…a source of pride and joy, and are freely illustrated by drawings (brushwork) of twig, flower, insect, etc.

Science, writing, poetry, art, and more are all combined into this single activity, the keeping of a nature journal. 

How is this possible? Let’s take a look at each element separately, beginning with science.

Science in a Nature Journal

Miss Mason tells us,

There is no part of a child’s education more important than that he should lay, by his own observation, a wide basis of facts towards scientific knowledge in the future.

Home Education, p. 264

In order to do this, we must be out in nature. And, while what each of us observes can be quite individual, we can enjoy sharing our new-found knowledge with one another. These observations might also involve a myriad of senses. For instance, you and your children can feel the smooth bark of a sugar maple tree. In autumn, you might note the musky-sweet smell as leaves begin to decay and the sugars in the leaves are breaking down. My son called this “the sad smell.” Winter is a good time to notice the branching pattern of the bare tree. And, in spring, you might even taste the sap—provided you’ve identified the tree correctly!

Observations are also made on what Charlotte Mason called the Nature Walk. Charlotte gave us a very important key on how to enjoy this activity—we should never announce it by saying, “We’re going on a Nature Walk.”
This isn’t meant to be a formal lesson, but giving a purpose to going out can help build excitement without killing spontaneity. Proclaim a trip to the pond to see the progress of the beaver dam or to check if the pollywogs have grown legs. Head to the woods to compare mosses and lichens, to a field to see how the berries are ripening, to a beach to explore the tidal pools, or to a hilltop to stargaze or sketch a map of what’s seen below.

If you’re in a city, choose a few trees to observe year-round, take field trips, study insects, or plant and observe herbs in a window box. Remain flexible and allow incidental learning to take place. Remember, most children are born naturalists and their own curiosity often takes the lead, or nature may surprise you with something completely unexpected. 

In this way, a child doesn’t “learn science” once and for all. Instead, she will find science is a vast and exciting field before her that can never be exhausted, even if she explores it her whole life. 

In the early years, children are given many hours in the out of doors and, during formal school years, try for at least a half day a week spent out in nature. Their newfound knowledge and observations can then be recorded in their nature journals and, perhaps at a later date, scientific conclusions can be drawn.

The Nature Notebook is kept every year of formal education. Sometimes there’s so much to note and paint we can become overwhelmed. One tip Charlotte teaches us is to include seasonal studies. In autumn, we can be on the hunt for six wild fruits. These can be things such as crab apples, bramble berries, Hawthorne berries, or pawpaw.

Winter is a great time to draw six twigs from different trees in the notebook. Be sure to note where each was found so you can continue to observe changes throughout the seasons.

During the spring term, look for the buds forming on trees and bushes and include six of them in your nature notebook, and spring and summer are great times to include six wildflowers. 

Another simple way to gather scientific knowledge is by keeping a list or lists. This can be done as a family with younger children or individually based on a child’s interests—such as trees, wildflowers, insects, amphibians, or birds. A bird list shows which birds reside year-round and arrival and departure dates of migratory birds. Other things to record could be when the song was first heard, when nest-building began, when eggs were laid and hatched, and when fledglings took flight.

A wildflower list can provide you with plenty of data. For example, a list ruled with columns that show the name, Latin name, Order, and the abbreviated months can show characteristics based on the Latin name, flowers that fall into a wider family, and how short a flowering season is for some flowers like the daffodil, while others have a very long flowering season, like the daisy and the dandelion. 

These lists can be kept year after year and made into a table for even more information.

Writing in a Nature Journal

Specimens that have been drawn in the notebook should always be dated and given a location, along with any other descriptions—such as the weather or the environment, wet or dry, or neighboring trees and plants.

Everything we’ve seen, heard, tasted, touched, and smelled can be written down—with you writing the notes from a younger child’s dictation and an older child writing what struck him most. In this way, our children’s store of facts will grow, year by year, until, eventually, scientific conclusions may even be drawn from the resulting data.

And, it doesn’t matter how short the notes are. Here’s an example from the page of one young boy’s nature journal:

March 15th — The pussy willow is already gold by the road, but it’s still green by the pond.

March 17th — A bear got our bird feeders last night. We hunted for the suet cages and found them empty in the woods by the creek.

These three short sentences show the child’s power of investigation come into play as he compares the stages of the pussy willow in various locations and approximately when a bear has emerged from his winter hibernations. These recorded observations over days and over years will eventually help make scientific facts become clear.

Poetry in a Nature Journal

When our children have opportunity to spend time in nature, they’ll surely perceive its beauty as well. A child may be moved to add a verse into his nature journal from his poetry reading and recitation or even compose one himself. And, while poems aren’t meant to be a substitute for our observation notes, they are a beautiful enhancement. 

At a Charlotte Mason co-op, I witnessed a young child on our nature walk positively bursting with happiness as multicolored leaves floated to the ground in fall. Unable to contain his joy, the words from Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Autumn,” suddenly escaped from him like birdsong. That day, multiple children from the group asked him to recite the poem so they could add it to their nature journals.

Agnes Drury, a Charlotte Mason-trained educator who became the inspector of nature notebooks at the House of Education tells us,

Quotations from the poets are the aptest expression of our own feelings about nature.

The Parents’ Review, 1941, pp. 218-233

Adding poetry to a nature notebook is something you may tell your children is an option, and it might be something you model in your own nature journaling, but it should never be forced on a child. If you’re reading poetry aloud or studying the great poets in your home, don’t be surprised if a verse or two finds its way in your child’s nature notebook—perhaps even added to an illustration made some time ago. 

Art in a Nature Journal

Taking the time to paint our nature friends helps us appreciate their beauty as well as make discoveries. Charlotte tells us,

Aesthetic appreciation follows close upon recognition, for does [the child] not try from very early days to catch the flower in its beauty of colour and grace of gesture with his own paintbrush?

School Education, p. 77

The very act of painting a likeness that captures the gesture and form of any specimen—whether it’s a bug, a plant, or a bud on a tree, means that we must observe it closely and study it intently. We must get to know our nature friends. Just as if we made a new friend and wanted to get to know her better we would ask her some questions about herself, we pose a number of questions regarding our nature specimen before we ever put our brush to paper:

  1. What is its name and where is it found?
  2. How many parts is it divided into?
  3. What are its most prominent or chief lines?
  4. Which are the finest lines?
  5. How many buds (berries, petals, etc.) has it in all?
  6. Where do the shadows lie on the specimen?

In this way, you are getting to know it better, and you are deciding with your eye first how to build your painting up. You might even make the strokes in the air with your brush or paint it on a piece of paper to proceed to your nature journal with confidence.

Painting nature specimens life-size whenever possible makes it another scientific record. If the drawing is either enlarged or made smaller, be sure to have your child make a note beside it.

Keeping a nature notebook is a rich multidisciplinary activity. Remember, our children’s relationship with nature isn’t dependent on our lectures or dry textbooks, but on letting them learn firsthand all that nature has to teach them. When you nurture the art of seeing and recording observations in a nature notebook, your child is discovering and gathering a wide range of facts that work toward gaining scientific knowledge, he is developing the skill of writing by recording dates and other important details, he is cultivating his aesthetic sense and expressing the emotion that nature evokes using the words of great poets, or poetry borne within him, and the act of painting or drawing encourages him to slow down, thoughtfully observe, and capture with a brush what his eye sees. In these small practical ways our children will forge friendships with the things of Nature that will be a constant source of enjoyment that will last a lifetime.

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