In a Charlotte Mason Homeschool, we know we should do nature study once a week, or is that a nature walk once a week? What’s the difference, anyway? Let’s figure this out.

Joining me today is my longtime friend and co-creator of Simply Charlotte Mason, Karen Smith. Karen is my go-to person for anything nature or science related.

Sonya: So Karen, thanks for joining me as we try to figure this out. Nature study, nature walk—what’s the difference?

Karen: A nature walk is simply a walk in nature.

Sonya: Okay, there you go.

Karen: Taking time to notice things as you walk along. Nature study is a study of that nature, taking more time to learn something new about what you have seen.

Sonya: About one particular thing?

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: All right, let me narrate back to you. So, there’s a park I like to go to that has beautiful nature in it. And as I walk around, I notice, “Oh look, this is in bloom,” and “Oh look, this is starting to fade,” and, “Here come the turtles.” I like to watch the turtles come. I’m doing a nature walk, correct?

Karen: Correct.

Sonya: I might be noticing things, but I’m not stopping; I’m not stopping to look at those really, really closely and carefully.

Karen: Correct.

Sonya: Now, for a nature study, I would go to the park with a distinct goal in mind. I’m going to study the turtles.

Karen: Correct.

Sonya: Okay, which one are we supposed to do every week?

Karen: A nature walk; and if that leads to nature study, do it. Get your children out into nature at least once a week and let them have the freedom to observe what they can. Maybe about once a month, do a study; direct your children to what you want them to notice. Maybe it’s insects this time. Let them have the freedom to choose an insect that they see and study what they can about that. They can learn something of the habits of maybe a grasshopper or a bumble bee as it’s at the flowers, so that they learn something more than just a casual observation.

Sonya: How does the nature notebook fit into this? Do you take a notebook on a walk? Of course, you would take it on your study, but do you take it on both? How does it work?

Karen: A nature notebook is just a place for you to journal what you have seen in nature, whether it’s on your nature walk or it’s in your nature study. You can do sketches; you can just make notes about what you saw. Maybe it’s one of those familiar friends from your nature walks that you notice: “Oh, the trees are starting to turn.” You might jot that down in your nature notebook.

Sonya: Yes, I do that when I do the walks.

Karen: “On this date I noticed that the leaves on this tree started to turn”; and mark the year, because the following year it might be a different date, and that gives you some comparison.

Sonya: But that’s not a study.

Karen: That’s not a study; that’s going to be more casual. A study would be where you’re trying to identify that tree and learn something of its characteristics: What are the shape of the leaves? How do the leaves grow on the tree? What’s the shape of the tree, the branches of the tree? What’s the bark look like? What’s the fruit look like? What do the flowers look like? And how are they different or similar to other trees?

Sonya: So, you’re not looking for those just to learn the tree’s name, you’re trying to see how much about that tree you can find out.

Karen: Exactly.

Sonya: And that’s the study.

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: That makes total sense. What resources would you recommend to help with all of that process of journaling what you’re finding out and doing the studies themselves?

Karen: For the journaling, there are several options out there. We have our Journaling a Year in Nature that will give you some guidance, give you some focus.

Sonya: And I just want people to notice that you wrote it. (I’ll just throw that in.)

Karen: Yes. It’s my brain in a book.

Sonya: It is, yes.

Karen: And it will give you some direction when you go out. Maybe you’re going to do trees, and it’ll give you some guidance: notice the tree, choose one to follow through the year so you’ll notice how it changes in each season,—different things like that. If you want more details, there are a couple of books that we both like.

This one is The Naturalist’s Notebook, and it gives you information on how to observe and really what to observe, and then gives you room in the back for keeping a Calendar of Firsts over five years. So you can see when that certain bird migrated through your area, when you first noticed it, year after year after year. When did certain flower bloom? and things like that. Whatever you want to notice year to year to year you can record in here.

Sonya: Those small spaces would really lend themselves to nature walks.

Karen: Yes, in recording your casual observations.

Sonya: Casual observations.

Karen: Your bird feeders; you notice birds who aren’t there all year round. Or, we have several who just migrate through; they’re there for a few weeks and then they’re gone in fall and spring. And so, we know when they come and we’ll record that. Or, when birds that are not there in the winter time but come back in the summer, then I record when they came back.

Sonya: Journaling a Year in Nature gives you a lot more space to actually do a study.

Karen: For doing your sketches and your notes.

Sonya: Then Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie has been a favorite for many years. It just seems to make nature journaling less intimidating.

Karen: Yes, it gives, again, instructions on what to look for, I think, and how to find it; but also gives some ideas and instructions on how to sketch things in nature, different shading, and how to get those details down.

Sonya: And it’s not nearly as scary as looking at The Country Diary of a Edwardian Lady.

Karen: Correct .

Sonya: That artwork just scares me to death. It’s beautiful, and I know I could not do that yet. But this one is much more—

Karen: Approachable.

Sonya: Yes, absolutely. So, Keeping a Nature Journal is the how-to, the encouragement to keep a nature journal. The Naturalist’s Notebook is more for casual observations on your walks or as you’re looking out on your backyard. And then, Journaling a Year in Nature is for those studies where you want to actually sketch something and record details; you could really use it for both casual and detailed.

Karen: Yes, this is a place to record your observations, besides your calendar of firsts. Also, your sketches, any notes that you need to make about your observations; you can even put poetry in here, nature poetry that goes with what you’ve observed.

Sonya: Nice. So when we talk about nature study, does it always have to happen outside? I know it gets very cold and you get some real good snow storms up where you live, and down here where I live it gets really hot. What I’m hearing about nature study—where you’re looking really closely at something—could that be done bringing nature inside?

Karen: There’s many things that you could do inside. There may be things that you have found and you’ve collected. Maybe it’s rocks that you saw in the summertime, and you can save those for winter or those hot summer months when you don’t want to be outside. Then you can look at those with a magnifying glass, see if you can identify them in some way. Look to see if some of them have fossils or whatever. So, there are things that you can do that with. Maybe it’s pine cones and you want to look at those closer. There’s also lots of nature study that can happen in your home. You can sprout and grow seeds and plants. Many people have houseplants, and those make good nature study.

Sonya: A couple of winters ago, we got a hyacinth bulb and we journaled as it bloomed inside.

Karen: You can do that. Many moms don’t like this, but spiders hang out in our homes and they make wonderful nature study. Even in the winter months. And so, there are many things that you can do.

Sonya: Now, you have mentioned to me before to be careful about collecting nature things to take home with me.

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: Could you talk about that for just a moment?

Karen: Always check the laws, and not just the local laws in your area, but there are laws for states and across the nation, that prohibit you from doing certain things. Mostly, you cannot pick wildflowers. If it’s on your property, you can.

Sonya: So anything on your personal property, you’re good to go.

Karen: Public property, you cannot. There are laws that protect native birds. You cannot collect even their feathers, or their nests or anything. It’s illegal to do that. And so, be aware of those things when you’re out.

Sonya: You could still study it, as Charlotte said, in situ, you know, right there.

Karen: Yes, right there.

Sonya: But, don’t take them home with you.

Karen: But you cannot collect them.

Sonya: All right, good to know. Thanks so much for helping us.

I hope that has clarified in your mind nature walks and nature study. Both of them are wonderful tools. Get out into nature, that’s the main thing. And then, just journal your continuing and growing relationship with God’s creation around you.


  1. The thought I was struck with as I read the article was taking a photograph of what catches your kid’s interest while outdoors during favorable weather. Later when the weather isn’t too friendly, study the photographs. You can easily zoom in on pictures taken on an iPhone, or ones that have been uploaded to the computer.

    For example, we took a picture of a caterpillar that was crawling on my son’s arm. Later, we zoomed in/cropped it then had it professionally printed. Taking a photograph of the caterpillar then zooming in allowed us to see the face of this insect; something we couldn’t do in person at the time it was crawling around. Later still, we submitted the photograph for an art contest, and it won us 1st place. This experience really made nature come alive for my son.

    • Wow! What a wonderful experience you guys were afforded. You have a great point about being able to see the face of the caterpillar. Pictures we take during our nature walks allow us the opportunity, at times, to better study (and/or draw) nature. We have often taken pictures of birds and come home to draw them. For whatever reason, birds just don’t cooperate with us and sit still long enough for us to draw.

  2. Thank you for a clear explanation on the difference between nature study and nature walks. That was very helpful! Thanks!

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