Using All Your Senses in Nature Study

When you go out to do nature study, do you sometimes feel like you’re playing hide and seek? For some of us, when we go out into nature, we see the broad range of, “Here’s my yard,” and we feel like, “What am I supposed to be looking at?” It’s almost like we feel like the nature objects are hiding from us. It’s either a hide-and-seek scenario, or maybe it feels like one of those hidden pictures, where it says “Find the tea cup,” and you can see everything but the teacup. You can’t find what you think you’re supposed to be looking at. Well, let’s talk with Karen Smith today about how we can sharpen our observation skills so we’ll be able to spot those nature items of interest.

Sonya: Karen, thanks for joining us again. You probably have never felt that way, but I have at times where I’m walking down the path and I know I should be observing nature—there are trees around me, I hear birds singing. What am I supposed to be looking at? How can we expand our observation skills to get more out of nature study?

Karen: Well, I think a beginning point is to pick one thing to look at when you’re out there. Don’t be overwhelmed by how much is there. You have a lifetime to notice everything that’s out there, so choose one thing at a time. But then also, don’t just look: listen, smell, sometimes taste, sometimes feel the things that are in nature. But again, don’t feel like you have to do all of them all the time, because it is overwhelming.

Sonya: So it sounds like we’re using all of our senses, as you mentioned. Do we do this in a particular order? Spell it out for those of us who are not as natural in nature as you are.

Karen: If you are just beginning, you probably just want to start with your sense of sight—what you can see with your eyes—and once you are able to narrow down your focus in that hide-and-seek picture and are comfortable with that, then you can expand to other senses. But some of the things you can do with your sight besides just narrowing your focus is noticing change. Let’s say you go to a certain park on a regular basis, so you get to know the different plants and animals and things that are happening there, and you notice that there’s been a change, maybe in the leaves of a plant, maybe a caterpillar has been eating the leaves on a plant. That’s a clue to stop and notice and look at that more closely.

Sonya: So you’re looking for changes, not necessarily for “I need to find a specific thing,” but just noticing changes.

Karen: Changes can be part of it. You can look for a specific thing. Maybe you’re going to look for an oak tree this time, and so you’re going to notice the oak tree, but as you’re walking to that oak tree, if you notice a change in something else that you know has been there for a while, stop and look at it too. There’s nothing wrong with noticing more on your walk or on your nature study.

Sonya: So this can apply to both a casual nature walk as well as a set nature study. So we’re noticing changes visually. I’ve done that at my favorite park nearby where we go a lot. They have the Autumnal Cherry trees, and it seems like every time we go, I always have to take a look at that and see how the leaves have changed or how the structure of it looks different. But that’s mainly what I do is I just use my eyes. Are there other ways we can expand?

Karen: We use our sense of hearing, so using our ears when we’re out in nature. That is particularly useful if you are listening for insects or birds. Many birds and insects remain hidden from our eyes, and we sometimes have to locate them first with our ears before we can zero in on where they are at and actually see them. And even that, with the sense of hearing, if you are in nature and you hear the birds chattering, and all of a sudden they stop, that’s a change. Something has happened in the environment, and your sense of hearing is a clue to that: “Oh, everything got quiet, I wonder why?”

Sonya: And then you use your eyes to to try and find.

Many birds and insects remain hidden from our eyes, and we sometimes have to locate them first with our ears before we can zero in on where they are at and actually see them.

Karen: Then you can use your eyes to see if you can figure out why. You might not be able to figure out why, but that is a clue, and that’s something that you notice a change in nature with.

Sonya: One other thing that that reminds me of, when you said insects, I didn’t think about listening for insects, but I do it here in Georgia. In the summertime, the cicadas are so loud, it almost sounds like surround-sound when you step outside. I have not been able to find them. I don’t go looking for them; I’m sure they’re in the trees.

Karen: They are very hard to find because they’re usually high up in the trees.

Sonya: Yes, and they’re so small, I probably would not see them. Every once in a while, I’ll find a dead one on the floor or on the ground somewhere, but that sound only happens at certain seasons. And so if I keep my ears attuned to When am I first hearing that sound?—when I go out to get the mail or when I go out to work in the garden, When do I first hear that sound during the year, and when does it taper off, and now it’s gone?

Karen: Yes. And that’s something you can watch for every year, if you notice when something occurs. So when did the cicadas start their buzzing? When do they stop? You have a clue now. You know, in my area, the cicadas have just started their buzzing. I know about sometime in July, beginning to mid July, that I can expect to hear the cicadas. Now, in your location, that’s going to be different. We live in different parts of the country, so that’s going to be different.

Sonya: Yes, I’m in Georgia, you’re in Illinois.

Karen: But that’s a clue. I know when the hummingbirds will be coming back in my area, approximately, because I have kept track of what day they come back from year to year to year. So I can narrow that down to about the first week of May, the hummingbirds will be back in my area. So I’m prepared for them when they come.

Sonya: So changes are very much related to our calendar of firsts, as well as noticing those changes just as we’re walking through a familiar environment.

Karen: Right, that’s something that’s changed in the environment immediately. Maybe a predator has come in and everybody got quiet. Honestly, you never know.

Sonya: And I was thinking with the sense of seeing, too, one thing that you and Doug taught me on one of our walks through the park together was to watch for movement. That’s another change. Talk about that a little bit. What might that signify?

Karen: That, well, something has moved, usually an animal or maybe a bird; and that movement is, again, a clue to stop and look to see if you can find what it was. Now again, you’re not always going to be able to see it, because animals are designed to be able to hide very easily, and so you might not see it, but it is a clue to stop and look around.

Sonya: Do you move toward where you saw the movement, or how close are we supposed to get?

Karen: I use my eyes first.

Sonya: You stand still.

Karen: To see, I stand still to look. Then if I need to move closer to where I saw the movement, I move respectfully and cautiously as quietly as I can so that I do not frighten whatever it was that moved more, so hopefully it stays put wherever it moved to. I’m hoping to get that little glimpse of whatever it was. And so those are things that you need to do. Being respectful of nature is a good thing. We don’t want to approach things we don’t know, like different animals. Birds, snakes, even insects, if you approach slowly and respectfully and keep a respectful distance, that nature’s going to stay in place longer than if you walk right up to it or rush over to see it.

If you approach slowly and respectfully and keep a respectful distance, that nature’s going to stay in place longer than if you rush over to see it.

Sonya: So we’ve talked about using our sense of seeing and watching for changes. We’ve talked about using our sense of hearing, listening for changes, listening for what’s happening. What about our other senses? I’m sure you probably don’t go around tasting things in nature very much.

Karen: Not all the time; not unless I identify it positively, that I know exactly what it is I’m going to be tasting. If I am unsure, I do not taste it.

Sonya: So tasting would be the least often of the five senses that you’re going to use probably. All right, what about the two that are left: smelling and feeling or touching?

Karen: Touching is another one that you want to do cautiously. There are many things in nature that you can touch, but there are things in nature that you do not want to touch—like poison ivy, for instance. And if you can’t identify things that you should not touch, then be careful about what you do touch.

Sonya: What about the laws in place about touching things or taking things?

Karen: You can usually touch things, but many things are protected and you cannot remove them from parks or wherever you are at. If you’re on private property and it’s your own, or a friend’s and you have their permission to remove things, you can do that. But if you are on federal land or state-owned land or something that’s owned by the government, those are usually protected and you can’t even pick a flower and take it with you.

Sonya: But you could touch it if you’re doing it respectfully.

Karen: But you can touch it respectfully, yes.

Sonya: Okay, what about smelling? I don’t often think about if I’m smelling nature, unless I’m at a farm.

Karen: It’s hard not to smell it there.

Sonya: That’s right, and I grew up across the street from a pig farm, so yes, I’ve smelled a lot of nature. But what about smelling it in other circumstances? Do you use that sense a lot?

Karen: All the time. It’s one of the senses, just like your hearing and your sight, that you can use all the time that you are in nature. And it is a sense that we don’t usually use very well, but you can smell all sorts of things. Now, the obvious, fresh skunk is going to be very obvious, your pig farm is very obvious. But you can smell lakes. If you know the smell of water, you can smell the difference in the air when you are approaching a source of water. You can smell mud where there’s a boggy area. There’s a difference in the smell. There’s a difference in the smell from the spring to the fall when the leaves have fallen off the trees and have started to decay. There’s a definite difference in the smell. And so smell is another thing that you can use to give you clues to changes in the environment around you.

Sonya: Interesting! All right, so using all five of our senses as we observe nature is going to help us find these nature objects we think are hidden from us. And recording them in your notebook—so often we think just about drawing, and that’s really centered just on our sight. So how do you record what you’re hearing and what you touched and what you’re smelling?

Karen: Just writing it down. “I heard,” if you know the calls of some birds and you heard one, you can write that down. You can say, “I smelled the lake” or “I could smell the mud” or “I knew there had been a skunk at some point, because even though the smell was faint, I knew that there had been a skunk there.” Any of those you can record by writing. If a child is too young to be able to write it, that child can tell a parent to write that down for them in their book.

Sonya: Great! Well, I hope these ideas will help all of us expand our observation skills as we go through nature study and get a lot more out of it. Thank you.