What to Put in a Nature Journal

We’re in the middle of a great series on nature study. Today we’re going to talk about the nature notebook. What should you put in it? When should you put in your entries? Joining me today is Karen Smith, our nature study go-to person.

Sonya: Thanks for all your help in this nature study series. We’ve received a lot of questions about the nature notebook, or the nature journal. Let me just give you a sampling, all right? Buckle your seat belts; there’s a boatload of these. 

Question: For our nature notebooks, do the children take them with them as we’re on a walk and then stop and jot or sketch? Or do they observe first and then work in the notebooks when we return? 

Question: For daily nature study, is it best to let the child zero in and study and sketch whatever they come across outside? Or is the nature-journal entry supposed to be what was studied for nature study? 

Question: When we get out there, they’re so eager to play and explore that they don’t want to do any sketching, but if we wait and sketch at home, they can’t see what they’re supposed to be sketching.

Question: How can we do nature study if the child is both artistic and loves nature but refuses to use the nature journal (which that child happened to pick out)? 

So we have a whole gamut of questions about this. It seems like these questions fall into basically two categories. What should go in the nature notebook, is it just whatever the child is interested in? Or is it a focused assignment, if you will? And then also, when should they put those entries in? 

Let’s start with: What should we put in there? Whatever interests them? You know the story. When my kids were little, I sent them out and said, “Find something to draw,” and they gave me pictures of mailboxes. So it’s not just, “Draw what you see.”  So should we just do what interests them? Or do we give an assignment to focus them on something? Give us some tips.

Karen: It depends. If the child is working through a science course that requires an assigned nature-study-type thing, such as “Draw this,” for whatever they’re studying, then you need to require that they do what the assignment is, obviously. 

Sonya: Now that reminds me. For example, in your science courses, you have some nature-study activities that can go with certain lessons. It’s not every lesson, but if you come to a lesson that has a nature-study assignment, then treat it like any other assignment is what I’m hearing. 

Karen: Yes. Outside of assignments from a course, it’s up to you. Do you want to require your child to draw what you’ve chosen for them to look at for the day? Or do you want the child to draw whatever he finds that interests him? Now of course, we have to set boundaries. Don’t draw the mailbox, unless of course it has flowers growing on it or around it or something like that. 

Sonya: Well that makes me feel better! Because it did have a Carolina Jessamine growing, a vine growing on it. Maybe they were drawing the flowers, and I thought it was just the box. Oh, we just redeemed that story!

Karen: One of the keys for a nature journal, to get your children to really want to put something in it, is to make sure that your child understands that the nature journal is his. It’s his keepsake, kind of a memory album, of the things that he has connected with in nature, and so you would not want somebody to tell you what you had to put in, say, a diary. 

Sonya: True, or like your picture album for your wedding or something; that’s very personal, and so the nature journal is like that too.

Karen: Yes, so there is a bit of having a purpose in mind when you go out to do nature study, but when you’re out there, if your child finds something else that’s of interest to him, let him look at it and put that in his nature journal, if that’s what he would like to do. It’s his. There are different ways that your children can record their observations. Some children like to draw or paint. Some children don’t like to do that. They might want to just jot down some notes about the details of what they’ve they’ve seen. Others might want to take a picture. There are any number of creative ways that our children can come up with to to put things into their nature journals and make them their own. One thing you might want to consider, if you have a science course that requires some nature study, is to have a separate book for that and then another nature journal for when you’re just doing your regular nature study, apart from the science course. That way you can have one for your school records.

Sonya: Right. Just like you might have a notebook for your science lessons, you could put your nature study assignments from that course in that notebook, but then if he sees something, just for his own interest, he could put that in his special keepsake version. You wouldn’t have to do that, but I like that idea if that works best. That’s great. 

Karen: And another thing to remember is that yes, you should require your child to put something in the notebook.

Sonya: Yes. I hear that all the time. It’s like, “it’s the child’s own possession, so we don’t put any expectations on the child, and if they just want to draw a sun as a circle and some lines coming out of it, that’s good enough. At least they put something in it.”

Karen: Maybe if he’s six. 

Sonya: Yeah. There’s a balance there, because we’re trying to instill habits. One of the benefits, one of the goals, of nature study is to develop a habit of observation and best effort. So what kind of parameters might you recommend? It depends on the age of the child, I guess? 

Karen: It does, but you can always require that he put something in his book, whether it’s whatever you went out to see purposefully or something that the child saw that interests him more. But require something.

Sonya: I’ve talked to some moms who actually put a time frame on that.

Karen: That’s a good idea too, because children can drag a lesson out.

Sonya: Or it can go the other way. It’s like, “I want to get to the playground so I’m just going to throw something in here real quick.” So you give them parameters, and it depends on the child again. We can tweak this however we need to to customize it for that child, but if you tell them, “I want you to spend at least five minutes observing this and making your record,” that’s going to slow them down. Because if they finish it off, it’s like, “Oh good, you’ve still got four minutes, honey. See what else you can notice about it.” That might help them cultivate that habit a little better. 

Karen: Yes. Set those boundaries, but then remember that your child’s drawing, or your child’s notes, are his own, and they are they are not for you to critique or to grade, because it’s his connection to nature and his memories of what he saw. So be very careful not to…

Your child’s drawing, or your child’s notes, are his own, and they are they are not for you to critique or to grade, because it’s his connection to nature and his memories of what he saw.

Sonya: Squelch their desire, their interest in nature. So it’s almost like we are setting our expectations on effort, making sure they put in effort, but we’re not putting expectations on the end product. How good of a drawing is it? How well did they write their entry? Is the spelling correct? We’re not critiquing. 

Karen: No, we’re not critiquing them.

Sonya: It’s just effort. “Did you put in the effort? Yes? Okay.” So that’s the what should go in the nature notebook. Let’s talk about the when do they do these entries—while they’re out in nature? Or after they get home? Or when? 

Karen: Well that depends also.

Sonya: You love that answer, but it makes total sense. Absolutely.

Karen: Nature study is different than your math lesson that you will probably do at the table, or your history lesson where maybe you’re reading your book on the couch all snuggled together. Nature study is a little interesting at times. So whether you’re going to draw in your nature journals or not, in the field or at home, might depend on where you’re doing your nature study. If you are doing your nature study within your home, in your backyard, or maybe in your neighborhood, bringing your nature journals with you is easy. 

When you’re not lugging them halfway across town or on a half-hour hike or something like that, it’s easy to bring the nature journals. They’re right there, so that would be a good time to require drawing or noting in them, when you’re doing nature study. Now if you have something come up that’s spontaneous, maybe you’re walking on the sidewalk between stores or whatever, and you see something that you don’t normally see, and you stop to take a look. . .

Sonya: Like, “This isn’t our usual nature study lesson time, we just happened to notice this,” you’re probably not going to have them in your back pocket.

Karen: So in that case, you can note what you see. Maybe mom makes some notes on her on her phone, or you grab a scrap of paper or a napkin from the car and jot down some notes. You can take a picture so you can remember those when you get home, and then they can make entries later. It also depends on what you’re looking at in nature. 

Sonya: How’s that? 

Karen: Well some things don’t sit still.

Sonya: Oh, well, that’s true, yes.

Karen: Insects, birds, and animals have a tendency to want to move around while you’re trying to draw them.

Sonya: It’s a nasty habit. (laughs) 

Karen: For those of us who don’t draw very well…

Sonya: Yeah, or very quickly. 

Karen: That can be very frustrating, so in those cases, taking a picture that you can draw from later is a good idea.

Sonya: Or even several pictures if they’re from different angles. Or if they’re moving around, you might be able to capture different angles.

Karen: And you might get one that’s not blurry. Sometimes it depends on the personality of your child. Some children just don’t want to draw while they’re out in nature, and that’s okay. We are all different, and there are some children, there are some people, that when they are drawing at the same time that they are observing, that drawing can be a hindrance to them observing the characteristics and habits because they’re so focused on: What does it look like? Not: What is it doing? So there’s some balance there. Know your child. Give your child a little bit of freedom there.

Sonya: I was just thinking of my youngest. It’s very difficult; her fine motor skills are very underdeveloped and wobbly, so drawing and writing requires a huge amount of mental effort, which then siphons that away from the observation and effort. 

Karen: Yeah, so you can capture the observations in writing in some way, and then later, when your child has some time, you can have him draw if he wants to draw. It’s his nature journal, so if he wants drawing, he can do that. If he just wants the notes, that’s fine too. There are other times that it’s just not convenient to stop. I’m thinking of when you’re hiking in a wetland area. It might be near a body of water, near a pond, or something like that, and then certain times of the year, if you stop, the mosquitoes descend upon you. 

Sonya: Yeah that would not be a very pleasant way to sketch anything. 

Karen: It is not pleasant at all. There are times you don’t want to stop. 

Sonya: You know this from experience of course.

Karen: Now there are times that you will need your nature journals with you, depending on what you’re doing. If your focus is to do rubbings of different tree barks, you’re going to want your nature journals or at least some paper with you so you can do that. It’s very hard to do that at home. 

Sonya: Without the tree, yes, good point. (laughs)

Karen: So keep that balance. Sometimes when you are out in the field, there may be things that your children want to bring home with them, so bringing specimens home is something that you can do, if the law allows that where you live. There are different laws at different levels in our government that allow you to take some things or prevent you from taking anything. So make sure you check your laws before you take anything. 

Sonya: So when you say at different levels, you mean like there might be a city law, there might be a county law, or things like that.

Karen: There might be a federal law or a state law, and so you need to be aware of those laws.

Sonya: How do you find those laws? I’ve seen you go online, but what type of stuff do you search for?

Karen: Usually the DNR sites. 

Sonya: DNR?

Karen: Yes, Department of Natural Resources sites. Places like campgrounds, county parks, state parks, that sort of a thing; they will have those rules listed.

Sonya: Okay so good, very helpful. I’ve talked with other moms, and this is something I did as well, to keep things practical, we had a waterproof bag, and we just kept all the nature notebooks in there. We had few field guides, not the whole library, and some watercolor pencils or watercolor paints, and maybe a magnifying glass, and we just kept that zipped up and always ready. So if we went to the park, or when it was time for nature study outside, we could just grab that bag and put it in the van. Then it was with us.

Karen: It’s all ready. You don’t have to go find everything to take it with you.

Sonya: Right, and I think that’s very helpful because there’s a mental block if it’s like, “Oh we have got to go, we have to get. . .” I know some moms really make their nature study bag very elaborate. I suppose it depends on the your personality, whether you’re a minimalist or if it’s like, “Let’s put in a waterproof blanket tarp, and put in. . .”

Karen: You know for me, it’d be a backpack with the journal, a couple field guides, and some pencils; that’d be it. 

Sonya: You’re the minimalist type. But others you could put in hand wipes; you can put in all types of stuff. But if you have it all ready to go, that’s the main thing, as long as it’s not like 60 pounds.

Karen: There are times, maybe you’re going to a park that’s a drive away from your home for nature study, and you don’t want to carry that on your walk. You can leave it in the car, and have your children draw at a picnic table, or even in the car when you come back, and that’s a good time to take your specimens, because you’re not taking them away from the park area. 

Sonya: Oh so the laws don’t mean you can’t pick it up and move it to a different part of the park to study it?

Karen: Sometimes they do, but usually not. Usually it’s just removing it from the park, but check the laws just to make sure.

Sonya: That’s a great idea; I never thought about that. I thought it was just “don’t touch this or we will cut off your hand” type thing. 

Karen: No they’re not that mean about it. Mostly they want to preserve the natural area for others to enjoy. If you come in, or others come in, and they’re constantly picking the flowers, moving the rocks around, or whatever, they’ve destroyed the enjoyment of nature for you. So it’s really respecting what others might want to see when they’re out in nature too.

Sonya: That’s a good way to look at it. Good. Thanks so much for all these great ideas; it makes the nature notebook not quite so daunting and a little more personal. Really, that’s what it’s all about. I love how you said it’s your keepsake, your personal record, as you get to know more of God’s creation. You’re just journaling along the way. That’s great.