Teaching with Nature Journals

We just bought Savannah her nature journal and yesterday was her first entry. So I thought I would share with you how we use nature journals in our homeschool.

We began using nature journals (we use black spiralbound sketch books) for science about 7 years ago. Don’t be fooled however, nature journaling teaches them much more than science. They also learn observation, art and basic research, not to mention they understand that they are able to learn on their own. They realize that they can go out, see something they don’t understand, and then find the answers. They learn to be their own teacher.

When our children are old enough to begin a nature journal, between 4 and 6 depending on the child, we allow them access to some good quality art supplies. We use Prismacolor pencils. They allow our children to add detail and color and are easy for the little ones to manipulate. We have given our children more options as their art skills have progressed. These Caran D’ache water color crayons are my new favorites. I will suggest that if you expect quality results give them some quality tools. (Trust me on this one, I don’t recommend spending money very often but nice art supplies are worth the investment IMO.)

The first assignment that we give each child is for them to go out into the yard and look around very carefully. They are looking for something that they have not noticed before. It can be the veins in a leaf, the spots on a fuzzy caterpillar, a blue rock or the fact that our dog has her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth. When they notice something that is new to them, they get to draw it. They must look at it while they draw and we encourage them to try to notice even more details while they are working. If our child notices a bird or something else which would not stay put long enough to draw, they may look it up and draw from a picture in a book or online.

If your children are like mine, their first drawings will not be impressive. It is okay if the drawing is immature and even unrecognizable. Their art skills will improve over time. At this point just encourage them to notice details and to try to include them in the drawing. So if your child noticed the veins in a leaf, and has drawn an uneven circle with lines going who-knows-where, that is wonderful. They have learned to look more closely at nature and to communicate what they discovered through art.

Next we have the children write something about their drawing. For the example of the drawing of veins in a leaf, we would ask what she just drew. If she says, “I drew lines in the leaf,” then we would direct her to a source where she could discover what those lines are called. If she already knows that they are called veins then we would ask her to find out why a leaf has veins. The idea is to require them to find out something new and write that beside their picture. As soon as she understands how and where to find information, she no longer needs help with what to write unless she is having difficulties.

We require one nature entry a week. When I look at their assignment for the week they are usually full of information that they want to share with me. After we have discussed their page, I will usually tell them what I want them to do for the next week. Often the assignment will be exactly the same as the one I outlined above. However, if I notice that a particular child is struggling to do meaningful research or is stuck in a rut, I will give them a more specific assignment to help them progress in their ability. For example, if they are failing to convey new and meaningful information on their nature page, I would give them a specific question to answer or a process to explain for their next assignment.

If you don’t have time to do anything more than this, your children will still benefit greatly by taking some time out each week to observe, wonder, draw, and study God’s creation. However, I highly recommend the Handbook of Nature Study. (The Handbook of Nature Study is also available  free online.)  We use this to give us more focus and to help us go deeper into a topic. You can work your way through a section doing a page on all the plants (or whatever) that are native to your area. It is an amazing resource; the only nature text that you will ever need.

Allow your children to enjoy journaling. As something interests your child, let them explore it further. We have studied rocks, leaves, squirrel habits, butterfly life cycles, live bearing fish, and the reproductive process of our pet guinea pigs. Hmm, I should probably get my children to produce some nature pages about ants.

If your children tend to focus on different aspects of nature, set aside time for them to show each other their books and talk about what each one is learning. This expands everyone’s horizons.

They don’t have to learn it all in a week. They don’t have to produce a work of art every time. It is the process that teaches. Relax and enjoy.

Feel free to browse my homeschooling category for more related posts.

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17 Responses to Teaching with Nature Journals
  1. Tanya
    March 3, 2009 | 2:26 pm

    That’s a great idea for my 4 year old. Well, she is not quite old enough yet, but she loves nature and she is very creative. I’ll try to introduce it in the next year or so. Thanx


  2. Laryssa @ Heaven In The Home
    March 3, 2009 | 5:35 pm

    Thank you for this practical way of keeping a nature notebook!


  3. Homeschool Dawn
    March 5, 2009 | 7:10 pm

    I enjoyed this post. I just started a nature journal with my children last week. Thanks for the encouragement.


  4. Pink and Green Mama MaryLea
    June 30, 2009 | 7:54 pm

    I’ve been doing a nature journal with my 6 year old this school year but I really liked your suggestion to add my Caran D’ache crayons – I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. We’ve done leaf rubbings, added pressed flowers, mushroom spore prints, and observations from the microrscope as well as science experiment results. Thanks for the great ideas!!


  5. Sebastian (a lady)
    July 3, 2009 | 1:07 am

    Nature journals are something that I’ve struggled to incorporate more in our homeschooling. It just seems to be one of those things that I want to have done, but rarely make time to do. I think that I need to put our notebooks and drawing tools in a more prominent place and get back to scheduling nature time into our day.
    Funny how we dropped off in our nature time right around the time that we moved from lovely Hawaii to an apartment in Japan. Thanks for the reminder of what we’re missing out on.


  6. Shanna
    July 4, 2009 | 6:14 pm

    Really great tips on how to use a nature journal! I struggle with incorporating this into our weekly routine, but really want to!…Off to get the nature journals out…..again :o)


  7. Thanks so much for submitting this post for the upcoming Homeschool Showcase. I was so excited to pick up Handbook of Nature Study in like-new condition for $10 at a recent used book sale. I can’t wait to begin putting it to use when we resume school next month! Thanks for the great tips and suggestions.


  8. melissa
    July 13, 2009 | 4:02 pm

    where and what kind of journals did you get? i always have trouble finding exactly what i want which is a spiral bound book with heavier weight paper to hold up to paint.


  9. Michelle
    July 16, 2009 | 12:24 am

    Hey! I followed the link from WUH, Wonderful post on nature journaling!


    (I’m a Crew mate!)


  10. Rachel
    October 7, 2009 | 1:48 am

    Thanks for the great ideas. I’ve been wanting to start nature journals with my preschool-aged boys but didn’t know where to start. They are currently obsessed with any kind of bugs, so it would be entertaining to see what they come up with. They are just starting to enjoy drawing, so I think they would really enjoy this activity. I am also curious about what kind of notebooks you use.


    Raising Olives Reply:

    Melissa and Rachel – We use hardback, spiralbound art quality sketch books. I updated the post to include a link to some books that look identical. I’m not sure about the paper weight and how it would hold up to paint. Our books do fine. We bought them at a local art shop.


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  13. Stephanie
    August 6, 2010 | 1:07 pm

    I have tried instituting nature journals several times, but it never stuck. 🙂 This is a terrific post — very inspiring!


  14. Twila
    August 25, 2011 | 12:34 pm

    AWSOME IDEA! I could see my kids loving this! Could you explain further what you mean by “meaningfull research” What does research look like to a 6 and 8 yr old (especially when they don’t know how to do creative writing yet?)

    “As soon as she understands how and where to find information, she no longer needs help with what to write unless she is having
    difficulties” ….How did you teach them the “how and where?”
    Thanks again!


    Kimberly @ Raising Olives Reply:

    Our little girls (6 and 7) will look up the leaf/rock/bug/bird/insect whatever in our field guides and copy something about it from there. Sometimes it may just be the name of the item and a brief description or something interesting about it. Other times they are more interested and will look it up online.

    I teach them “how” and “where” by doing it with them the first several times. I show them the different field guides and nature books that we have available and show them how to look it up on the computer. Then they do it on their own. If they run into problems or need help they just come ask.


  15. Lisa
    November 6, 2011 | 1:57 am

    I’ve just found this post and am so excited to begin!
    The link you have for the sketch books is no longer working…could you possibly tell me the measurements and number of pages in your notebooks?
    Thanks so much!


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