September 30, 2013

Gently Approaching Nature Journals

a gentle approach to nature journaling

It pains me to admit it, but despite living on some acreage and feeling very much in touch with nature, we have had many failed attempts at nature journaling.  I have wanted it to be a part of our regular schooling for years and we've gone out and tried it many a time, but when we carry our journals out into the great outdoors, some difficult realities about our family slap  me in the face.

Historically, when my kids run out into the wild with their journals and pencils...

~they draw stick people in super hero capes while sitting in nature.  Not Nature Journaling!  They aren't even allowed to watch Spider Man, so how the heck is he always showing up in their nature journals?

~they quickly scribble everything they see, one messy and careless item per page, and come in with an entire memo pad filled with gray scribbles.  If you can't take your time drawing one nice leaf while your mom says, "There is nowhere to be but here, so take your time and enjoy!" then when?

~they complain about the weather and run back in.  Charlotte Mason would cringe.  To her, weather was no excuse for staying indoors!  

Here's the thing.  Nature journaling - the beautiful kind you may love to peruse on Pinterest - is an activity that requires patience, a slower pace than modern life has trained us for, and a willingness to look at the small and seemingly insignificant for so long that you actually begin to appreciate it.  I'm not asking for adult level artistry or poetic margin notes.  Just evidence that they took their time and really looked closely at, or maybe appreciated some simple wonder.

Nature journals embody so many of the characteristics that I want my kids to embrace, like...

~slowing down and appreciating the free bounty all around us.
~taking time to make one small beautiful thing rather than a large quantity of slop.
~getting fresh air and breaking out of indoor habits.

a gentle approach to nature journals

I crave all of that for my kids and so I decided to hang in there until we got it.  To get it, though, it was going to take a gentle and focused approach.  I hatched a plan to get the kids genuinely engaging with their nature journals, and step by step we've made huge progress.

1.  Look at examples of lovely journals.  Boy, are we lucky to live in the internet age, even when we're talking nature!  Seeing concrete examples of what you hope to eventually create really helps the kiddos.  Maybe you've got a picture in your mind, but they have no clue what a nature journal could really be.  

2.  Explain the concept of one good thing.  To avoid the common issue of kids just drawing every single thing they see, filling up a ton of pages, and then calling it a day, I ask the kids to pick one thing - anything that was not man made - and watch it for a good long while.  To draw it not as it might be in their mind, but as it really is.  This means no rectangle trunks with straight stick branches.  This means attempting to draw the actual complicated curves of an object.  To see it for what it is rather than the cartoon image of it that we might have in our minds.  One.  Good.  Thing.  

3.  Fill the Page.  This also cuts down on the whole one quick little picture per page thing.  What a waste of paper!  And we're out here to appreciate the trees, folks!  Not to ensure that more are cut down with our reckless scribbles.  Fill each page with sketches, charts, observations, and poetry.  Whatever comes to mind when you sit where you're sitting and observe.  But remember to keep it lovely.  

4.  Use all of the senses.  Touch the thing, smell it and the air around it, and observe it from many angles.  When it makes sense to do so, like with a nut or a seed pod, shake it and see if there's a sound.  Describe all of that with words and sketches.  

5.  Have a nature table.  I must admit that no matter what the spectacular Charlotte Mason believed, sometimes we just aren't going to go outside.  Having a nature table, corner, or window sill will make sure that you get your nature moment even when it's below zero out there.  Fill it with natural items like pine cones, acorns, bird nests, and dried vegetation so that the littles can sketch and observe even on the yuckiest days.

Lilac Nature Journal Page

6.  Set the example.  This whole nature journal thing isn't going to happen on assignment.  You've got to do it too.  I personally love to nature journal, so doing it along side the kids is no big deal to me.  In fact, we spread out and work alone for the full time that we journal, so it's a welcome break from the noise of motherhood.  But if you know you're not into it, I would venture to assume that you're kids aren't going to be into it either.  It's so easy, as a mom, to think I'm not into that, but the kids should be.  Here guys, go appreciate nature while I watch Glee!  Nope!  If you're not appreciating it, they probably aren't going to learn to appreciate it.  So get your colored pencil on, Momma!

We work on one of those line items at a time.  We spread out and journal for a minimum of 15 minutes at a time and then when everyone is done, we come together and share what we observed and documented.  During the share time, I ask if they feel like they mastered the goal of the day, be it to fill the page or to draw something as it really is.  I praise their efforts and make suggestions for how they might be even more detailed next time.  Then, next time we work on our journals, we might emphasize another item from above,  like using all of our senses.  You get the picture.  

With that plan, we've been significantly improving out nature time.  Hunter has written some adorable lines of poetry and loves to write down things he thinks no one else has ever noticed about a particular weed or the clouds.  Oh, that's exactly what I was hoping for!  Hannah Jane now fills the page with beautiful pictures and has started including scientific details like the temperature and how things look different from season to season.  Finally, a systematic approach to nature journaling is paying off and the kids are peacefully engaging with the world around them.  


  1. You are more than welcome to link to me at Best4Future Wednesday link-up party #2:


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