I would like to begin by telling you about the nature journals that I have kept over the years—growing in artistry from year to year, filled with memories of the outdoors when my children were small. These journals, however, do not exist. Over the last five years, my attempts amount to a dozen pages interspersed with scribbles from one child or another. During my summer planning, I decided that it was worth yet another attempt. We would let go of all the failed methods and give it another go… and suddenly nature journaling is the highlight of our school week.
I first became familiar with the idea of nature journaling through the ideas of Charlotte Mason. In my early homeschool days, I read several of her volumes searching to provide a more robust educational foundation for my children in the early years. In Volume I, Home Education, Miss Mason writes:
It would be well if all we persons in authority, parents and all who act for parents, could make up our minds that there is no sort of knowledge to be got in those early years so valuable to children as that which they get for themselves of the world they live in. Let them once get touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life. We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.1
Keeping a natural journal is not just for hippies or idealists. It is a valuable skill lost to many corners of classical education—recording observations and questions about the natural world around us. Natural journaling begins by considering three questions: What do you notice? What do you wonder? What does this remind you of? We respond to these observations and questions through three “languages”: words, numbers, and pictures. Students can draw pictures from varying perspectives, describe and classify with words, and count and measure with numbers. Together, this teaches us not only to observe and wonder but also to communicate what we see in various ways.
It is tempting to argue that nature journaling is beneficial because it “integrates subjects.” This, however, is false. It does not integrate subjects. It allows us to see the natural integration of knowledge, which exists until we obscure it with artificial subject divisions. Journals are a way to practice drawing, painting, color theory, math, geography, writing, and natural philosophy in beautiful harmony together.
Over the years I read various resources about nature journaling with guidelines and ideals that made it unattainable for us, especially because I had not developed any skill in this area. But starting with simple supplies, small tasks, and realistic expectations has (finally) made nature journaling not only a sustainable but also a beautiful part of our homeschool.
You can start with just a pencil and a journal. Choose a hardback journal with unlined paper that lays flat and is not spiral bound, which tears easily. It’s important to start with a good size—large journals can overwhelm with the tyranny of the blank page. You do not need specialized paper; I bought our journals for roughly six dollars apiece. If you want to add color, Prismacolor colored pencils are an easy choice. If you want to watercolor, basic Crayola watercolors work fine for younger students. However, these pigments are colors that are not often found in nature. As kids get older and want their journals to resemble the natural world more closely, basic watercolor sets are frustrating. Windsor and Newton make a Cotman Sketchers Pocket Set with twelve beautiful, naturally occurring colors. I gave these to my kids as a Christmas present, and they have lasted for many years. In a school setting, these would be more of an investment, but a school could reasonably purchase a few class sets for teachers to share.
Going (or worse, sending) kids outside and saying, “Do a nature journal,” or even “Do a nature journal of a tree in this area,” does not work well. For beginners, this is vague and frustrating. This year, I discovered John Muir Laws’ Nature Journal Connection videos. He has many tutorials on his YouTube channel, but this series is particularly geared towards teaching children nature journaling. Each of the videos is ten to fifteen minutes long and teaches a particular nature journaling skill. At the end of the video, Laws gives an exercise for the students to go and do. Of the videos we have seen so far, these exercises are suitable for a backyard or small green space on school grounds. It is important to do nature journals with your students. If you have a kindergarten class in a formal school setting, this might be unrealistic. But this could be solved by partnering with older students during a special “nature journal buddy” time.
The idea that you have to take a special trip to do a nature journal is not only unnecessary, it’s also a hindrance. Countless times I have taken my kids to a wildlife preserve and our journals have not left our bags because my kids want to play and explore. I have found that it builds their observation skills and sense of wonder to go into our yard time after time and observe something that we have not noticed before. When Florida weather becomes tolerable in the fall, we often take nature walks at a park near our home. It is a familiar place where we can observe the changes over the seasons and years (and get extraordinarily muddy).
For those who worry that classical education neglects the sciences, nature journaling develops fundamental skills crucial for later scientific study. In Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis expresses hope for a “new” Natural Philosophy which realizes that artificial and abstracted views of nature are a view, not reality. But the special beauty of nature journaling is that it allows us an unmediated gaze into God’s grandeur, “because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! Bright wings.”
1. Charlotte Mason 61