Starting A Nature Study Journal - Why And How

Nature study is something I want to make a more consistent part of our homeschool.  I've been saying that for a while actually, but I've also found nature study and nature journaling a bit intimidating.  What was I actually supposed to be looking at?  What are we supposed to be learning?  How do I nature journal if my drawing skills are limited?

What Is Nature Study (And Why Should We Do It)?

First thing first, for those of you who might be new to homeschooling, nature study and nature journals have been around for a long time, but in this modern homeschool world you'll most often see it associated with the Charlotte Mason educational philosophy.  Simply Charlotte Mason is a good website for a deep-dive into Charlotte Mason and her methods, but for my purposes here, the definition from is: 

n. the practical study of plants, animals, and natural phenomena as a school subject.

I personally love the idea of nature study as a way to introduce scientific skills to kids.  True science is all about observation and experimentation.  As far as observation goes, nature study is a wonderful way to practice that scientific skill in the real world.  Nature journals are a way for kids (and adults) to keep track of their nature observations so they can begin to notice patterns in the natural world.

But How Do I Do Nature Study?

While I know all this with my head, the actual nuts and bolts of doing nature study is the part that becomes intimidating.  If you do a simple online search for nature journals, or if you purchase any nature-journaling books or resources, the level of skill these artists possess is amazing.  No matter how hard I try, my nature journal is not going to look so detailed or impressive.

Thankfully, I've begun to realize this year that a nature journal doesn't have to look like that to be worthwhile.  You don't have to have any art skills at all to keep a nature journal, really.  The point of nature study and keeping a nature journal is to develop the habit of observation.  The point is to be still in creation, and notice things, and then keep some sort of record of it.  

There are a few things that have helped make our nature study and journaling a little easier and a little richer, and I wanted to share a few thoughts on that today.  These small encouragements are coming from me, remember - a very amateur and non-artist homeschool mom.  I'm hoping that means these tips will be actually useful for the average person reading this.  Let's dive in!

Tip #1 - Just get outside a lot.

This tip seems so obvious as to be ridiculous, but what I mean is - try to practice just getting outside regularly before you add nature journaling into it.  If you and your kids are mostly homebodies, getting into the great outdoors more is the first step.  Go outside and enjoy your surroundings without the pressure of studying anything first, especially if your kids are young. Go on a hike, do schoolwork outside more, have a few picnics. Perhaps after you've developed the habit of getting outside as much as possible, taking the jump to actually studying the things around you will be a more natural step.

Tip #2 - Do a botany study.

Despite living in the mountains for most of my life, before this year I knew surprisingly little about plants.  I've never had a green thumb, and any botany knowledge I gained when I was in school had long ago faded from my brain.  I wasn't even very excited to do a botany program with my kids for homeschool science this year, but it turns out knowing more about plants makes nature journaling a whole lot easier!  

If you think about it, the main category of living things that you will see ever time you step outside are plants.  They are also the best thing to draw and observe for nature study because they don't move much.  I don't know why we didn't do a plant study sooner - it would have helped us so much with nature study from the beginning. 

Knowing more about the plant kingdom has made me feel more equipped for nature study - now instead of just staring at my surroundings, wondering what things are worth writing down, I have some specific things to look for when I'm looking at plants.  And because I feel a bit more knowledgable about plants,  I'll be able to help my kids with remembering what we learned and developing their skills on a part of creation that is easy to observe and draw.

(We used Apologia's Young Explorers Botany curriculum - it is a good level for mid elementary aged kids, I think.)

Tip #3 - Don't judge your own drawings (and don't let your kids judge theirs either).

We just finished our botany curriculum yesterday, and the last chapter in Apologia's Botany was on nature study. I found everything in that chapter really helpful and encouraging, and some of the following tips are things I gleaned from there. 

The book made a point that I thought was well worth remembering, and it is this - no one starts out nature journaling as an expert.  You start wherever you are, and as you get in the habit of observing and writing things out in your journal on a regular basis, your skills will grow.  

Consistency is something I want to work on with nature study, because consistently practicing observing and recording nature is what will lead to really useful learning.  But I'm also applying it to my rather simple drawings - no one starts out drawing as a developed artist, we hope to grow with practice.  

I think it's also important to realize that our drawing skills may never improve to level we would hope, but that doesn't mean nature journaling isn't worthwhile.  It's okay if your drawings are never impressive. The point is to learn how to observe and document accurately.  Drawing is just one way to do that.  Which leads to the next thought I had...

Tip #4 - Don't draw at all.

If drawing is what is holding you (or me) up from enjoying nature journaling - well, who says we actually need to draw at all?  We could just write out descriptions of what we see instead.  We could paste an actual specimen from a plant into the pages of our nature journal.  We could even take a picture and slap that in!  This is a very fresh realization for me, so I'm going to have to think about different ways we could do nature journaling aside from just drawing.

Tip #5 - It doesn't just have to be about the observation.

This is something else that I read in Apologia's Botany that I never thought about before - nature journaling doesn't have to be just dry scientific observations about living things.  We want to write down what we observe, but this is a nature journal.  It's okay to include poems or Bible verses that come to mind, to write out something fun that happened while you were outside, to play around with different ways to describe with written language the beauty that we see.  I've always come at nature journaling from a scientific bent, but the thought that I could include...anything I want, really...makes it a little more exciting.

Tip #6 - Help your kids write what they see.

This tip is more about making nature study something that your kids can enjoy.  If you have really little kids, don't make nature study turn into a frustrating writing practice session.  Let them draw a picture, ask them what they would like you to write in their journal, and then write it for them.  Our family is at a stage when most of my kids don't have the endurance to write out a bunch of information, and I want us all to enjoy getting outside and recording what we see. I want it to be a sweet memory.  Helping my kids with the writing is one way to make the experience less frustrating while we are developing the habits of nature study.

Tip #7 - Find some resources that inspire you at your family's stage.

When I first started trying to find resources for nature study, all I could find was this really intimidating book about nature journaling.  Since I'm not an artist, I couldn't imagine myself ever being good enough at nature study for that book - much less my young elementary kids!  I searched a little more, and these are a few resources that have made nature journaling seem more doable for my limited artistic abilities and young family.

Apologia Exploring Creation With Botany - The same book I mentioned above, this is a great curriculum for gaining meaningful knowledge to use in a nature study.  It'll help you know what to look for when it comes to observing plants.  Comes from a creationist Christian perspective.  I'd say 2nd Grade and up! 

Note:  I'm hoping to do their Flying Creatures book this spring to add more bird knowledge to our nature study attempts.  I'll update once we get through that book.

Exploring Nature With Children - If you need some inspiration for how to integrate nature study into more homeschool subjects, this is a great resource!  It has a different nature study topic for each day of the year, and includes poems, nature walk ideas, book lists, and other activity ideas.  Could be adapted for any grade.

100 Easy And Fun Creative Nature Walks - I love this ebook for ideas on how to involve younger kids in nature study!  It'll get you looking for different types of things each time you go out.  Good for preschool through elementary at least.

Raising Up Wild Things Nature Journals - Raising Wild Things is a blog and shop with many nature study resources - I just bought her winter nature journal and I'm excited to use it with the kids.  She includes basic information that would be useful for winter nature study, along with journal pages and worksheets to get you started, and website and book lists for further learning.  And all beautifully illustrated in a. non-intimidating way! Good for elementary ages.

The Nature Connection by Clare Walker Leslie - If you are not sure what to record when attempting nature study, this book has a bunch of information and ideas of what kinds of things you may want to write down.  I think this book has a lot of great inspiration.  I forgot I had it until I was writing this post, and I am going to pull it out much more this spring.  Comes from an evolutionary and environmentalist perspective, so be aware of that.  Good for elementary school and up.

Nature Anatomy and Ocean Anatomy by Julia Rothman - If you are excited to jump into the artistic side of nature journaling, these books would be good inspiration!  They are basically a published nature journal, with lots of good information included!  Some mentions of evolution and millions of years. Good for elementary and up.

That's all I have, friends.  I'm still figuring out nature study as I go, but I hope some of this was helpful!

Okay, all my homeschool nature study experts (I know there are some of you reading), what tips would you include?  And if you've never done nature study with your kids, have you found it as intimidating to start as I have?  

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