Nature Journals

Nature study is an essential piece of the intertwining puzzle which is a Charlotte Mason education, but it can be intimidating to some. I hope this post will encourage you if you are just getting started.

“As soon as he is able to keep it himself, a nature-diary is a source of delight to a child. Every day’s walk gives him something to enter: three squirrels in a larch tree, a jay flying across such a field, a caterpillar climbing up a nettle, a snail eating a cabbage leaf, a spider dropping suddenly to the ground, where he found ground ivy, how it was growing and what plants were growing with it, how bindweed or ivy manages to climb” (Vol. 1, p. 54).

Step 1: Gather Your Supplies:

  • I would recommended a medium size (7×9 inch) sketchbook, not a full 8×11 book at first, because all of that white space can be intimidating to a child.
  • Spiral bound is useful, because it will lie flat.
  • A hard cover is beneficial, because this is meant to last for years.
  • Look around for a deal.  I’ve always been able to get mine on sale.
  • That said, don’t get one with cheap quality paper. You want a smooth surface to your paper.
  • My children go through one of these in about a year or year in a half.

The Medium (in order of recommendation)

  • Prang’s Semi-Moist Watercolor paints with a #1 or #2 size paint brush. (The paint brush that comes with the paints is not this size, so you will have to buy them separately.)
  • Nice tubes of watercolor paints if you have older children.
  • Good quality colored pencils like Prismacolor.
  • Charcoal
  • Pencil (Although it is tempting for a child who isn’t as excited about this process to quickly sketch out a drawing with no detail or effort, so I would only recommend this option for the advanced student.)
  • Pencil to make notations on the page.

The Specimen

  • Go for a nature walk so everyone can find their own item to draw.
  • In the beginning I suggest looking for something small, approximately the size of their hand, that is simple. Leaves are good first drawings.
  • Don’t look for the “perfect” specimen, because the imperfections create interest in the painting or drawing.

Step 2: Observe Your specimen

“All is incidental, easy, and things are noticed as they occur.” Mason Vol. 3, page 237

  • Start by studying your specimen well. There is something that drew you to this particular object, so get to know it well. You may even set a timer and request that everyone keep their eyes on their object for one full minute.  It’s interesting what you see when you really look hard.
  • Be gentle with your specimen.

Step 3: Record What You See

“The children keep a dated record of what they see in their nature note-books, which are left to their own management and are not corrected. These note-books are a source of pride and joy, and are freely illustrated by drawings  of twig, flower, insect, etc.”  Mason Vol. 3, page 236

  • I remind my children regularly to draw what they see, not what they think the object looks like. You can quint your eyes, or look through just one eye to see a “flat” or two dimensional version of the object.
  • Begin with the outline. I recommended starting with a leaf, because they are generally flat, but using the technique I just mentioned, you can better see the outline.
  • In the beginning, it is helpful to paint to scale rather than enlarging or shrinking your painting of the specimen. Later, as you become more adept at drawing in your nature journal, it will be easier to adjust sizes.
  • Spend most of your drawing time looking at the object, not your drawing. Your drawing skills will improve in time if you do this, because you will learn to draw what you see.
  • Lightly fill out the inside of the image. Lightly is the key term here, because you might want to make changes as you go.
  • Layer color upon color to create more texture, shading, or just a richer, darker color.
  • You do not have to be perfect, because you are not the Creator God. Only He is perfect. We must however make our best effort.
  • Do not judge or correct your child’s work in any way.
  • Try not to make arbitrary rules for them to follow. I was once encouraged to allow them only one drawing per page, and only on the right side of the spread, but then I got my first glimpse of The Country Diary of An Edwardian Lady: A facsimile reproduction of a 1906 naturalist’s diary by Edith Holden, and that changed everything for me.  I think we have to emphasize truth and that this is science, which means they need to attempt to record what they see, and not what would be cool in some fantasy land. But at the same time, this is an opportunity to see, really see, God’s beautiful gift to us. Each child is going to express their response to that in different ways.

Step 4: Make Notations

“They notice for themselves, and the teacher gives a name or other information as it is asked for, and it is surprising what a range of knowledge a child of nine or ten acquires”  Mason Vol. 3, page 237

  • All notes should be done in pencil.
  • What to note should be decided by the student, not the teacher. Maybe you would like for them to include the scientific name for every drawing, but you have to hold back and let them make notations based on the questions they have asked of themselves or you.
  • You may require that they include the date.
  • Things they may like to include: what the drawing is of (common name and/or scientific name,) where they found the specimen, any other things they observed on their walk, such as the weather, a poem or Bible verse that seems appropriate to their drawing.
  • If your child has a lot that they want to record in their nature notebook, but they are still young and have difficulty writing, either offer to write for them or type their narration, print it, and let them paste it in their book.

Whether they only draw a simple picture, or paint a masterpiece and record a full page full of information, remember that this is a form of narration, and just as an oral narration is ones own, each differing from one another, a nature journal should be unique.

Last, but not least, did you notice all the times I said “you”? I would jump up and down and flap my arms and plead if I could get you to do all of this right along side of your child. Not only does it encourage your child by placing value on the task, but it’s therapeutic in all sorts of ways.

6 thoughts on “Nature Journals

  1. Kristin Girod

    Nicole, thank you so much for sharing this wonderful post with us! I’ve been implementing some of CM’s principles over the last 12 years of homeschooling, but now I’m finally reading her original works and am planning a true CM education this coming school year for my 5 students. The podcast has been a tremendous blessing and help to me as I strive to do this – THANK YOU!! And this post on nature journaling in exactly what I needed to know to get started. Where I once felt very intimidated and inadequate, now I’m inspired and excited to get started on nature journaling – including having one for myself (which is the MOST intimidating part as drawing is not something I do well at all). Many blessings to you and your family!

    1. Nicole

      I’m so glad you are encouraged, Kristin! There is one thing I need to add to this post, which I recently learned by reading a PR article – when children are little, they sometimes don’t have the words to describe what they see. (This is one of the reasons for object lessons – they learn a few new words as we ask questions about the object.) But, these little children can draw what they see. Sure their representations might not be a work of art, but they are truly narrations. With this in mind I went back to look at some of my children’s early nature drawings, and I did indeed notice this. Where I had previously thought they were just a little messy with their brush, they were trying to show hairs on the stem – things like that. Anyway, enjoy your adventure! It leads to a full life!

      1. Kristin Girod

        Thank you Nicole! Yes, I can see how a little one might be able to draw what he doesn’t yet have words for. I have a question about logistics of using water colors in the nature journals: do you paint while out on your walk or do you bring the specimen home or perhaps use a photo? And if you paint while on your walk, do you carry water for cleaning the brushes? Trying to figure out how to make this work! 🙂

        1. Nicole

          Kristin, This is a tricky subject. There is nothing like journaling while we are out in the field. It reminds us that we are using our journal to take notes, ask questions, and record things so we both see it and remember it. It might be hard for a real little person to paint in the field, and maybe that they just need to narrate to you for you to take notes while you are in the field. Or sit in front of something that isn’t moving. But there is also a time for practicing our painting skills, which should likely happen around the kitchen table. So try to do both. For a walk with paints, I usually bring water in a mason jar with a good lid, but recently I learned that John Muir Laws recommends a paint brush that has a water tube as it’s handle. My kids are anxious for us to get some of those to try out.


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