by Amy M. O’Quinn
Keeping A Nature Journal
by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth
Charlotte Mason’s Ideas
I have written before about Charlotte Mason, a nineteenth-century educator, and her views on the importance of giving children a well-rounded education. Therefore, in addition to presenting the regular core academic subjects, she also advocated exposing children to living books, poetry, classical music, fine art, Shakespeare, nature study, etc. In a (very simplified) nutshell, Miss Mason’s vision was to foster a ‘love of learning’ in all children and give them a liberal (broad) education, regardless of their economic background or social class. Today, I’d like to explore her suggestion that students spend as much time out of doors discovering the nature around them, and that they record their findings in a nature diary or journal—basing their entries on what they see, hear, touch and smell, rather than what they read about in textbooks.
Why Nature Study?
Many teachers and parents think that nature study is a great idea, but they also feel it is just too impractical and difficult to work it into the learning schedule. I agree that while it takes time to prepare the children for an outing, decide on a place to go, and actually keep up with everyone as they explore, the result is worth the effort. And in fact, nature study forms the basis of more extensive nature and science studies later on; the students have a knowledge base to build upon. Plus, most children have a great curiosity about the world around them—they just need to have this innate interest encouraged.
Realistically, nature study doesn’t have to be difficult or too orchestrated. It can be as simple as watching birds build a nest, identifying leaves that have fallen to the ground, or watching as a butterfly emerges from a cocoon. As Catherine Levison, a ‘Charlotte Mason method’ proponent and writer states,
“...Charlotte Mason strongly insists on children being outside daily and that makes nature observation become unavoidable. Even without deliberate effort children will learn about the natural world if they are provided ample time to experience it first hand.”
Observe and Explore
Once the children find something that ‘strikes their fancy,’ let them use their senses to become familiar with the specimen, object, or topic. A good field journal might also provide more information if the parent/teacher needs identification assistance, but in my opinion, very young children are simply content with discovery, observation, and very basic knowledge. However, if a group/family prefers a more structured form of nature study, there are many books that provide a scope and sequence or outline of suitable topics for all ages. One of the most popular books on the subject is The Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock, a huge tome of information and nature lessons, which was first released in 1911.
Other choices include:
The Kid’s Nature Book: 365 Indoor/Outdoor Activities and Experiences by Susan Milord
Nature For the Very Young: A Handbook of Indoor and Outdoor Activities by Marcia Bowden
Small Wonders: Nature Education for Young Children by Linda Garrett
After the exploration phase, a great way to preserve knowledge (and the memory) is to record the findings in a nature notebook or journal. Once again, this can be as simple as using notebook paper in a three-ring binder or a composition book, or as ornate as creating a handmade journal and using high quality watercolors and page protectors. The possibilities are endless, and the process is just as vast. It truly depends on the child, the age level, artistic capabilities, or how much time the parent/educator wants to allow for the project.
The child might make a simple drawing or sketch of what he has seen, then perhaps color it with crayons, markers, colored pencils or paint to make it more realistic. He can label the drawing/parts with both the common and scientific (Latin names), genus and species. The location, date and weather or temperature might be included as reference. Other ideas are leaf rubbings, or gluing down flowers, twigs, bark, feathers, or photos taken on the outing. Descriptions, measurements, and impressions are all good to record as well, if applicable. It is also a wonderful idea to revisit and rethink the topic or specimen at different seasons in order to make comparisons. There is no one right way to create a natural journal, and each child’s journal will be as unique and special as he is!
Here are some sites/blogs that explain in great detail or give ideas on how to create a nature journal:
Ready-Made Nature Journals or Books About Nature Journals
Ready-made journals or scrapbooks are also available to those who want the convenience. In addition, there are many choices and samples of individual nature journals that are sure to inspire and give you lots of ideas. Below are a few suggestions:
My Nature Journal by Adrienne Olmstead
Nature Log Kids: A Kid's Journal to Record Their Nature Experiences by DeAnna Brandt
A Backyard Nature Drawing Guide by Douglas S. Farnham
The Country Diary of An Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden
Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie
Drawn to Nature Through the Journals of Clare Walker Leslie
Exploring nature and creating journals to record what they find is an excellent way for children to process the world around them. Charlotte Mason wrote in her book, Home Education (Vol. 1), “Consider, too, what an unequalled mental training the child-naturalist is getting for any study or calling under the sun — the powers of attention, of discrimination, of patient pursuit, growing with his growth, what will they not fit him for?” (p. 61).
Yes, nature study and creating nature journals or notebooks does take time and require a bit of effort on the part of the parent/educator. But young children who are given this gift will benefit greatly in so many ways. Appreciating the beauty of nature and learning about the world around them should ideally be an important, and enjoyable, part of every child’s education!