The First Stage of Nature Journaling

When I first started nature journaling with my kids, I wanted to do it all. I hoped their journals by the end of the year would look a lot like Edith Holden's--beautiful paintings, Latin words, poetry and description.  I quickly learned that I was going about it all wrong and needed to give my children time to develop certain skills and interests.  So today, I am going to explain the simple progression we use based on Charlotte Mason’s writings, focusing on the first stage when children are between the ages of six and ten.

Don’t send your children outside. Go with them.
During this first stage, we concentrate on learning to see and identify. I don’t send my kids outside, I go with them and keep a nature journal right alongside them. I do this once a week for about 40 minutes. I think this is CRUCIAL to capturing our children’s curiosity for the natural world when so many other entertaining activities are vying for their attention. Many of us as educators may not be thrilled about doing this because our lives are too busy or we have had our natural curiosity closed up from our own meagre experiences with nature. If you will discipline yourself to do this just once a week, your love for the natural world will blossom and it will add beauty to your life.

Keep your goals in mind, but be flexible.
We start with something simple and move to more complex nature. Therefore, we do not draw landscapes. Instead, we draw one specimen from nature at a time. One of my goals is that we identify and observe about 18 plants and animals throughout the term. Some of this just occurs naturally throughout the week while playing outside. The rest of it occurs during our weekly nature walks. I hope that we record 12 specimens every 12 weeks, but more often then not we record less than that. Having a goal, however, helps us to achieve more than if we had not set one. Sometimes I am very specific about what we are going to look for. Other times, when the kids are very happy exploring on their own, I put aside my goals and let them choose what they would like to observe and draw. I mix it up and keep the them guessing as to what they are going to do.

Treat it like a treasure hunt.
Nature study ought to be fun. I treat it like a treasure hunt and keep it light. Any information given is unobtrusive and natural. I don’t have to be the all-knowing teacher, but learn right alongside my kids. My enthusiasm is contagious but so is my boredom. Children largely receive their love or disdain for nature by noticing my daily attitude towards nature. They are watching me!

Use good field guides for identification.
Invest in good field guides and teach your children how to use them. National Audubon Society field guides are our absolute favorite identification resources. If you have no other books for nature study, a collection of good field guides is enough! Sometimes we bring the books outside with us. Other times, depending upon the weather, we bring the specimen inside to identify it. Every time we go camping or hiking or picnicking, we bring a few field guides. They are one of my top homeschooling resources.

Teach them to sketch the specimen by observing carefully.
"Children should be encouraged to watch, patiently and quietly, until they learn something of the habits and history of bee, ant, wasp, spider, hairy caterpillar, dragon-fly, and whatever of larger growth comes in their way." CM
If they find an animal/insect, I encourage them to watch it at work and see what it is doing. If it is a plant, we pay attention to where it is located (marsh, forest, meadow, etc…).  Birds usually don’t stay still long enough to draw it well, so if we see a ‘new’ one outside, we watch its habits and then draw it from our field guide. Each child has a magnifying glass for this. Drawing from nature deserves a post of its own. So I will talk more about this soon and show you how to teach your children to do this even if you don’t know how to draw well. For now, realize that as children learn to see, they will naturally learn to draw. Charlotte Mason said, "It is only what we have truly seen that we can truly reproduce; hence, observation is enormously trained by art-teaching."

Keep the writing brief. Simple labels are enough.
Children are painstakingly learning to write during these early years. This is a very difficult process and so I am careful to minimize the amount of writing I expect from them. Charlotte Mason educators prefer quality over quantity. When nature journaling, my young children focus on sketching, labeling and painting their finds and don’t spend much time writing down descriptions. Instead, they orally narrate what they have observed. Charlotte Mason recommended mothers write the children's observations for them. Remember, this stage is mainly about learning to enjoy nature through keen observation and identification. We can add the fancy stuff later.

Lastly, we paint with good quality watercolor pencils or watercolor paints depending upon the children’s ages. I do not recommend crayons. They don’t blend well and blending colors to achieve an accurate copy of nature is very important in learning the habit of attention. We begin with watercolor pencils and progress to watercolors. The key to good dry brush watercolor is not to use too much water. Charlotte Mason encouraged children to paint the picture without even sketching it with a pencil first. We have done this, but prefer to sketch, then paint. I think art techniques and mediums have advanced quite a lot since her time and she would probably have altered some of her own recommendations. I also noticed while observing actual nature journals from her students (available online at Redeemer College) that several students sketched their specimens before painting them. So clearly, this was not a hard and fast rule.

Just Do It
If we want to develop within our children a love for nature, nature study should be, at the least, a weekly activity. In order to maintain this, most of us need to keep it brief and simple. Charlotte Mason kept it simple too. That’s why I like her plan. An elaborate nature ‘curriculum’ is not necessary. You CAN make it elaborate, especially if this is your area of expertise, but it is not required for a happy, well-rounded education.There is not one right ‘Charlotte Mason’ way to journal. If you have arrived on a good plan, wonderful! Stay with it. If you are frustrated with your nature journaling efforts, maybe these ideas will help simplify and organize it in your mind. The important thing is to stop putting it off until you get the perfect plan. Just get outside and do it.

one step at a time...