Nature Journaling

“How I would like people to hear . . . the sound of snow falling through the deepening night. . .”
~ Hakuin, seventeenth century Zen poet

As we zoom from place to place in our media-saturated culture, moments of stillness and quiet are rare.  Rare, too, are moments of being immersed in the natural world, paying careful attention to details like the wind direction, the calls of birds or the shape of the clouds.  Through the process of regularly going outside and observing nature in our school back yard, we will be recording our discoveries and insights in a nature journal through the use of drawings, notes, poetry, diagrams, and data—cloud cover, temperature, weather.Scientists train their attention, learning to focus on relevant features and disregard those that are less salient. One of the best ways to do this is through the old-fashioned practice of taking field notes: writing descriptions and drawing pictures of what you see. From Aristotle to Audubon, the natural world has been a scientific laboratory worth exploring and recording. “When you’re sketching something, you have to choose which marks to make on the page,” says Michael Canfield, a Harvard University entomologist and editor of the recent book Field Notes on Science and Nature. “It forces you to make decisions about what’s important and what’s not.”  This consistent process of observation and recording will help students focus their attention and discover the natural patterns and cycles of our local environment as they learn to look for subtle changes and transformation over time. Below is a list of some of the skills and knowledge nature journaling can foster:

  • Scientific and aesthetic observation
  • Creative and technical writing
  • Layout and presentation of ideas and observations
  • Questioning, inventiveness, synthesis
  • Reflection, silence
  • Greater appreciation of nature and place
  • Finding voice, learning to be open to new experiences

Nature journaling is an active integration of science, language, and art, and as such, affords many avenues for learning.  We will be observing, identifying, measuring, comparing and listing as we research the plants, insects, birds, animals, trees, weather, and seasons that surround us at our school.  By actively describing, discussing, and asking questions about what we are observing, we are continuing to practice the use of precise language and communication.  Our field notes may become the foundation for longer pieces of prose, poetry, or informational text.  As we work on observational drawings, we can improve our hand-eye skills and learn how to change the focus of our drawings from zoomed in close-ups to overall maps of an entire area. This range of skills and subjects holds the possibility of engaging all students and leading them back to a mindset of awe and wonder, while simultaneously grounding them in a sense of place.

In her poem, “Mindful,” poet Mary Oliver describes the power of learning from the natural world:

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

Learn more about being an explorer of the world.
Here are some nature journaling samples.
Here is the Nature Journaling Grading Sheet.
Click here for September Nature Journaling.
Click here for October Nature Jounaling.