How to Use Nature Journaling in Inquiry Learning

nature journal

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Nature journals are recorded observations of things you see while in nature. They may include sketches of things like animals, trees, clouds, or flowers. It may also include smaller objects such as insects, leaves, twigs, or nuts and seeds. There are no rules with nature journals. They are simply a tool with which we can observe the world around us and pay attention to our surroundings. Nature journals force us to slow down, observe, inquire, and appreciate the world around us.

Nature journals work in a variety of outdoor settings – parks, forests, streams, ponds, your backyard – anywhere. Journaling can happen during a simple 15-minute walk around the backyard or it can take the form of a two hour morning hike through a forest. Nature journaling is a popular activity for parents to do with their kids on a slow weekend afternoon or during the summer holidays when they want to give their kids more of a focused activity. In this post, we’re going to talk about implementing nature journaling in the classroom as part of an inquiry activity for students to engage in.


Benefits of Nature Journaling

There are plenty of benefits that come from nature journaling:

  • Provides students with time to connect to the natural environment
  • Promotes creativity, self-expression, and inquiry learning
  • Builds deeper, more peaceful memories of the natural world
  • Encourages students to observe the natural environment and notice things they might not have before
  • Helps students focus on the “bigger picture” as well as its smaller components
  • Allows students to see nature from a different perspective and ask better questions
  • Gives students time to relax, refocus, slow down, and breathe calmly
  • Provides an opportunity to get outside and breathe in fresh air
  • Activates and brings awareness to the senses such as sight, sound, smell, and touch


Nature Journaling and Inquiry Learning

Nature journaling is inherently related to inquiry learning in a few ways:

1) It involves continual observation and reflection

2) Being in nature prompts questions and discussion about broader interconnected subjects

3) Journaling involves recording and referencing, much like inquiry does

Particularly with schools set to re-open in Ontario next month, many teachers are looking for ways to take their students outside and give them something different to do, while still sticking to curriculum objectives. Nature journaling is a perfect way to accomplish both of these things.


Inquiry Questions to Consider:

While it can be done at any time, nature journaling is a fun activity to incorporate into the beginning of an inquiry unit. Some inquiry questions that support nature journaling include:

  • How does an environment function?
  • Does our understanding of the environment affect how we interact with it?
  • What would happen if biodiversity began to shrink?
  • Why is it important to take care of our environment?
  • Where do our resources and energy come from?
  • What happens when we disturb an ecosystem?
  • How does the environment affect our bodies?
  • What does a “perfect, balanced” environment look like?
  • How does nature heal us?
  • Why should people care more about nature?


Click here to download a free PDF with more great questions about nature and the environment.


In addition to asking these questions, students might be interested in learning about famous scientists, naturalists, and philosophers who used nature journaling. Some of these folks include Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, and Rachel Carson. Many of their groundbreaking observations were recorded in their journals!

Learn more about how to teach effective questioning skills to students.


Planning for Nature Journaling

When you’re planning your next nature inquiry and how to incorporate nature journaling, explore the following steps to help guide you through the process:


1. Choose or create a nature journal:

The journal you choose for your students should be a dedicated journal that is entirely devoted to observing nature and understanding what’s happening outside. You want to strike a balance between a solid, high-quality journal and cost efficiency. Buying a $50 journal for 30 students isn’t practical! Here are a few suggestions:

Kids Nature Journal: 102 pages, 8” x 10”, geared towards students aged 6-12
Nature Journal for Little Explorers: 100+ pages, 8.5” x 11”, includes a field guide
Nature Log: 100+ pages, 8.5” x 11”, ideal for little hands to hold easily

Alternatively, purchasing sturdy spiral notebooks and letting students design their own is a great way to get creative and see what types of things your students are interested in observing and sketching.


2. Set realistic goals:

Some nature journals are absolutely gorgeous! But that doesn’t mean you should expect beautifully proportioned and masterfully shaded sketches in your students’ books. Try not to let your students’ focus be on making everything look pretty. They should be opening their journals with the intention of discovering something new and recording what they see. Ask your students the following questions:

  • Do you want to get better at identifying different flowers, birds, and trees?
  • What types of insects and animals do you hope to see?
  • What makes you curious about the weather?
  • Do you want to know more about the rivers, streams, and ponds?
  • What colours, shapes, and patterns do you see in nature?
  • Are you curious about the benefits of connecting with nature?

Give your students time to reflect on what gets them personally excited about nature and the environment, and give them time to jot some of those reflections down.


3. Focus on the process, not the end result:

Students might think that once they begin observing and sketching that their work will need to be perfect – proportional, coloured in perfectly, and done as neatly as possible. Try to encourage students to focus on capturing what they see, hear, feel, and smell and the process involved in recording these things as opposed to making sure their observations are recorded perfectly. Rarely are nature journals perfectly put together and students shouldn’t feel like theirs needs to be perfect. However, this can take a lot of adjustment, especially if the students are used to producing their absolute best work and aren’t used to making many mistakes. Having a growth mindset can be helpful in combating this.


Cross-Curricular Inquiry Connections

Nature journaling provides so many opportunities to help students to not only connect with nature, but with other subjects as well. It also provides opportunities to discuss the impacts nature journaling can have on student learning and the ways they are used in various professions today.

For example, you might discuss with students the importance of maintaining a journal as a learning aid. The more reflection students do, the more they will see the benefits of taking time to reflect on their learning. Nature journals are also beneficial as writing prompts; students can choose a drawing from theirs or another students’ journal and write something creative.

Helping students see that nature journals have been used by ship captains, scientists, naturalists, botanists, pilots, and explorers might inspire them to keep up with theirs. Furthermore, explaining that nature journals are still widely used by artists, scientists, and sociologists, among other professions, might encourage students to make journaling a habit.

For a copy of the curriculum web seen above, click here to download!

Art

Sketching and drawing in a nature journal are natural ways to record observations. Artistically-inclined students may enjoy using their journaling time to experiment with different kinds of drawing, such as realism, illustrative art, geometric drawing, or perspective drawing. Nature journaling gives them the chance to play around with light and shadow, colours, textures, and tiny details that otherwise might have been missed. Furthermore, students who love art might really enjoy leaf or petal rubbing to capture a plant’s texture, or experimenting with different media such as pencil crayon, watercolour, or charcoal.


Science

Back in the classroom, give students some time to research what they observed. Perhaps they’d like to focus their attention on classifying different flowers or insects, or developing questions about the weather’s effects on nature. Further yet, students may have a question they want answered, and so might be compelled to design a research project based on these questions and observations. For example, why do rivers freeze in the winter? Or, how does a rabbit adapt to the changing seasons? Additionally, science-minded students might like to include details like the latitude and longitude of the location they’re visiting, as well as the ground and air temperatures, weather, etc.


Language Arts

Students may feel more inclined to express their observations as meaningful poems or short stories instead of using art as the primary form of expression. Encourage literary-inclined students to write a poem about the colours, smells, and feelings of fall, or write about an experience they had outdoors (playing a sport, stargazing, or sitting by a body of water). Perhaps students may want to compose an acrostic poem to capture the words that come to their mind while journaling, or maybe they find it relaxing to create a thought cloud filled with words that capture the feelings of being outside in nature. It is important to provide choice to students when nature journaling, and this is simply another creative outlet for them.


STEM

For your more mathematically-inclined students, encourage them to graph any sounds they heard based on loudness, frequency, or distance. This may take a few sessions to compile and complete! Perhaps they’d like to jot down ideas about how to construct a community garden or natural shelter to preserve wildflowers or a threatened species. Furthermore, investigating maps of the areas they visit could spark an investigation about distances, site planning, and measurement. Back in the classroom, students who enjoy working with numbers and data might enjoy creating and presenting graphs about sounds, quantities, distances, and capacities they find in nature, and can highlight nature from a different perspective.


History

Exploring the history of the area you’re visiting with students can be an exciting way to bring the area to life before students even set foot there. Alternatively, exploring a site’s history upon returning to school might prompt students to examine their own drawings from the area and make sense of their work in a historical context. Using photos and information, students may choose to create their interpretation of what the site might have looked like 10, 100, or 1,000 years ago, or perhaps contrast the site 100 years ago to what it looked like when they visited. Another activity could involve visiting a farm or housing development to find out about land-use or environmental issues affecting that area. This could include examining how development has affected families of insects or animals, migration patterns for birds and other wildlife, and how development has affected access to resources such as water.


Music

Students might enjoy recording all the sounds they hear from a particular site. Listen for sounds such as a trickling stream, a tweeting bird, snapping branches, the wind through the leaves of a large tree, little insects, and other nature sounds. Students may find it useful to carry a recording device so they can replay the sounds at any time. Encourage students to develop a picture of the chosen site solely on the sounds they hear. Perhaps they’d like to create a song or instrumental piece that evokes that particular place. This could be a fun idea to get students thinking more about the layers of sounds that nature provides, and focus on one sense at a time during their visit.


Tips for Students Beginning Nature Journaling:

  • Always start by putting a date, time, and location. Include any other details you think are important or significant (the weather, the season, if the site is full of people, etc)
  • Begin by getting comfortable and taking a few deep breaths. Close your eyes if you want to and take in your surroundings. Take note of what you hear, smell, and touch.
  • Look around and see what catches your eye first. Maybe it’s the texture of the tree in front of you, or maybe it’s the feeling of a soft petal brushing against your leg.
  • Do a few quick sketches, noting its colour, size, and any interesting features. If you know the type of flower, tree, insect, etc, jot down that information as well
  • Keep your journal with you and add to it frequently.
  • Remember: You don’t need to be “good” at drawing to use a nature journal.
  • When you get more confident, experiment with other mediums. Instead of sketching one day, try using watercolours, pencil crayons, or ink. Experiment frequently to determine what you enjoy using.
  • Check in with yourself often: What else could I observe? Is there anything I haven’t thought of? What else am I curious about? Could I draw a map to remember this? What else is happening around me? What’s happening with the plants/trees/birds? Are there any patterns around me? What’s happening with the weather and how is that changing the landscape? What is all of this telling me? Why is this important?


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