Nature Journaling — Learning to Become Good Observers


One of the most effective ways to teach observation skills is through nature journaling.  Nature journaling is the process of keeping a place-based record of events, experiences and observations of the outdoors. The act of going outside and being mindful of their surroundings will help students focus and pay greater attention to detail. Using their senses to notice sounds, smells and sights will immerse them in the experience and awaken curiosity in a way that working indoors does not.  
Leaving cell phones inside is essential!  One of the key goals of nature journaling is to fine tune observation skills. Digital distractions take away from these experiences.  

Indoors – Observational Warm Ups:
Drawing a nature item from memory is fun as well as a great way to teach observation skills.  It’s a quick and easy classroom activity that can be used before heading outdoors:

Gather a number of natural items: Pine cones, stones, feathers, shells, acorns, leaves, etc. 
     1.     Have your students each pick one item and bring it to their desks.  Students will then study that item for 3 minutes (timed). 
     2.     Students should then return the items and remove them from sight. 
     3.     Once they are back at their desks, ask them to draw the item from memory in 3 minutes (timed).
     4.     Now, give the students back their item and have them compare what they drew to what they remembered! 
     5.     Share your experience with the class.

Another effective exercise is the following writing prompt:
     1.     Select an item from nature and spend 10 minutes writing about it without using any words that will give away what the item is,
              and without naming the object.
     2.     Read your entry to a partner who has not seen your item.
     3.     Have the partner guess what your item is.
     4.     Have your partner read their entry and you guess what it is.







Incorporating Language Arts:  Place for Poetry  
Haikus are excellent ways to describe feelings and senses in nature. Give your students a nature topic and spend 15 minutes writing haikus in their journals about that topic. 

​How to Get Started Outdoors
​Nature journals don’t have to be fancy.  Unlined paper folded and stapled into a booklet with a construction paper cover works fine!  You can allow your students to make their own binding by punching two holes in the tops of folded paper, treading a rubber band through the holes and wrapping the band around a small stick. Pencils and colored pencils are necessary.  Gather these supplies and plan to spend approximately 15-30 minutes outside.  









The basis for every journal entry should include:

  1. Date, time and place of the entry
  2. An indication of what the weather is like
  3. A simple site map (so you know where you are)
  4. A sketch of the item
  5. A label of that item ​

Once your students have explored an outside area for a few minutes, have them choose an item to record in their journal.  Remind them of the indoor drawing exercise and instruct them to notice as much detail as possible.  Perhaps prompt them to write down:

  • One word to describe something they heard.
  • Two words for something they saw.
  • Three words for something they felt.

Another way to frame each entry is to have students answer the following queries in the observations:

  • I notice…
  • I wonder…
  • It reminds me of…










These reflections can help students make connections with a place, allowing the nature journal to become both an intellectual and a personal expression.  

As learning tools, nature journals are flexible. This method of hands-on learning uses both writing and drawing along with scientific observation. Earth science, social studies, physical education, math, art and language arts are linked by nature journaling.  Keeping a nature journal can be a powerful experience because it helps the observers slow down, carefully take note of their surroundings, make first-hand, concrete observations of nature.

​Nature Journaling is an exercise in mindfulness that will slow down the day and help you to focus.  I would highly encourage all teachers and leaders to journal alongside their students to enjoy the benefits of this simple practice!

Keeping a Nature Journal
          by Clare Walker Leslie & Charles E. Roth 
The Law’s Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling
          by John Muir Laws
The Outside Story, Volume 2
          by Northern Woodlands Staff
How to Teach Nature Journaling — Video Workshop

Composed by Mary Ellen Kelly 



Contact with questions or comments.