Nature journaling is an immensely rewarding pursuit for both parent and child. In Charlotte Mason’s own words:
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?
Home Education Vol. 1, p. 61
Today I would like to share with you my top five tips to help you in keeping a nature journal.
- Choose a journal that you will enjoy using.
There are so many different sketchbooks and journals on the market, it can be really quite confusing. The main points to consider would be:
Paper texture and weight
Choose the paper, according to the media you will be using in your journal.
Hot-pressed paper has a very smooth surface. This is actually the paper in my current journal. It is great for writing on, and using with coloured pencils, but tends to not be that great with watercolour; the paint can be quite difficult to control.
Cold-pressed paper (sometimes referred to as Not paper) has a more versatile, slightly ‘toothy’ surface which will work well with both ink, coloured pencils, and light watercolour washes.
Lastly, there is Rough paper, which has a much ‘toothier’ surface & will cope with lots of lovely, juicy paint.
Paper is a very personal preference. I often use quite wet washes in my journals, but often the paper I favour is extremely smooth, which makes no sense at all!
Play around with different papers to get a feel for what you and your child prefer to work on, but if you are starting out, I would suggest going for a cold-pressed paper to begin with, as you experiment with different media.
The thickness of paper is indicated by its weight, and is measured either in grams per square metre (gsm) or pounds per ream (lb).The papers that are most frequently used tend to be:
90 lb (190 gsm) Found in many sketchbooks, may buckle with a watercolour wash.
140 lb (300 gsm) Tends to be used for finished watercolour paintings, but will still buckle if not taped down
300 lb (638 gsm) Extremely heavy-weigh paper. does not buckle
Journal size & shape
Journals are available in all shapes & sizes, from tiny, palm-sized sketchbooks, through to huge 24″x36″ affairs! Usually rectangular, in either portrait or landscape formation, they can also be found in a square format. Try to buy from an art shop if possible, rather than online, then both you and your child can hold the books in your hands to see which feels most naturally comfortable. Your preferences may change as you progress in your nature journaling journey.
Wire bound or hardbound is again a personal preference. I find the wire bindings get in my way, however wire bound books have the ability to lay the book flat with ease, or fold the covers back completely.
- Let go of perfectionism!
Do not let yourself or your child be caught up in creating the ‘perfect’ nature journal page (whatever that may be!) Keep in your mind the thought that nature study is science rather than art, it may help a little! Observe closely and record what you see, not what you think you see.
Often people feel very nervous beginning a new journal. The pressure of the first blank page! Many journalers leave the first couple of pages blank, and begin with their first entry on the second, even third page. You can go back and work on that first page another time, or use it for lists, such as local wildflowers, birds, daily temperatures, or use the first page as a testing space for new paint colours, pens or coloured pencils.
If something goes awry in your journal, please don’t ever tear out a disappointing page from your journal. Everyone has them and tearing it out will weaken and damage your book. Instead, there are other possibilities. Learn how to correct the mistake; what went wrong, how can it be fixed? Making mistakes is the fastest way to progress in learning something new. You could simply begin a new sketch right there on the page with the old one. Or, if worst comes to the worst, stick a photograph, seed packet, or clipping from a wildlife article of the offending page. Just never tear out a page. Never give up on your journal, and it will never give up on you!
- What to include in your nature journal
Here are some details that are helpful to include in your journal:
• The location
• Time of day (or night!)
• A brief note on the weather. I usually draw a small rectangle next to the above details and make a quick sketch to represent the weather, rather than writing about it.
• Once you have sketched your subject, be sure to label it, though this may need to wait until you have looked up your subject in your field guide.
More advanced ideas:
• Latin names of subjects
• Notes on sketches – you may want to include further details, such as notes on textures, or position etc.
• Pressed flowers or leaves
• Passages of scripture
• Poetry – use the weekly poems as a starting point.
• Lists – insects, wild flowers, mammals, trees, whatever appeals to you, the journal keeper.
Please do not get overwhelmed at this point. The essence of nature journaling is to get out of doors, observe and then sketch something in nature, label and date the sketch. That’s it! If you do this consistently, you cannot help but to learn about the world around you and improve your own recording / sketching skills. If you would like ideas of what to study on a seasonal basis, with all the information you need for basic study, please take a look at my book Exploring Nature With Children. It has helped many, many families make nature study happen on a regular basis.
- Work in your journal regularly
Dare I suggest daily? The benefits of regular nature study are many;
Learning about the natural world around you
Spending just five to ten minutes a day observing nature is all you need to build your local knowledge. Can’t find time daily? Try just once a week. It is the regularity that will make the difference, noticing the changing seasons, the movement of the sun in the sky, the shape of the moon, when the apple tree blossoms, and so forth.
Connection the the natural world
How connected children feel to nature develops deeply-held feelings and attitudes towards wildlife and the world we all live in.
The formation of habit
“The habits of the child produce the character of the man.” Charlotte Mason
- Improving skills
To reiterate what has been said above; the consistency of spending a small but regular time with your journals, out of doors will greatly improve the skills of both you and your child. Observing nature closely, and drawing what you see (not what you think you see) is essential to building drawing skills. And vice versa; drawing will build observation skills.
“It is only what we have truly seen that we can truly reproduce; hence, observation is enormously trained by art-teaching.” Charlotte Mason
7 thoughts on “Keeping a Nature Journal”
Lovely post, very clear, very encouraging. Just to add a personal note about regularity, before we started exploring nature with children we were regular nature goers, but it was more hit and miss. Since starting with you we have found the effects build on themselves, we have gone from once a week to daily observers. In fact, a day where nature has not been observed is a day wasted.
I have just completed my sketch for today, as I become more confident that is speedier too. My sketch was a couple of primroses my daughter brought in from the garden, so it works for her too. I would also like to add if you do miss a planned session, don’t worry just carry on anyway.
Oh yes, the paper is so important, I thought we had found a cheap journal we liked and worked for us but they have changed it, not so good now. We prefer cartridge paper for watercolours, as long as you don’t make it too wet. Cut the pictures out then stick them in.
Thank you Jenny for your thoughtful comment. It is such a blessing to hear how my book is making a small difference for you & your family.
That is so disappointing when companies change the paper in their journals.
We’ve neglected our journals for the past couple of months for many reasons. But as I see green shoots coming up and birds singing, the itch to return to nature is overtaking me. Thank you for giving me even more desire to begin again.
It is a lovely time of year to spend time nature journaling, isn’t it. Thanks for taking the time to comment.
This has been inspiring. My son loves being outside in nature but trying to capture his discoveries has been difficult for him. He gets frustrated and writes “We went on rafts on the river,” or ” I held my friends snake, it is changing it’s skin.” Besides me dictating to him how can I expand his journalling. He does have some physical challenges and is nearly 13. We have some unfinished sketches ( I took photos to capture the scene) he doesn’t want to finish. I like the examples of a branch or flower with their writing. Julie
Thank you Julie. Let me think on this; I feel a blog post coming on 🙂