Experiencing nature is deeply rooted to touching, smelling, seeing, hearing and tasting. We may not be able to see the bird in the tree, but we know it is there because we can hear its call. There is no better taste than wild blackberries in the summer. The sight of unusual or rare wildlife can create memories and connections that last a lifetime. The smells you take in as you walk down a trail or towards the water’s edge can give you a sense of the time of year, if wildlife is near or, perhaps in some urban locations, if you should continue in that direction or not.
The point is that we humans, no matter what age, navigate the world using our senses. When we use those sense in nature, we are connecting with deep, primal instincts. Reflecting on these experiences through nature journaling can reinforce what we may not realize we are learning, help us make sense of the world around us, and spark new passions and curiosities. The six ideas listed below will get your child started on documenting their experiences in nature. And you never know—one of the ideas might transform an everyday nature experience into a year-long investigation. One way or another, these are great activities for children to further engage in the natural world.
1. The Sit Spot
Jon Young, author of What the Robin Knows, writes about what is known as the “sit-spot” This powerful technique of using one spot and observing all the subtle ways nature can look, smell, sound, and feel in any given moment can connect children and adults of all ages to their local environment more deeply than what any guide can show or what any class can teach. Young’s book is technical and not intended for children; however, an adult can easily adapt the lessons learned in What the Robin Knows to engage a child.
Young’s online archive of bird sounds will help your child to focus on certain sounds birds make. For example, use his archive and listen with your child to sound clips of the cardinal. Then, go to your “sit-spot” (out in the backyard or a local park) to try to listen for the cardinal’s chirp. Next, try to actually see the cardinal after you hear it. Making that connection can be very empowering for a child. Use this system to create a bird journal. Here’s a birding journal for children that can help them document their experiences.
When children get that first experience recognizing a bird sound or call, and then seeing it, it can create an instant feeling of success and children begin to see themselves as connected to nature in a deeper way.
Young’s sit spot can be a place to make daily, weekly, or monthly journal entries. Maybe there are plants in the area that can be measured. With a weather station strategically placed in the sit-spot, weather observations and tracking can be a great way to document nature’s ebbs and flows throughout the season. The journaling topic depends on the location of the sit-spot.
Lastly, Young writes generally about how to see more wildlife. He writes about the ways we move in nature that are less disruptive. He even gives a few specific activities that children can do to become more aware of their place in the ecosystem. In addition, an adult reading Young’s work can be better prepared to point out the wildlife that children may overlook and, therefore, open up more unique journaling opportunities. I’ve never met an outdoor educator who was not aware of Young’s What the Robin Knows, and that is mostly because of how incredibly useful it is for someone working in a natural setting.
2. Nature Journal Prompts
A great way to get younger children started on nature journaling is to give them prompts to use all year round. It could start with a question about snow in the winter, leaves in the fall, or thunderstorms in the summer. Lynn Sedon of the blog, Raising Little Shoots, has created an excellent book of journal prompts titled, Exploring Nature Around the Year: 365 Days of Nature Journaling. This great resource gives children who need a little help getting started an opportunity to focus on specific aspects of nature. There is even a sample of the book that you can download to test it out to see if it works for your child.
3. Species Log (plants or animals)
A colleague from my early teaching career once told me a story that showcased a sad aspect of traditional education. As a student, she had created a catalogue of frogs in her science notebook. On each page she had drawn a picture of a new frog species and written about its adaptations, its food, its habitats, whether or not it was poisonous, and other species-specific details. Unfortunately, because this wasn’t in the curriculum, her teacher made her take out the pages. Luckily, my friend was not discouraged and continued on to a well-established career in biology. However, it goes to show that it is not unusual for children to be drawn to documenting things that interest them—for some it might be sports statistics, for others, the natural world.
To get started on creating a species log, give your child one thing to focus on during a hike— one thing they are interested in. It could be insects, plants low to the ground, or trees high up. Casey Trees has a terrific catalogue of species that can get a child started on identifying and cataloging common DC trees.
As children love to collect things, have them collect leaves and press them into a notebook. Bring along a children’s tree identification book to help while you’re out. Bring a notebook and do a bark rub using a piece of paper and a crayon and become closer to the trees!
4. Waterproof papers and pencils
Sometimes all it takes to get a child excited about journaling is a fancy new journal. Here are some great examples created by a company called Rite-in-the-Rain. This can be a fun way to encourage children to go outside and observe nature when it’s raining. Or, given how easily children are drawn to water, give them a chance to explore a local creek for water insects. Have them use their waterproof notebook to draw all the aquatic insects they find or fish they catch.
5. Creating sound maps
Creating sound maps can be a great exercise in both listening and orienteering. Children sit in one spot with a piece of paper and mark an X to represent where they are sitting. They then listen quietly for as long as they can, marking all the things they hear around them.
For example, if they hear a rustle in the brush behind them, they should try to either transcribe that sound into words or draw a picture of what they hear just below the X. If they hear a bird chirp in front of them, they would do the same in front of the X.
Here is a great video that clearly shows how to make a sound map with your child or group of children. There is also a link at the end of the video for a sound map template that can be printed out and brought with you into the natural landscape.
6. Wait for something to happen
Nature journaling doesn’t have to be all science and documentation. It can be creative and artistic too. Bloggers at The Art of Simple have written a piece about nature journaling that lists a number of easy going activities that can be done in the backyard or from a park bench.
Take the bullet points that they have listed and write each one down on a piece of paper. Have your child randomly choose one and send them out, charged with a nature journaling task for the day.
But, you can also simply go outside with your child, give them a notebook and a pencil and wait for something interesting to happen. It almost always does.
That may be all you need to spark a naturalist’s flame. Good luck!