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The Nature Journal as a Tool for Learning

by Karen Matsumoto

"To see a wren in a bush, call it "wren," and go on walking is to have (self-importantly) seen nothing. To see a bird and stop, watch, feel, forget yourself for a moment, be in the bushy shadows, maybe then feel "wren"-- that is to have joined in a larger moment with the world." -
- Gary Snyder, Language Goes Two Ways, 1995.

Recent research has shown that American children are woefully ignorant of world geography and other areas of basic knowledge. This lack often extends to local geography as well. Although we look out on a familiar, nearly memorized landscape that we call home many of us would not be able to describe-- much less name-- the street trees in front of our own houses or apartments. It is difficult for a person to care deeply about anything that he or she hasn't experienced or doesn't know much about. It is unrealistic to expect our children to care about their neighborhoods, much less the earth, if we haven't taught them to see it and to feel what it means to them. Recording observations and feelings in a field journal can be a powerful way for students to get to know their natural community and the geography of their home environment, so that they can develop that sense of caring commitment.

There is a growing interest in keeping journals for science and data collection, which can be useful to students for recording experiments and scientific observations. A nature or "field" journal can be much more than a record of scientific facts, however. It can include an on-going record of observations from a specific location or over the seasons, and a reminder of where and when to look for particular wildflowers or birds. It can also be a way to save your memories and feelings about nature experiences to keep them fresh in your mind and enable you to share them with others in the future. A nature journal that includes drawings and narrative, as well as a record of a student's thoughts and feelings, can help to tie together science and art, and provide opportunities for creativity and reflection.

The use of nature journals is not new. Lewis and Clark and, later, naturalist Thomas Nuttall used them extensively during their explorations of the northwest. The nature journals of Ernest Thompson Seton, John Muir, and Beatrix Potter are examples of the tradition of using narrative and art in combination to communicate keen and careful observations.

Field journals make nature the subject, and use observation, reflection, drawing, and writing as the process for learning. As your students observe and record nature through drawing and writing, they can get to know an area intimately and personally. They will use both intellectual and sensory "ways of knowing" that can be both more immediate and deeper than "left-brain" data collection skills alone.

In my experience working with children, I have found that the act of drawing and writing helps students to see and know nature through attention to and expression of their feelings. Feelings are a part of learning; it is now known that feelings are essential to deep understanding and sound decision making. Because attitudinal, emotional, and aesthetic considerations are important for growth and development, journals can be a good vehicle for "starting where children are." Rachel Carson, naturalist and writer, suggested that feelings help start the process of children wanting to know (1956). "Once the emotions have been aroused - a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration, or love - then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found it has lasting meaning."

My own first experiences with nature journals were a little daunting, since I felt intimidated by my limited skill in drawing and humiliating memories of past experiences in grade school. This may be true for many students, but we don't expect students to be able to write or to master mathematics without instruction, practice, and time. Anyone can learn to draw, make accurate and insightful observations, and record their feelings about the world given basic instruction and time to practice. It is important to help students understand that no one starts out as an expert. Moreover, nature journaling is primarily intended to support the development of observation skills, not artistic creation. The drawings serve the purpose of encouraging close attention and providing visual evidence of what the student has observed and learned, and create a running visual record of their experiences. It is important to let students know that their drawings can be significant and informative even if they "don't look good".

There are several kinds of journals that I have found useful:

  • Grinnell-type journals are popular among biologists worldwide. They have two parts: they generally include daily accounts of observations at a location, combined with a running record of individual species of plants or animals.
  • A phenology journal is an account of seasonal changes that affect plants and animals in a given location, and the biological effects of those changes. This can be an on-going journal, or it can be as simple as recording events on a calendar.
  • A journal of a special location is intended to create a comprehensive account of the natural history of a limited area such as a park or schoolyard, and might include observations of weather, plants, animals, species interactions, and human-caused changes.
  • A chronological journal of a trip or camp experience can include many types of observations and feelings, and will provide a personal account of an experience from the point of view of a single observer.

Getting started is not difficult since journaling can be done with very simple and inexpensive materials and equipment. Begin by supplying students with plain paper, #2 pencils, felt-tipped markers, a clipboard, and field guides. Encourage students to practice copying from field guide illustrations to help them learn about local flora and fauna, as well as to practice drawing.

Students should be encouraged to record a standard set of information when out in the field to document their experiences accurately. This will enable your students to compare written notes from year to year to see if there have been any changes, and can provide an accurate record of when and where the best wildlife sightings have occurred. Since many plants and animals that are observed today may become rare within a lifetime, students may cherish these recorded observations from their past. The nature journal will provide a clear record of thoughts and feelings about an area that memory alone could not. If you can't get outside, journaling skills can be practiced in the classroom. I have seen journal entries made from observations out of classroom windows! Another alternative is to bring the outside "inside" with objects from nature, such as animal skulls, pine cones, leaves, or shells.

The basic information that should be recorded for any observation includes:

  • the date
  • the location
  • the time
  • weather conditions
  • vegetation characteristics
  • human impacts and disturbance.

Students should be supported in learning to know and express what they feel, and should come to see that there is no "right way" to respond to nature.

Learning to be accurate and specific in our habits of observation and recording is not arbitrary. Robert Michael Pyle, naturalist and writer, frames the problem with some approaches to environmental education like this: "Instead of the names and traits of different species, EE tends to concentrate on the 'big picture' of ecological roles, functions, habitats, relationships, and patterns. Laudable goals, except it is like watching a play with no cast list! And is therefore liable to seem meaningless." What we know, we may choose to care for. What we fail to recognize, we certainly won't (2001)." Nature journaling helps students see that the world is not meaningless and that their own observations and feelings are important.

Nature journaling is a proven way to help children become aware of the environment around them and to develop their sense of connection with it.

About the Author

During her 25 years in environmental education, Karen Matsumoto, M.Ed.has worked as a naturalist for the National Park Service, an elementary and middle school teacher and university instructor, a natural resource consultant, and a Master Gardener Program coordinator.  She is currently Science Coordinator at IslandWood.

She loves to write, draw, and field sketch with children and teachers and has taught nature journaling and science workshops for 10 years. Education: B.S. in Conservation of Natural Resources, University of California, Berkeley; Teaching Credential, University of California, Los Angeles; M.Ed. in Instructional Design / Technology, Utah State University; Certificate in Scientific Illustration, University of Washington. You may contact Karen at


Images of field journals by
Ernest Thompson Seton and Henry Fairfield Osborn
© The American Museum of Natural History,
not to be used for commercial purposes,
and not to be placed in the public domain. 

© May 2003 New Horizons for Learning
P O Box 31876
Seattle WA 98103 USA

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