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The Secret of the Nature Notebook

September 22 2019/Sonya Shafer/

“Where do I find a nature notebook?”

“What does it look like?”

“How do we go about creating a nature notebook? Is there a template somewhere?”

Questions like these cross my desk regularly. So let’s reveal the secret of the mysterious nature notebook. The secret is: it’s empty. That’s right. When you first get a nature notebook, it will be empty. A nature notebook is simply a blank notebook with stiff covers and heavy paper for writing, drawing, and painting. A sketchbook works well.

If you need some guidance or ideas of what kinds of things to look for during each season, you will find weekly prompts in Journaling a Year in Nature. That nature notebook is not completely blank, but it gives you lots of room to record your findings in writing and in illustrations, and that’s the key. Stiff covers, heavy paper, and lots of space.

Give each child his or her own nature notebook, and get one for yourself too. Susan Schaeffer Macaulay put it this way:

“If possible, it is good for the teacher (or parent) to keep a nature notebook, too; it is a life we live together” (For the Children’s Sake, Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, p. 135).

Then whenever you go outside to do nature study, make an entry or two in your notebooks. One mom I know got personal little satchels that are just the right size to hold a nature journal and some colored pencils or a small, portable watercolor paint kit. Each child can wear his satchel cross-body style, hands free, as he explores, yet keep his nature notebook close at his fingertips for whenever he sees something he wants to record.

What does he record? Charlotte Mason explained:

“As soon as he is able to keep it himself, a nature-diary is a source of delight to a child. Every day’s walk gives him something to enter: three squirrels in a larch tree, a jay flying across such a field, a caterpillar climbing up a nettle, a snail eating a cabbage leaf, a spider dropping suddenly to the ground, where he found ground ivy, how it was growing and what plants were growing with it, how bindweed or ivy manages to climb” (Home Education, p. 54).

Record in your nature notebook:

  • the date,
  • what you see,
  • where you see it, and
  • any other observations from nature. Then
  • embellish your notes with illustrations. And
  • add appropriate poetry or quotations or Scripture, as desired.

Charlotte’s students also kept a running list of birds and flowers they saw throughout the year.

Older, more experienced students can include data for any personal nature experiments they want to perform and observe.

In other words, make the notebook your own. Each child can enter whatever he prefers; they don’t all have to be the same. In fact, each nature notebook will be different — and that’s okay.

These notebooks are designed to help cultivate within your child the joy of nature and discovery, not to become a source of irritation, frustration, or competition. If your child finds writing difficult, offer to write his comments in his notebook as he dictates them. And whatever you do, don’t grade or correct a nature notebook!

“The children keep a dated record of what they see in their nature note-books, which are left to their own management and are not corrected. These note-books are a source of pride and joy, and are freely illustrated by drawings (brushwork) of twig, flower, insect, etc.” (School Education, p. 236).

If you would like to see a sample of a beautiful nature notebook, take a look at The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden. This book is a replica of a 1906 nature notebook that contains dated entries, detailed illustrations, and selected poetry and quotes. A word to the wise: look at it for inspiration, not for comparison. Edith was an art student, and it shows in her exquisite paintings. If looking at her entries makes you or your child feel inadequate, put it away!

You might also enjoy Clare Walker Leslie’s books on nature journaling. Her Keeping a Nature Journal does a fabulous job of taking any perceived pressure off the process and encouraging you to pour your own personality into your notebook. Her pages look entirely different from Edith Holden’s, and that’s as it should be; they are two entirely different naturalists.

And so are you and your children. Your nature notebooks will become “a source of pride and joy” as you each, one entry at a time, transform your blank journal into a personal reflection of your own nature experiences and growing interest in God’s creation around you.

Next time we’ll talk about how to pair nature study with its other half: living science books.

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