Kelsey Chandler Bird
Frederick County Public Schools

Nature journaling, also known as field journaling, is something that I do with students, who range from 6-9 years old, weekly to enhance their understanding of the natural environment around them, get them outside, and explore skills they do not always use within the classroom. Last year, I noticed that students were having a difficult time feeling comfortable in nature because they had preconceived biases about different the species that they would encounter, such as ants or bees. This year, since going outside weekly, they are finding insect larvae and studying them intently without any negative feelings, rather, a sense of curiosity and care. Johnson (2014) wrote, “Nature experiences at school may be a child’s primary exposure to her natural world and the place where important bonds and ideals are formed” (p. 129). These experiences form the mentality that children will have about nature for the rest of their lives. Early on, negative feelings about nature can be replaced with positive feelings through increased exposure and knowledge.

Nature journaling is a cross curricular practice that incorporates art, science, language – both reading and writing, math, geography, and can also include other areas of study. Students learn to identify various species and their characteristics, measure them, and observe patterns. They learn to make maps of the environment around them, observe, write about what they see, think critically about environmental issues, and do further research when they ask questions about what they observe. Johnson (2014) added, “The idea of facilitating active ‘transcendent’ natural experiences, rather than passive presentations of facts, encourages further thought about how experiential learning and outdoor activities spark wonder and systems thinking” (p. 128). Nature journaling facilitates all important mental processes in a way that naturally develops these skills, while also integrating concepts that teachers would typically teach in the classroom, but in an experiential manner.

Students who may struggle within the classroom because of attention or behaviors may find that they have no trouble outside where they are free to move and explore. Outside, their engagement and sense of wonder is heightened. For example, one student who has difficulty with engagement in the classroom discovered that they could make a rainbow with their clear ruler by letting the light hit it just right. They then sat and drew the concept on paper, including all the colors that they saw. Two students who struggle with focus inside the classroom discovered they could spin acorns like a top. Another student who can be physical with others found joy in cracking open an acorn to see what was inside. For nature journaling to be a successful and engaging experience for all learners, the teacher must prepare the environment and equip the students with the tools needed for exploration, observation, and documentation.

How to Implement Nature Journaling with Students

The wonderful thing about beginning nature journaling is it does not require many resources, and it is an equitable opportunity for all students. Even with limited supplies and limited space, students can begin observing nature, whether with bird feeders and potted plants, or well-established green spaces. Local parks can also provide additional spaces for observation. Just as you prepare an environment for learning within the classroom, the outdoor environment also must be prepared. It must be seen as separate from recess and other outdoor experiences. The teacher must prepare the students with the tools needed, and the teacher should be prepared to teach in the outdoor environment. Below are some helpful tips that have helped with my success in bringing students outside:

  • Provide a dedicated journal without lines.
  • Model how to use the journal.
  • Include time, place, weather, and any other data points.
  • Provide tools for successful journaling, such as rulers, microscopes, collection containers for observation, colored pencils, and field guides, if possible.
  • Take students to a familiar area for repeated observation, beginning to explore new areas once students are comfortable with the process.
  • Set safety procedures and expectations such as boundaries, first aid, and poisonous/venomous species.
  • Encourage the students to focus on various aspects of journaling as they progress, such as noticing changes in the seasons or perspective.
  • Model questioning and use of resources to obtain answers.

Most importantly, support students in the process by getting at their level and discovering with them rather than telling them what to observe. Johnson (2014) advised, “During designated nature journal time, teachers are encouraged to join the children at their children’s own learning levels. The teacher no longer has to have all the answers! Together, the adult and child are the students and nature becomes their teacher.” (p. 133) Through this experience, the teacher also can learn about the students’ perspectives and thought processes, as well as experience the awe with them rather than bestowing it on them. Nature journaling is an opportunity for students to discover for themselves the beauty of the world around them.

Johnson, K. (2014). Creative connecting: Early childhood nature journaling sparks wonder and develops ecological literacy.” International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 2(1), 126-139.