Over the past year, the time we spend outside has increased, and so has my appreciation of nature. I used to just look- but now I see. I see the different shades on the petal of a flower, and the shapes that compose a tree’s sprawling branch. The habit of observation has finally struck me. It fills me with joy to think that it most likely won’t take 34 years for my children to develop this habit. I decided to start a family nature journal with them so that we can share and remember these beautiful experiences together.
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What is a Family Nature Journal?
A nature journal is something that Charlotte Mason recommended children keep to beautifully record the intricacies of nature.
As soon as he is able to keep it himself, a nature-diary is a source of delight to a child.”
Miss H doesn’t seem ready to keep one by herself. She has been begging for more instruction with drawing and painting, so I decided a family nature journal would be perfect for us. I lightly sketch something into the notebook, and then if Miss H wants to, she can as well. Then, I paint my picture, showing her what colors make sense and how to mix them if necessary. She can paint too, if she wants.
This is not a mandatory activity for her. But, so far, every time I add something, she is thrilled to contribute. Some days, sketching something in the journal is her idea in the first place! Last week, she said, “Let’s go paint a flock!” I wasn’t quite sure what she meant. It turns out, she was referring to phlox.
So far, there have been some huge benefits of a family nature journal-
- It helps us spend precious time together, working towards something worry
- I can model the habits of observation and careful work
- Miss H takes pride in her drawings
- She learns about mixing colors and the dry brush technique
- My own drawing skills are improving as I learn to observe the subject in shapes instead of entirety
Starting a Family Nature Journal
We bought these sketch pads off of Amazon. It’s a great size, but I wouldn’t recommend it for painting. The description said sketching and watercolor, but I’m learning that I should have been skeptical of those claims 🙂 Watercolor notebooks are so darn expensive! I think we’ll try to use my fancy Prismacolor colored pencils colored pencils more often on thee pages, because water makes it wrinkle up.
The paints that we use are wonderful, though! They’re high quality, but not very expensive, which makes them great for beginners! We’ve used them for our Playful Pet Portraits art course, as well as our family nature journal. I’m teaching Miss H that she doesn’t need to dig into the colors so intensely. Taking care of art supplies is another thing we’re learning through this endeavor!
I haven’t tried this yet, but someone in the Charlotte Mason Nature Journaling Facebook Group recommended this formula dispenser to hold water for paints. Mind blown! When we are on the go, Miss H and I could each have our own container to paint (unless, of course, I decide to use the colored pencils!)
Decide on a beautiful object to observe. Model how to sketch the object while your child watches. If they want to, allow them to sketch. My sketches are slightly off-centered to allow room for Miss H to draw. Paint or color the sketch in, modeling proper techniques to your child. This is not a blatant teaching time, just a modeling time. I’ve learned that having that perspective is helpful; otherwise I might get a little frustrated by Miss H’s scribbles over my picture or leaky water blobs.
Sometimes we take out journal and paints with us, but honestly, it’s tricky to paint with E(18 months) around. He loves to run off with paint brushes or experiment with closing the lid of the paints. Mostly we’ve been painting outside on our table, either while E happily plays with his sand table, or he’s unhappily taking a nap. If we don’t have our nature notebook with us an spy something beautiful to add to it, I snap a picture and we paint it at home. The specimen is sometimes plucked from its home as well, to my chagrin! (Exhibit A: this Instagram photo )
After we paint the object, I look it up either online or in our Nature Anatomy book by Julia Rothman. This allows me to learn a little more about it, and tell Miss H in a narrative way. Charlotte Mason described a daisy in the most beautiful way, in order to keep a child’s attention and pique their interest.
Is little Margaret fixing round eyes on a daisy she has plucked? In a second, the daisy will be thrown away, and a pebble or a buttercup will charm the little maid. But the mother seizes the happy moment. She makes Margaret see that the daisy is a bright yellow eye with white eyelashes round it; that all the day long it lies there in the grass and looks up at the great sun, never blinking as Margaret would do, but keeping its eye wide open. And that is why it is called daisy, ‘day’s eye,’ because its eye is always looking at the sun which makes the day. And what does Margaret think it does at night, when there is no sun? It does what little boys and girls do; it just shuts up its eye with its white lashes tipped with pink, and goes to sleep till the sun comes again in the morning. By this time the daisy has become interesting to Margaret; she looks at it with big eyes after her mother has finished speaking, and then, very likely, cuddles it up to her breast or gives it a soft little kiss. Thus the mother will contrive ways to invest every object in the child’s world with interest and delight. Home Education, page 140
This is my attempt at a narrative description about the grape hyacinth:
The grape hyacinth sits underneath the billowy tree, happy to be cast out of its shadow, but equally content when she’s tucked away in the shade. With a zest for live, she thrives almost anywhere- from rocky terrain to fertile soil. Her tepals, shaped and colored like a juicy, purple grape, spiral around the stem, tapering at the top. Instead of closing in a perfect oval, like a real grape, the tepals wait with open mouths, gentle white teeth bared, hoping for nourishment. They work together, like the many members of a body, to form the raceme, the oblong head of the grape hyacinth, which waves in the gentle breeze and stretches towards the light. //Trying my hand at natural journaling and narrative description with Miss H.
If you have more than one child, and you have a big old notebook like we do, it might be nice to give each child a page. Of course, if one of your children is a good independent worker, they might be ready for their own journal!
Things to Add to your Journal
I was tempted to keep everything simple so I didn’t have to test my own artistic abilities, but I’m glad that we’ve aimed high. So far, we’ve only added flowers because seeing a new one bloom truly makes Miss H’s day! But there are plenty of things to add to a nature journal:
- tree branches
- pine cones
- blades of grass
- portions of plants
- animal tracks
I do think it’s a good idea to put a portion of an object in your journal, rather than trying to tackle an entire tree. You’ll miss out on a lot of the lovely details.
If You Don’t Know What it is
Don’t let not knowing something’s name prevent you from adding it into your journal. You can add it, and then write the name in later. When I’m not sure about the species, I usually Google something vague like, “Colorado purple flower.” This brings up lots of different images that I can sift through to find the one I’m looking for. There are also apps like My Garden Answers that allow you to take a picture of the object, and then it searches a plant database. It’s probably user error, but I haven’t been really successful with that app yet.
I hope this encourages you to try something beautiful and different with your little ones! This has been such an enjoyable process for us, and we both look forward to adding more entries in the future.