October in the Pacific Northwest brings so many wonderful things – fall colors, animals preparing for the winter, and birds often enjoying an extended summer season. As most school age kiddos are doing their lessons at home this year, there is no better time to get them outside for a nature study.
A nature study is a wonderful tool because it connects a child with the great outdoors while getting in a valuable science, art and an English lesson!
I loved doing these lessons with my kids when they were little and by the end of a school year, we had an entire notebook full of nature studies and sketches.
What You Will Need
You will need a blank sketchbook for each child and something to write with - a regular pencil, colored pencils, or watercolor paints- it is up to you. You will find it helpful to have a few field guides too, either in book form or as an app on your phone. That is it: a sketchbook, a pencil or paints and a couple of field guides. Oh, and you will need nature. The good news is that nature is all around us, no matter if we live in the country, in the mountains, on the beach, or in the middle of a city.
Doing a nature study involves four steps.
Step 1: Determine your focus.
Choose a nature friend or a component of nature to be the focus of your study. It could be something you have noticed on casual nature walks and you want to go look at it more closely and carefully. It could be something you have studied before and you want to revisit that old friend (object of your nature study) and see what is happening in its world now. Just decide which nature object you are going to study.
Step 2: Go there.
Go to the location of the nature friend you will be studying. Many studies can be done in your own yard. Some might be at a local park. Others might be part of a field trip that takes half a day. When you have below-zero temperatures in the middle of winter, you might go to your living room and study your pet cat. The locations can vary; the key is to be intentional about going somewhere.
Step 3: Look closely and carefully.
Take your time. Watch, listen, and be patient. If you do not know the nature friend’s name, see if your field guides can help you identify it. However, remember, learning a friend’s name is only the beginning. To build a relationship, you need to spend time together and share experiences together. So see what you can discover about that nature friend’s habits: How does it behave in different situations? What are its preferences? If you have studied that friend before, what differences do you notice now compared with the last time you saw it; has it changed in any way? How does it interact with other nature friends? Use as many senses as you safely can to observe, to study, that friend.
Step 4: Record your observations.
You can write, draw, paint, or do all three. It is up to you. Your nature notebook should be a reflection of your own personality. However, it should be a place where you record what you found out, what you observed, during this nature study session. Always date your entries, by the way. Feel free to jot down questions you have about what you observed too. Your nature journal should be a personal record of your growing relationship nature.
Level Up or Down – Adjusting Your Study to Meet the Child’s Needs
If holding a pencil or a paintbrush is difficult for your student, do not make the nature notebook an obstacle or a hindrance to enjoying time in nature. One way to level down is to take casual nature walks without the journaling component. Of course, you can stop and look more closely at some nature friend of interest along the way, and you will get to know some of those friends’ habits over time.
If that motor skill of writing, drawing, or painting gets in the way of your child’s enjoyment of nature, let that child take digital pictures of nature friends. There is a huge advantage to drawing or painting an object in nature, but digital photos can still be compelling.
There are many ways to level nature study up. One way is to keep a master list of birds and a master list of flowers that you have personally seen over the years. Jot down where and when you saw each one.
You can also add poetry and other related quotations to your nature journal. They might be seasonal or related to a specific nature friend. You and your children will find many ways to personalize your nature notebooks.
Another way to level up is to do nature object lessons. In a nature object lesson, you provide open-ended questions that guide your child to look even more closely at the nature friend. It is kind of like shining a spotlight on different aspects of that nature object and encouraging your student to focus more deeply on that aspect and see what else he/she can observe.
You can do nature projects—bringing nature into your home for a while for closer observation. You might watch a caterpillar turn into a butterfly or observe tadpoles as they turn into frogs. Those types of nature projects can provide many opportunities to study and record personal observations and develop a relationship with that nature friend.
Your nature study will be fun and educational. It will encourage your child to slow down, breathe, look, listen, linger and observe. So get outside. You never know where time in nature might lead.