Monday, November 11, 2013

Nature Study Notes :: Our Weekly Outing + Journaling Session

 We had a really lovely normal nature outing last week.  No one was sick, it wasn't raining, we were able to get out early, and we didn't have plans later in the day.  (I prefer that we don't on nature study days.)  It was glorious after a couple weeks of being confined to the backyard!  

I had a friend ask recently what a nature study outing might look like, especially with young children.  So I thought I would use last week's outing as an opportunity to share what an average nature study outing looks like for us, step-by-step.  Our schedule and method is particularly suited to our family, but perhaps our plans can give you a place to start if you're wanting to get out for a regular nature study outing but haven't had the chance yet?

First, I pack the bags the night before:

I have my oldest three children all wear child-sized backpacks, and then I carry a small bag and the baby.  In addition to stuff for the baby (bottle, diapers, a few toys) and stuff for mommy (phone, keys, wallet), we also always take:

water bottles (and usually our breakfast--they either eat in the car or picnic when we get to the park)
field guides
small sketchpads (not usually our nature journals, as my children prefer large ones and they're bulky)
pencils and markers, crayons for the littles
collection bags and jars
magnifying glass
pocket microscope

First thing in the morning, after everyone is dressed and baby is fed, we head out.  The earlier we get out, the longer we can stay before we need to get home for naptime, which is early for my littlest. 

Yes, somehow we fit six car seats/boosters in a minivan!
On this day, we went to a county park about five minutes away, so it was a short drive for us.  Baby gets popped in my back carrier, children get their backpacks, and we're ready.

I had a few goals in mind for this outing, since it's a place we're very familiar with:
:: collecting a few leaves to compare
:: checking whether the wildflowers from a month ago are completely gone
:: identifying the species of oak most prevalent in that area
:: checking out the pond life
:: noting the fall foliage
:: measuring the horse chestnut fruits

So as we walk along, I'm mentally checking those goals off my list.  Funny thing is that my kids usually have the same goals, even though I haven't shared them--we all want to follow-up on the things we have noticed and journaled about in the past.  So they're prattling as we walk along: Can we check on the tadpoles?  Let's find a horse chestnut to see how big it is now!  The acorns look just like the ones we got here last time--all these oaks are the same.

While we're there, we revisit our favorite spots: the pond's edge, the rose hips bush, our favorite picnic bench by the creek, the "playhouse" of trunks and branches, the "big pinecone" tree.  We walk from place to place, stopping for maybe 10-15 minutes each time to collect, sketch a bit, pull out the binoculars, look up something in the field guide, take photos, and so on.  We point out things we notice to each other.  I make an effort to wonder aloud, and I try to direct their attention to certain things if they seem open.  If something catches our particular fancy, we put our other plans aside.

And when the baby starts getting fussy, we head back to the car and home. :)

Once we're there, everyone gets washed up and changed while I feed the baby down for her nap.  The kids start the laundry.  I unpack the bags, put the tea kettle on, and start uploading photos from my phone to the laptop and tablet, in case we want to draw from them.  Then I take the toddlers up for their naps too.

When the babies are all settled upstairs, I set up our nature tray and lay out the table: nature journals, colored pencils, pencils, illustration markers, erasers, field guides, tablet.  Occasionally, I get out the watercolor supplies.  I do try to take a little extra time to make the space inviting.

My two second graders and I spend a couple hours drawing, labeling, chatting, and snacking a bit.  My preschooler joins us after her little rest time.  (Obviously, it's optional for her, but she loves drawing with Mommy.)

When they're finished with their drawing, I will write a narration and labels for them if they like.  Some days they choose to write their own now that they're getting a bit older.  At the end of our journaling time, we each usually have a nice page of drawings and notes.  

 These are wonderful records of our adventures and discoveries.  The children often turn back to prior pages to make comparisons or look up a species that they know we have seen before.

But nature study is more about the process than the product.  So more important than the journaling we have done is the time we have had to do some thinking and observing, both during our outing and afterward.

We came away from our outing with lots of questions:
:: Why were the clam shells mostly found about a foot from the creek edge rather than right on the water line?
:: How much bigger was the horse chestnut than when we saw it last time?
:: Why were all its leaves gone, whereas most of the other trees were only half- or quarter-bare?
:: Why are almost all the oaks at the park the same variety?
:: Why might two oak trees of the same variety have different looking bark?
:: What is the reddish-brown powder within the deep ridges of the tree trunks?
:: Why didn't some of the sycamores seem to have seed balls?
:: Why does this leaf encircle the branch?
:: Why aren't there any tadpoles in the pond, whereas in the spring and early summer there were so many?
:: Why aren't there as many rose hips on the bush as there were last fall?
:: Where have we heard that bird call before?
:: What are all those bits of green on the tree trunk when viewed through the pocket microscope?
:: What is the purpose of the several small seeds surrounding the large horse chestnut seed?  Are all horse chestnut fruit structured that way?

For some of these questions, we came up with answers or were able to brainstorm potential answers.  For others, we couldn't do either.  But can I just say: it really doesn't matter!  I mean, it's wonderful to discover how things work and why.  Charlotte Mason recommends that parents equip themselves with knowledge of the natural world that they can share with their children when opportunities arise, and this kind of knowledge is a worthwhile goal for us as homeschooling mothers.  But don't let not knowing stop you from getting your kids outdoors.  Delight and wonder take precendence, and those come with time spent in nature and natural curiosity.  With my children still young, I think looking carefully and asking the questions is really the important part.  (I think it's the most important part for adults too, most of the time.)

After we're done journaling, I also add sightings to our Calendar of Firsts (which we use as more of a Nature Calendar rather than properly recording only "firsts").

And that's that!  Everything gets put away, and all the babies come down from their naps if they're not already up.  The nature tray goes up on top of the bookshelf, and I sometimes bring it down on Sunday to draw a bit more or identify something we saw.  Next week it will be cleared, ready to be filled with items from next week's adventure.


  1. The nature notebook entries are absolutely rich!!! Thank you for submitting your post to the blog carnival!

  2. Lovely, helpful ideas, Celeste.

  3. This is fabulous. As we prepare for a new term I have my heart set on getting back into the habit of nature study. This has encouraged me!

  4. i just posted a comment and i'm afraid it just disappeared. if you got it, just delete this one; if you didn't, rest assured it was full of words of admiration... ;)

    amy in peru

  5. i decided to try again, because i really love this post, and i want you to be encouraged... ;)

    i'm printing this post. :) i think if everything went this smoothly for us every time, i'd be tempted to do nature walks every day. i'm sure that things go much smoother for you and yours because you've carefully laid a foundation of habits leading up to this! i'm so happy for you (and a teensy bit jealous!)! great job!!

    thanks for sharing with {nsm!}, i am encouraged by your regular posts!

    amy in peru

    1. Thank you, Amy, for all your comments today! <3 I appreciate the encouragement. :) And no, things don't always go smoothly...which is perhaps while it's all the more important that I document the smoother days here--so I don't give up hope on the bad days! LOL

  6. Your nature journals are so pretty, wow.. I hope ours will be as pretty some day.

    Do they just dictate to you what you should write? And I will definitly use your example - packing the bags the night before. Makes getting out of the door so much quicker!

    1. Thanks! Yes, if they want me to do the writing, they just dictate and I write (like a narration of the outing). These days, they're usually wanting to do their own writing. So it's up to them. In the example above, I wrote my son's (except the title) and my daughter wrote her own.

  7. I've been meaning to ask you a scheduling question: do your children eat a large breakfast since their lunch is rather "late"? I love this description of your nature outing. Very inspiring. Thank you for writing and giving us a peek into your family's learning journey.

    1. Hi Rochelle! Yes, the kids eat a large breakfast, and we usually bring it along for them to eat in the car (if we have a longish drive) or at our outing (if we're going local). Trying to get everyone fed before we leave the house is just too much work. ;) Actually, I think you can see them holding breakfast in hand in the photo above where they are lined up in front of the pond. :)

      On normal days, they eat breakfast around 8am; on nature study days, around 8:30 or 9. They also eat a large, early dinner at around 4:30. That means we do a very light lunch/snack. On nature study days, that usually means tea and a little something around 1pm.