Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Living Page :: Nature Journals

Last week we talked about the first chapter of Laurie Bestvater's The Living Page, and earlier this week I raved a bit about a favorite part of mine from the second chapter.  (Don't those Natural History Clubs sound amazing?)  Now I'm back to think a bit more about this second section, in which Ms. Bestvater discusses Nature Journals.  

Jen invited us to share excerpts and photos from our own nature journals, and I'm planning to do so.  One of the most delightful parts of my week is Friday afternoon, when I sit down with my oldest three, our drawing supplies, our notebooks, and our nature tray and spend an hour or two capturing on paper the discoveries from our outing that morning.  If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that nature study takes up a good chunk of my writing space here.  So I had lots of examples to pore through that I have posted here before, and I've chosen just a few to re-share.

Before I do that, I want to chat a bit about this chapter.  Last time I focused on the idea of whether e-notebooks can provide the same benefits of Keeping that Miss Mason promises.  I still can't answer that. ;) 

But I can say that I don't really think there is a digital comparison for a nature journal.  One can take lots of nature photos and arrange those photos into a useful record, the kind of record that the students in Miss Mason's schools were keeping for sightings of birds, wildflowers, and other signs of changing seasons.  Those photos can also be useful for identifying and for drawing from (we do this often).  One can keep narrative notes of one's nature walks in digital form and I don't think much is lost.  But photos and typed notes are distinct from drawings, which are a component of Miss Mason's nature notebook and require of the Keeper a different kind of observation and attention.  One also cannot keep pressed flowers or leaves in digital form, as Bestvater includes under nature scrapbooks in this section.  So a digital Nature Journal, though perhaps more useful and complete than a hand-Kept one in some ways, would not meet the full intentions that this category of Keeping carries.  (Or am I mistaken?  Let me know.  It's so valuable thinking all this through with others.)


Now on to some examples from these labors of love in our home:

I love viewing my son and daughter's narrations of the same outing side by side.  It's so interesting to see the differences in what they focus on and how they process their discoveries.

And from a more recent outing:

A few from Mommy's nature journal:

And one from my preschooler's--her drawings are just darling and she is so very serious about getting things just as she sees them:

I was not a nature-lover as a child, nor have I ever considered myself a draw-er.  I determined, however, to get over my inhibitions and start a nature journal alongside my children when they started their formal schooling.  Since then, it has become a favorite hobby.  And my children, seeing me excited and inspired, have eagerly taken up the habit as well.  Even my preschooler loves to join in, drawing next to Mommy, looking up finds in field guides, and asking me to write down the nature walks she spontaneously narrates to me as the older children record their own observations in both word and drawing on the other side of the table.  Nature study is one of the highlights of our home education (something I never thought I would say a few years ago!).  And if there is hope for me, a girl born and living still in the midst of Silicon Valley suburbia, there is hope for you and your family as well. ;)


  1. Wonderful samples and a lovely post! I knew you'd give us some wonderful examples of nature notebooks! I always love looking at yours!

    I'd love to know your favorite nature notebook brands, Celeste! The brand we liked is no longer available anywhere, and I'm definitely looking for a stiffer/heavier weight cover than we currently have. We're close to the end of our notebooks and this is something high on my list of items to research as we prepare for end-of-term exams and I begin preparing for the next term. And...I am always vacillating - spiral bound? or hardcover-open-and-lay-flat format? And now I have a lefty joining us in earnest, so I'm considering one that is bound across the top. I see that you have spiral bound for most of yours, but your preschooler's book looks hardcover. Thoughts and preferences?

    1. I'm happy to share, Jen! We belong to a charter school that gives us funds for educational items, and I'm pretty sure that over the past couple years we have checked out just about every notebook Dick Blick offers in a quest for the "best" nature journals. :) This is what we settled on, the Canson field notebook:

      It has nice thick paper with a smooth enough finish to use colored pencils and illustration markers on nicely (I don't like to have a rough tooth for those kind of media--it makes the marker bumpy and doesn't allow you to blend the colored pencils smoothly). I also *love* the cover--it's not pretty (though, knowing you, you could surely "pretty" it up! ;))--just plain black. But it's formal-looking, very sturdy, and supports the spiral binding really well. The paper itself does not allow marker to bleed through and it is fine for light washes and dry brushing for children who can control their use of water well. It will buckle a bit with full watercolor. When we watercolor, I get out various sizes of watercolor paper (we have artist trading cards and the Ready Cut watercolor sheets from Strathmore). We paint on those, let them dry, and then tape them into our journals.

      My daughter and I prefer the 9x12, but my son switched this last time to the 7x10 and prefers that size. The paper, cover, and binding for both are the same.

      Actually, it looks like the nature journal we use is actually the one linked on the Perimeter School website you posted above for the Eve Anderson DVDs! So I guess we're in good company. :)

      I bought some Bare Books for my preschooler to use as her nature journal:

      These would actually be just fine to use for older children too--we just prefer the spiral bound. So they might be a good option for your lefty. And they're cheap! ;) We have both the portrait and landscape versions. The paper is not as thick as the Canson notebooks, but it's not flimsy either. Much thicker than copy paper. Definitely worth having a look at, as even if you end up not preferring them for nature study, at that price they can be used in a variety of other ways. I'm actually thinking of using one for a commonplace book. IF I decide to transfer my commoplace book to real paper. ;)

    2. I'd like to chime in and add that my kids all definitely prefer spiral bound books. I agree the hardbound ones in the shops always look so lovely, but the spiral gives more flexibility in drawing and that's what's important. We like the Strathmore Visual Journals; they have different styles, including a watercolor one with 140lb paper which might be overkill for everyday use. But the Mixed Media style has 90lb paper which is very versatile and a nice compromise. These journals have a nice hard brown cover that is plain but attractive. They don't always have them in my local store, but Amazon has them along with Blick. Also note the cover shown is just a paper that you can tear off, revealing the nice brown. My son even made leather covers for the mini ones to spiff them up even more (he has a tute on his blog if you're interested). We also like the Strathmore regular mixed media sketchbooks - the yellow covered style. Not as nice as the others and not hardcover, but less expensive and readily available in the craft stores. The mixed media paper is 90lb weight and can handle even watercolor, and smooth so it's a treat for pencils as well.

    3. That's perfect, Celeste! I actually had the Canson field journals at the top of my list. I like the cover, the double spiral binding for durability, and the page weight. We'd all really like a square journal, but there are few options in a square. Then it will be the child's choice whether they use the book with the spiral at the top (my lefty) or on the side (which I know we could do with a rectangle option, I may have to just do that!). I wish Canson made an 8 x 8 square. My second choice does make an 8 x 8 square journal, but instead of being an affordable $6 each, they're $16 each which prices it out of my budget! (Cachet Spiral Bound Sketch book:

      Thanks for chiming in - I had actually taken a look at the Strathmore journals you mention, but dismissed them because I thought the cover was kind of loud. So, I'm grateful you mentioned that it's a tear-off paper over the cover! I like the brown cover {very easily customizable ;) }, and the page weight {a 90 lb mixed media is actually a perfect weight for us with dry brush watercolor} and it's a very affordable book. Adding it to my *to-be-considered* list! And your considerations about flexibility are EXACTLY why I've never actually made the jump to lay-flat hardbound. I keep imagining the kids being frustrated that they can't fold the cover back on itself while sketching...and that it would get in the way and be frustrating.

      Thanks for the help narrowing down ladies! Our old journals will take us right to the end of this term (which ends this week!) so I have a few more days to consider and then jump! You've helped tremendously!

    4. Kimberlee, thank you so much for chiming in--it is so good to get an option from your family of expert artists!

      Jen, thanks for mentioning the idea of a square journal. That might be fun to try--perhaps I'll put a 6x6 in my cart next time I'm shopping to see if one of my children takes to it. :)

  2. Your nature notebooks are so beautiful! Thank you for sharing the pictures. That's so interesting how your kids have such different entries from the same day! We keep a family nature notebook, but I'm also excited to see my kids start their own when they're ready.

    I agree with you about how the act of drawing is so different from any kind of digital keeping. I feel like it is more formative - more soul-shaping, because of the physical act of trying to imitate on paper something that you've experienced through sight. Very interesting to think about.

    1. Thank you, Lisa! Yes, it is so interesting to see how each person comes away from our outings with a different focus, a different discovery that stood out, etc. It's part of Charlotte Mason's idea of children being "born persons," I think--we all bring our own PERSONality to the time outdoors and to the act of journaling about it.

      And I think a family nature notebook sounds lovely. :)

  3. Incredible, simply incredible and you make me regret not keeping up with our nature journals.

  4. These are all so wonderful, Celeste! We love seeing children's nature journals, and it's so delightful to see western birds you have in there. It's great that you keep your own journal too, and as you noted the best way to lead your little ones to do it too. Lovely!

  5. These are very inspiring! Thanks for sharing.

  6. I am jumping in late on the book discussion at W&M... your notebook drawings are simply gorgeous!! I am so impressed by your children's drawings - so detailed and precise! I love the idea of drawing alongside them and doing it later, inside, after they have processed their outdoor time. That is what I need to do, because it always seems that somebody is frustrated by the wind when drawing outside, or they can't find a specific color, or they want to rush through their drawing and then go play and explore more! So I am inspired by this idea!

    I would love some pointers on how you make it possible to sit and do this with your children while also having babies and/or toddlers... I have a 2 year old, and while my last two year old could have sat and done this kind of thing with us, my third child would be eating the pencils and climbing all over us, trying to get supplies. Maybe I can get her her own notebook and have her gradually join in with us, trying to keep her happy with the supplies she is able to use without destroying, ha!

    And what kind of pens do you use in your nature notebooks? The ink really has a nice effect on the drawings, I think.

    You are quite an artist - I am inspired!! :)

    1. Thank you so much, Erin! :) I'm so glad you're joining the discussion.

      Yes, the reasons you gave are exactly why we switched to drawing less "in the field" and more at home afterward. Since I'm usually carrying the baby on my back and the kids are too small to carry all that much, I like to travel light, and it's so much easier to leave our supplies at home. We do bring small sketchpads and pencils, and the children will often do a bit of sketching and then finish up the drawing at home and tape it into their proper nature journal. I don't even attempt to draw outdoors usually--as soon as I get a notepad out, the baby takes off running in one direction and the toddler in the other. ;) I do take photos to reference when we get home, and we collect a few things each time out for our nature table. We also draw from field guides when necessary (in the case of birds or moving animals). And yes, we're usually only out for 2-3 hours, which my kids really like to spend exploring. Once they get all their wiggles out and we get home, they're ready to draw.

      As for the challenges of doing nature study with little ones, I actually wrote a post about this very topic last month:
      I wrote about it in that post, but when we get home from the outing, I put my three littlest (ages 1, 2, and 3) down for their naps and then sit down with my older three--and that's when we all work on our nature journals. I really don't even try to draw with the babies awake--LOL. My 5yo loves sitting down and "drawing with Mommy," so she is included along with the 7yos. If I don't finish my nature journaling before baby wakes up from her nap, I get it back out on the weekend when my husband is home and I can go quietly with my older kids in the other room to draw together. This routine works well almost all of the time--there's a difficult transition with each baby when he or she isn't a sleepy newborn but also not on the same sleep schedule as the big kids...maybe from 6-12 months old? During that time, I usually just do mine on the weekend. ;)

      I love these Prismacolor illustration markers for our nature journals:
      I get the .01 and .03 for my kids and I love the .005 for myself--really fine line (too fragile for my kids, which is why I get theirs a bit bigger). I like being able to sketch with the pen and then fill in with watercolor or colored pencils when I'm inclined.

      Off to read your nature journal post!

    2. Thank you, that post is helpful! And I think I will be getting some of those pens to put in Easter baskets this year! I have done some messy art projects while the toddler is napping, but inevitably she will wake up after just a half hour on days when I have pulled out something messy or complicated. :/ I have to remind myself to keep trying, because there are always days like that, and sometimes it will work out that we'll work on something like this on a day she sleeps for 90 minutes. My toddlers are always keeping me on my toes - napping great for months and then not so much any more, and then napping longer again just when I was beginning to think maybe they were outgrowing naps. This youngest one is my wild redhead child, too, ha ha. Oh, and I love how you lay things out on a nature tray... we have a similar tray to that; I will have to give that a try! Are there rules about which kinds of parks allow you to take specimens out? My husband is always saying we can't take rocks from certain places, like if it is a National Forest. I need to look up those rules, because I always want to take stuff home with us! Taking photos to draw from is a helpful idea, too.

    3. Yes, we had a couple months like that when *right* as I would sit down to draw with the big kids, baby would wake up at the 40-minute mark (that's what it always seems to be around here!) and I'd have to put it aside. :/ That's when I put my stuff away, entertain baby so the big kids can get their drawing time in, and then get it out on Sunday when things are more leisurely. :) That's why I like the tray too--when the kids are done, I can pop it up as is on top of the bookshelf and get it down when I have the time. So it's all ready for me, but in the meantime, it's out of the way.

      Yes, some parks have rules. I know our state parks do not allow collecting (though we have been known to take home shells from state beaches anyway--but mostly I just take photos there). I have never seen any signs posted at any of our city or county parks, and I'm not going to go looking for the rules, if you know what I mean. ;)

  7. I was so encouraged by your last paragraph...I also have never considered myself a "draw-er." I know I just need to jump in and do it! I appreciated all the recommendations of notebooks and materials in the comments.

    1. Yes, I really do think jumping in and just giving it a go is the best place to start. Happy drawing to you and yours! :)