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The Nature Notebook

Filled with sketches and notes based on a child’s own personal connections with nature experiences, the nature notebook fulfills two fundamental principles in developing the science mind: observation and documentation. The ultimate goal is for a child to observe nature, thereby experiencing it, connect to it and then document the connection. An experience cannot be so named unless there is first an observation. Without an experience there can be no connection. Documenting the experience deepens the connection and further hones the skills of observation, preparing the student for the next experience. As you can see, these are so interrelated.

The nature notebook is kept by students of all ages, although in what way it is kept “…will vary according to the age of the children”… (Furneaux 286). After studying several PNEU articles and Charlotte Mason’s own works, I divided the variations of how to keep a nature notebook into three levels, although there is overlapping between the first and second level and the second and third level.

Level One

This level is primarily designed for very young students, such as preparatory and sometimes Year One students. According to Mason’s Home Education (Vol. 1), children should keep a calendar of sort, a record of “firsts”, although it will continue on as these first observations will become second and third observations. Mason describes:

Calendars.––It is a capital plan for the children to keep a calendar––the first oak-leaf, the first tadpole, the first cowslip, the first catkin, the first ripe blackberries, where seen, and when. The next year they will know when and where to look out for their favourites, and will, every year, be in a condition to add new observations. Think of the zest and interest, the object, which such a practice will give to daily walks and little excursions. There is hardly a day when some friend may not be expected to hold a first ‘At Home’ (Mason, Vol. 1).

This can be kept easy by using a journal style composition book. (The top half of the page is blank and the bottom half has ruled lines.) Your child can draw his “first” and dictate to you what he saw and where he saw it. Encourage him to be as precise as possible in describing the location, enough that he could go back to this place and look for it again. Be sure to include the date for each entry so that your child will also know when to look for it again. There are other options for this type of calendar, including nice journals to be purchased and free printable versions online, if you prefer. This activity will further support the calendar work included in these two early years.

For very young children, you may wish to share about nature experiences together as a small group rather than individually. The teacher can use a large sheet of chart paper to create a week long table. The table would consist of seven boxes (or five) with the day of the week written at the top of each section. As a small group, the chart can be completed by writing in any nature observations for that day. This activity would also tie in beautifully with the calendar focus of the early years, reinforcing the theme of time. The weather would also be noted, also tying in with the lessons on weather. This activity could be used at the end of the day, as a sort of culmination of the day itself. A Nature Study Guide by Furneaux explains this approach:

In infants’ classes the best diary is one that is large enough for the whole class to see, and which is filled in, day by day, by the teacher, the latter encouraging the children to offer suggestions for the entries. The diary may consist of a large sheet of brown paper, ruled up for the week, with a space for each day. Or it may even be ruled to last a whole month. On this the teacher might enter, by means of chalk, the state of the weather and any observations of value suggested by the scholars, more especially the things observed on the way to school, and any changes or developments connected with the plants or other specimens kept in the schoolroom or in the school garden (Furneaux 286-end).

Finally, a child may begin to keep a nature notebook as soon as she is reasonably fluent with a pencil, crayon or paintbrush. At this time, you will now need to use a true sketchbook or notebook filled with paper heavy enough to take watercolor paints, etc. Your child may now sketch what interests her about the natural world, particularly after a nature experience.

“Nature Diaries.––As soon as he is able to keep it himself, a nature-diary is a source of delight to a child. Every day's walk gives him something to enter: three squirrels in a larch tree, a jay flying across such a field, a caterpillar climbing up a nettle, a snail eating a cabbage leaf, a spider dropping suddenly to the ground, where he found ground ivy, how it was growing and what plants were growing with it, how bindweed or ivy manages to climb” (Mason, Vol. 1).

While many children of this age will still be working on writing fluency, it is still ideal to include some notes with the nature notebook. The PNEU article “The Works and Aims of the Parents’ Union School” by Miss O’Ferrall directs parents and teachers by telling us that “Children who are too small to write dictate their notes which are written down for them” (O’Ferrall 777-787). Your child will sketch what he wishes and then tell you about it. You can then write any words that he dictates to you pertaining to his sketch.

Expanding on this base, your beginning writers might be able to write down some words on their own, so labels and captions can be encouraged too. For example, perhaps your child has seen a sparrow and wishes to include this in her notebook. After she has drawn or painted the sparrow, then you could write the word “sparrow” on a board or sheet of chart paper. Your child can then copy it neatly underneath her drawing. Making note of dates will already be a part of your child’s work, so you can also encourage and support her writing of a date in her notebook. Ask her to tell you about the sparrow. What did she notice about it? What colors did she use to portray it? What was it doing? Would she like you to write any more words on the board for her? Perhaps she would like to write “Today I saw a brown and grey sparrow in my yard.” You can add any words that she needs help with under the word “sparrow” on the board or chart paper, so that she can then copy them for herself.

You might prefer to have her write brief notes rather than complete sentences. If so, then she might write “sparrow”, the date, “brown and grey”, “small” and “drinking water” to any side of the sketch. Please choose whatever approach works best for your student. These examples merely describe two of a variety of ways to help a new writer keep notes in their notebook.

There are many different ways to organize and keep the nature notebook. Choose the method that works best for you and your family. “When the children are old enough to keep a diary for themselves the teacher will decide on the most suitable form of book, and also on the manner in which the entries are to be made” (Furneaux, 286-end). Look for the approach that will realistically fit the amount of time you would like spent on it. A maintained simple notebook will be more beneficial than one that is extravagant but too involved with which to be consistent.

Furneaux, in A Nature Study Guide, suggests “For the younger children a book of about forty pages is ample. Let them write the names of the months of the year at the top of each page, using an open folio of two pages for each month, and then enter their own observations under those headings. The remaining pages of the book may be used for miscellaneous observations and descriptions which are not necessarily connected with any particular month or season” (286-end).

Level Two

The nature notebook previously described by Furneaux from Level One can be expanded upon as children grow older. “It will be seen that the simple note-book just described is not a diary in the strictest sense of the term, though, of course, daily entries might be made if desired, in which case a much larger number of pages would be required if the book is to last a few years” (286-end). The notebook entries can also become more focused and detailed in Level Two. At this level it is also assumed that the child will write his own notes. O’Ferrall also describes the nature notebook, “In connection with the Natural History every child in the P.U.S. keeps a Nature Book in which he paints from nature flowers, birds, insects, animals—in short, any natural object which takes his fancy—and he writes his own descriptions and notes, not those dictated by his teacher (777-787).

The notebooks now include lists, although this aspect can certainly be included in the Level One books. These are lists of birds, flowers, trees and other natural specimens as they are discovered or observed by the child. The child would keep a record of when and where these discoveries were made, possibly keeping the lists in the back of the nature notebook.

Some students may need suggestions about what to observe, especially in winter and the teacher should feel free to offer ideas as needed. G. L. Davies from “Knowledge of the Universe” writes:

The keeping of a Nature Note Book is an excellent means of encouraging scientific self-expression. However, I have found that some children need guidance as to which subjects to observe. In the winter months for instance a child may complain: 'But what is there to write about? Everything is covered with snow.' Of course there are also the enthusiasts who fill several Nature Note Books each term but generally it is as well to discuss with the class at the beginning of the month some likely subjects for observation. For example, in a snowy January the children may be told to look for birds searching for food, footprints in the snow, evergreens and certain constellations (Davies 264-271).

But, it is also extremely important that the nature notebook is not overly prescribed by a teacher or parent. This notebook is meant to be a record of the child’s connections to the natural world. Your requirement may well be a reflection of your connection and not necessarily his. Be careful to provide structure and guidelines when needed, but not to overtake the child’s own path. Find balance between both sides. Furneaux cautions “The idea, at this stage of the child’s education, is not to enforce frequent entries, but rather to see what the child takes a pleasure in recording. The teacher encourages, rather than forces the child, and leaves it as much as possible to its own initiative, giving occasional advice, and avoiding such rigidity of method as may tend to make the work a toil rather than a pleasure”(286-end).

This curriculum provides some structure in that Day Five’s nature experience might state “Find and describe one bird” or “Find and describe (1) twig and (1) bark”. These are written so that by the end of the term the child has met another of Charlotte Mason’s guidelines. They are based on the idea that the PNEU programs show that the children were expected to “Find and describe (a) wild fruits; watch, if possible and describe (b) ten birds, (c) five other animals”, for example. The type and number varied each term and each year, but the idea remained the same. Based on these variations of the same idea, I’ve adjusted the type and number of natural specimens to observe and describe. The adjustments reflect the type of work and living books being completed for that year. For example, in Year One, the students study animals and plants of the woods, the weather and bugs, insects and bees. These students are then expected to find and describe, over the course of all three terms, a total of 8 birds, 13 animals, 6 leaves, 3 barks of a tree, 3 twigs, 6 flowers and 6 bugs. These are, of course, broken down by terms. But, the “Find and Describes” are minimal in amount and should not take from the child’s overall time for exploring and recording nature as they wish.

Level Three

The nature notebook for an upper level student again reflects the student’s growth as a learner, an observer and a beginning scientist. The student now begins to incorporate diagrams and drawings with labels, as needed. The sketches should be made as accurately as possible. G. L. Davies writes “When learning science subjects, the child must understand the great importance of drawing and painting from personal observation, and of making clear diagrams. Written accounts must be graphically illustrated. Indeed there is much to be said for the reverse procedure, i.e., starting from the illustration and writing round it (264-271).

The lists for Level Three will increase in complexity from those of Level Two. While a Level Two student might simply record the bird’s name, when it was seen and where it was seen, a Level Three student might include its Latin name (binomial nomenclature=genus and species) and additional classification labels such as its family.

“The Works and Aims of the Parents’ Union School” explains, “Older children make lists of birds and flowers—and sometimes of mosses, fungi, sea-weeds, etc.—with their English and Latin names, Natural Orders, and date and place of finding” (777-787). These lists are further described by G. Dowton, author of “The Charm of Nature Study”. She writes:

For notes, a margin should be kept on one side of the paper for dates or the names of the months. A flower and bird list should always be kept, and also any other lists which interest the individual-fungi, birds' nests, insects, animals, fossils, etc. These lists work best kept in columns, with the name, number, and date of finding all on one line, and the next underneath and so on. Latin names, and names of families are a great help in classification and Latin names for flowers are invaluable, especially in cases where a single flower has a different name in practically every county (Dowton).

Furneaux shares more details of the nature notebook kept by an upper level student. In A Nature Study Guide, he writes:

When the child is a few years older, and has reached one of the upper classes, it might be stimulated to commence a diary of a more useful and permanent nature. In this instance the book might consist of at least 150 pages, and be ruled more closely than is usual for ordinary written exercises.

The diary is at first prepared by fixing a space for each day of the year. Allow only a quarter of a page a day for the months of January, February, October, November, and December — there being naturally fewer observations to make during these months when Nature is more or less at rest, and when the weather is frequently less favorable for outdoor observations. For the remaining months, half a page a day might be allowed.

The entries in this diary should be made as briefly as possible, the year of entry being indicated at the end of each one; and the remaining pages at the end of the book, not required for the daily records, could be utilized for fuller descriptions of special interest, together with accounts of the continuous observations made regarding the life-histories of any living beings that have been watched through their various stages.

Here, again, the children should not be forced to make numerous entries. Let them have the fullest liberty to follow their own inclinations. They should not feel bound to make an entry every day, but simply encouraged to record those facts which have interested them, the teacher advising, but not commanding. Any interesting events recorded in the previous note-book of the child’s earlier years, and which appear to be of permanent interest, might constitute the first entries of the new diary; but this, again, should be left to the child’s discretion (286-end).

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