Here we are - right in the middle of spring! Spring, of course, has many expressions across the United States. The varied ecosystems bring us everything from climbing desert temperatures, sun, and warmth on the skin in the Southwest to the subsiding memory of snowflakes and gray skies in the North yielding to blue skies and crisp breezes – though certainly still sweater weather. Substantial rain pellets the nation’s coasts, especially the Pacific Northwest and the New England Coast. While moderate and pleasant in the 80's now, temperatures and humidity climb in Florida and the South. And, everywhere, EVERYWHERE, the foliage of our continent is in its spring stretch, and pop, and splendor. 

I live in Berkeley, and we have had an unusual amount of rain this season – which of course is much appreciated after several years of drought and sweeping wildfires. In California, we are thankful for – and indeed – celebrate the rain! Trees are verdant, rhododendron are in their glory displaying an array of pinks – pastel to fuchsia to near magenta, and does and fawns make their way through the hillsides and parks and into our backyards. Such a great time to walk the city with a sketchbook – with pencils, of course, and perhaps even a small watercolor set in hand – capturing the aesthetics of the season in sketches, paint, doodles, and words. Better still, take a child with you and share the wonder! 

Best, Susan
Celebrating Spring –
Keeping Nature Journals With Children 
It is spring! Buds are abundant, temperatures are rising, water comes from the sky with some regularity, and the days are getting longer. As children head outdoors to play, explore, relax, or work, they are constantly using their senses, imaginations, and critical thinking skills to develop hypotheses and explain their observations. Exploring and observing come naturally to children. However, the skills of interpreting those observations need to be taught.

Nature journals provide children a place to document what they see. Often part of the science curriculum at school, nature journals can strengthen and refine students’ critical thinking skills by helping them become more aware of what they observe around them. They are unique and distinct from other types of science notebooks in that they focus on the natural world – whether students explore outdoors or observe natural artifacts brought in from the outdoors. They also allow for students to exercise skills in close observation that become detailed drawings.

Nature journals can be used successfully with students of all ages. Around eight years of age, children developmentally transition from drawing abstract symbols of what they observe to representational drawings that illustrate what they see. Once students make this transition, we can guide their focus to look closely at what they see and depict. 
Nature Journal Prompts – Thinking by Analogy

  • Select a specimen
  • Look closely at the whole and all of its parts
  • Draw what you see; include details.
  • Describe what you see.
  • Think about these questions, and write brief responses in your journal
  • What does this look like?
  • What does it remind you of?
Training the eye to learn to look closely and see details – and striving to include those details in drawings – is so important for the nature journal process. Even while developing the ability to look closely and draw more accurately than abstractly, many people draw what they think they see rather than what is actually there. In other words, students draw a generic representation of a mushroom, rather than observing and documenting the unique features of the actual mushroom they are observing. Nature journaling can foster growth in scientific thinking, and we can prompt students to become better observers. Students who participate in field journaling – nature journaling in a specific outdoor location – become more aware of their surroundings, their communities, and their place in the world.

Benefits of keeping a nature journal –

Sketching – and writing – in nature journals provides the important visual-verbal connections that provide a form of differentiation and that boosts learning for all students.
Sketching in nature journals can support students who may struggle in other classes due to difficulties with language or writing skills.
English language learners and many students with special needs prefer to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding through visuals first.
Teachers can view a student’s drawing and gain an immediate sense of the child’s observations and understandings.

Exploring Nature in Urban Terrain -

Teachers in rural schools may find access to nature easy. If you are located in an urban setting, it might take more than a casual glance to find adequate examples of nature to record. And, please, don’t dismiss certain kinds of vegetation as “weeds”; they are a part of nature and just as worthy of study as any plant. In The Curious Nature Guide: Explore the Natural Wonders All Around You , Clare Walker Leslie illustrates these resilient plants in the abandoned lot in her city neighborhood.

In her book, Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You , Clare recommends the following material for starting nature journals with children.

Equipment for the Beginning Nature Journals with Younger Students

  • 3 sheets of 8x11” smooth, white copy paper.
  • Firm backing to support drawing papers. This can be anything from cardboard to classroom books to clipboards. Attach with paper clips.
  • Pencils. Carry along extra as they get dropped. Ball-point and felt-tipped pens are fine too.
  • Collecting bags for objects to draw and study indoors. Collect only fallen objects; pull no roots; collect only where permission is given.
  • Suitable clothing for the season – raincoats, warm jackets, boots, etc.

And here are some suggestions for sights and sites that are sources for nature journaling:

  • The lawn
  • The school yard
  • Gardens
  • Bird feeders
  • The sky
  • A river, stream, lake, or pond nearby
  • The seacoast or rocky shore
  • A nearby meadow or farmers field
  • Parks or nature centers
  • City streets
  • Plants and artifacts that are brought inside

Process recommendations:

Using a magnifying glass or a jeweler’s loupe – as recommended by Kerry Ruef in her book The Private Eye5X Looking/Thinking by Analogy: A Guide to Developing the Interdisciplinary Mind – provides the means to take a closer look at plants and other natural artifacts – rocks, nuts, feathers, etc.. Observing with these tools allows the viewer to see a plethora of detail that is not accessible to the naked eye.

Take brief notes. Include: What does this look like? What does it remind me of?

It’s a good idea, since nature journaling often happens over time, to document the date, place, weather, and time of day on each sketch.

Take time with the children to draw, label, notice, think, and record their initial entries in their nature journals. But, also keep field notes and sketches simple. Students can elaborate their drawings and label essential features at a later time if desired.

Some Extensions

  • Watch and sketch a tree during each season
  • Watch and sketch a seedling as it grows. Sketch at the same time each day. Describe the changes over time.
  • Observe and sketch the sky each day for a week.

Please Note: While originally written for classroom teachers, this article is meant for all teachers of children – parents, grandparents, after school program guides, and more.
A Doodle for your Day

Join Dr. Susan Daniels at the 11th Annual Hormel Foundation Gifted and Talented Education Symposium for her keynote presentation "A Doodle for Your Day" Wednesday, June 19, 2019.

Austin High School, 301 Third Street NW, Austin, MN 55912

The Annual Hormel Foundation Gifted and Talented Education Symposium provides an opportunity for educators, counselors, administrators and parents to gain greater understanding of the unique needs of gifted and high potential learners. Participants attend in-depth sessions focusing on foundational knowledge, creativity, curriculum strategies, and social/emotional needs of gifted and high potential learners provided by the field's finest regionally, nationally and internationally recognized presenters. All are welcome to register and attend the symposium. Symposium participants may register for academic credit from Hamline University.

Everyday Creativity and Personal Well Being.
Susan Daniels,Tina Harlow and Elizabeth Ringlee

Research has shown that creative activity leads to long-term happiness and well- being. This session will share the experiences of a small group of gifted women who engaged in everyday experiences of “little c” – or personal – creativity and who shared in reading and discussing The Creativity Cure, by Drs. Carrie and Alton Barron. The project took place over a 7-week period during which the participants engaged in creative activity and kept a literature response journal while reading. The presenters will provide strategies for incorporating everyday creativity within one’s own life.

The Psychology, Neuroanatomy, and Care of the Creative Brain
Susan Daniels and Drs. Michael Postma and Nicole Tetreault
The Latest from our Blog
Recommended Reading:

Clare Walker Leslie, (2015). The Curious Nature Guide: Explore the Natural Wonders All Around You, North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
Clare Walker Leslie & Charles E. Roth, (2000). Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You, North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
Kerry Ruef, (1992). The Private Eye® 5X Looking/Thinking by Analogy - A Guide to Developing the Interdisciplinary Mind, Seattle, WA: The Private Eye Project.
John Muir Laws, (2016). The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, Berkeley, CA: Heyday.
About Dr. Daniels

Dr. Susan Daniels is a professor, an author, a consultant, and an educational director of a psycho-educational center that specializes in the needs of gifted, creative, and twice-exceptional children. She has been a professional development specialist for over 20 years, regularly providing workshops and training on creativity and visual learning and teaching. Susan is an avid doodler who enjoys working visually in her journals, and she is dedicated to supporting teachers’ development of visual literacy and enhanced understanding of visual learning and teaching strategies. She lives in Berkeley, California.

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