I first heard of nature journaling when our children were toddlers, and Husband and I made the decision to homeschool. I had read Charlotte Mason's series on education and was enthralled by her practice of using nature study as a gentle means to instruct children. Mason's practical applications of this art changed the way I perceived education in a very positive way.
Fast forward many years later… Our children are now mostly high schoolers and into digital illustration and animation other artistic pursuits that I never would have dreamed of back then. Though their pursuit of the arts still amazes me, I miss the days when we would go for walks in the woods and their chubby hands would scribble leaves into their books while we wondered at the glory of the numerous veins, the tiny dots that marked a wound of some sort, the edges where a caterpillar had nibbled.
Though my children rarely join me now to sketch in nature, I know that the time spent on those long walks observing the world around us was not wasted. Allowing children the time to absorb the beauty and preciousness of this earth is never a chore, and nature journaling can be a positive aid in inspiring a love and ownership of this planet that God has graciously given us to call home.
And those are things that a child should never outgrow.
"We are all meant to be naturalists, each in his own degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things." Charlotte Mason
So what do kids need to get started? Thankfully, nature journaling takes few supplies. The main goal when choosing nature study and sketching tools for kids is to keep it simple. Young children especially tend to get bogged down by too many choices, so a sheet of paper and a pack of crayons may be all they need. Plus, carrying an overflowing pack can really impede the experience! (It’s hard to pay attention to a Red-tailed hawk if you are too busy digging through all of your tools to find a pencil.)
Below are a few nature journaling art supplies and nature study aids that I recommend for kids.
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One of my favorite journals for budding naturalist is a divided composition book. We started using these when my children were young, and our 12-year-old son still uses them. They are extremely affordable, very durable, and are also available in a primary version. Though these books provide children with adequate journaling and note-taking space, the paper will not hold up under any wet media.
If you have an artistic or older child that wants a “real” sketchbook, I recommend Strathmore’s Mixed Media Visual Journal. Many retailers carry these sketchbooks so they are easy to find and highly affordable. Plus, they come in several sizes, are spiral bound, have sturdy covers (which is what you want when sketching without a table), and the paper works well for a variety of media, wet or dry.
If you’ve got a budding art pro on your hands that really enjoys watercolor, I highly recommend the Pentalic Aqua Journal or Field Watercolor Book. (The only difference is the binding. See my review of the Aqua Journal here.) Other good choices are Stillman & Birn's sketchbooks, or DIY your own using artist-grade watercolor paper and a three-ring binder.
A few extremely affordable, artsy options for teens… These aren’t notebooks easily found in the states, but they can easily be found online and have a certain aesthetic look and coolness factor about them, which teens tend to like. I’ve had success with journaling, sketching, and even light watercolor in the Traveler’s Notebook inserts (the 003 blank works fine, but Midori does offer a 012 sketch) and in the Fabriano EcoQua notebooks. All of these journals cost less than $10 and are thin, lightweight, and highly portable.
A note on handmade journals: There are tons of DIY ideas and instructions online for making a nature journal. If you choose this route, I would still have the finished pages spiral bound or three-hole punched for a binder. The point is for your child to make a nature journal that he or she will actually use. Handmade journals that use a stick and yarn as binding look cute but may not be practical. Children (and adults!) can be easily frustrated by sketchbooks that won’t open completely or pages that won’t lie flat.
Pencil & eraser
A standard #2 pencil works fine. Softer leads tend to smear easily under little hands. However, I recommend carrying a separate, full-sized eraser. Most beginning sketchers erase a lot, and the tiny erasers on the ends of pencils don’t cover much surface area and disappear quickly.
If your child is very young (ages 3-5), you may want to wait on the pencil and just use crayons. However, around ages 5-6, most children have developed the hands skills to not only hold a pencil but to also learn the proper grip technique.
The type of color media you or your child chooses depends upon age and personal preference. Even young ones can paint with nontoxic watercolors like Crayola or other school brands, but they may sketch more easily and more accurately with crayons or colored pencils. Plus, carrying wet media on a nature walk may be too much for a parent to deal with.
Older children may delight in being able to mix the exact shade of a studied leaf with watercolor, and since children this age can carry their own tools, it releases some of the burden on the parent. Though the colors are more limited with watercolor pencils than pans, watercolor pencils are an extremely portable option and need less water than pans.
Whatever color media you choose, the golden rule is that the older the child is, the better the quality his or her tools should be.
A teenager may get frustrated with cheap tools, mistaking the lack of success as his own personal failure, and give up nature journaling before he has even begun. However, it doesn't require a lot to get started. Check out this post to see palette suggestions, which is all I carry in my own Minimalist Field Kit.
P.S. I often get asked why I don’t recommend markers. I’m not anti-marker, but they are bulky to carry and don’t blend easily unless you have special paper. Plus, I try to avoid things that are highly disposable. Our earth doesn’t need more plastic to contend with. But totally up to you!
Only useful if you are using watercolor pencils or pans, but if so, I highly recommend one. I use the ones by Pentel because they are extremely lightweight, hold a lot of water, and have a very durable tip. If your child prefers wet media, you will also need to carry a paper towel or small rag for blotting and cleaning the brush.
What child (and many an adult!) doesn’t delight at getting a close-up glimpse of a slug, bird feather, or sprouting seed? And nature observation and journaling are all about wonder and delight. Be sure to carry one of these with you wherever you go. If you can splurge for a glass or loupe with a light, even better!
Just the opposite of a magnifying glass but just as much fun, a decent pair of binoculars can really help your child engage in the world around him, bringing distant wildlife surprisingly close.
However, binoculars do have some downsides besides their initial cost— they add weight along with bulk, and very young children often have difficulty using them— so I consider binoculars optional. However, I rarely leave the house without mine, and (as you can see in the photo above) my children are constantly grabbing them from my neck when we are outdoors together, so if that’s any indication of their value…
Pocket knife (optional)
Some naturalist prefer to strictly adhere to a leave-no-trace standard, but others enjoy taking samples or doing field dissections. A small pocket knife is handy for splicing open mushrooms or gently handling an insect that looks suspiciously venomous. I believe doing so can help our children learn things that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. But as always, I will leave this one up to the parent.
Ready-to-go pouch or pack
I highly encourage you or your child to have a separate art supply kit to use as a “field kit.” This makes heading outdoors nearly effortless because all there is to do is grab and go. Plus, it helps you avoid that oh-no moment when you realize that you are miles from home without your child’s sketchbook or colored pencils. (Trust me, I know.)
I prefer a small pouch, but my children are older and need very little. It may make the experience more exciting to keep an inexpensive pack by the door. Stock it with “special” art supplies, a water bottle, fun “outdoor only” snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, a portable umbrella… whatever you think you will need to make your child’s journey into the great outdoors comfortable and fun!
Just don’t overdo it. It is good for our children to see that moving from indoors to out is not a chore and doesn’t take tons of preparation but is a simple part of our daily lives.
What about a camera/field guide/sample bag/etc?
As always, it’s up to you! I always carry my phone because it gives us easy access to temperatures, wind speeds, tide and moon phases, etc, and I will often snap a few photos. However in nature journaling, I try to discourage dependency upon a camera because I’ve found that it often gets in the way of observation. I can’t tell you how many times I have taken a photo instead of taking the time to make good field notes and have highly regretted it later. I’ve shared more about that here.
I rarely carry field guides into the “field.” They are heavy, and it’s impossible to carry a guide for everything in nature that I might encounter. Plus, many times I’ve had my nose in the book and have completely missed the moment I should have been observing. I prefer to watch, make sketches, and take excellent notes so when I get home, I can use my library of field guides and online resources to help with any identification, if needed.
In regards to anything else, if it aids you and your child to observe and marvel at this amazing world we live in, by all means, please ignore my advice and pack it!