"Happy hearts and happy faces, happy play in grassy places. That was how, in ancient ages, children grew to kings and sages." Robert Lewis Stevenson
Nature is an invaluable teacher, and though I did not begin nature journaling until recent years, I have been a strong advocate of making nature a large part of our children's education ever since they were young.
And one is never too young! Though the journaling may not come until later, the earlier you can expose children, even infants, to the priceless experiences of nature, the better their lives will be.
The Freedom to Play
The most important thing to do at every age (yes, adults, I'm also speaking to you!) is to go outside and play. Play sparks imagination which leads to exploration and curiosity, which are the chief ingredients of nature study.
Play should begin a moment a child is born. Interacting with a parent’s face is a form of play, and so is lying under billowing treetops. Even small newborns can learn from these experiences, so get outside as soon as possible and stay there as long as possible.
"Never be within doors when you can rightly be without." Charlotte Mason
And don’t be afraid of not-so-perfect weather. A summer rain shower can be an excellent way to introduce a child to an amazing sensory and educational experience. As an adult, be sure to dance in the rain and learn along with him!
In fact, the most important thing you can do as a parent or educator is to not send children into the great outdoors but to go with them. After all, a child learns from observation. If a child constantly witnesses an adult or older sibling growing and learning with pleasure and fascination, a child will learn that education is not subjected to a number of years in a classroom but instead is a lifelong pursuit.
"If mothers could learn to do for themselves what they do for their children when these are overdone, we should have happier households. Let the mother go out to play!" Mason
As a child grows older, keeping a nature journal or notebook can further enhance playtime. However, regardless of the child’s age, don’t introduce a notebook until plenty of time is spent in unobstructed play— observing and exploring nature and questioning what is going on around him.
Below are ideas for basic expectations for nature study and journaling for the various ages of most children, but of course, all must be tailored to each particular child.
"My object is to show that the chief function of the child, his business in the world during the first six or seven years of his life, is to find out all he can, about whatever comes under his notice, by means of his five senses." Mason
This is the age of extreme exploration with the senses! Your child will never experience the world quite so freely again as he will in his earliest years and should be given as many opportunities to do so as possible. Children will inevitably learn certain rules of nature that will limit their explorations (this is poisonous, that smells bad, this stings, etc), but at this early age, the child is a blank slate just waiting to be chalked full of wondrous experiences.
How you handle these moments early on can influence the child’s interaction and care of the natural world the rest of his or her life. I know firsthand how hard it can be to stifle parental fear and expectations, but let the child play and be outdoors as much as possible with as little interference as possible, freely able to explore with his or her five senses. Yes, this means look, taste, touch, listen, and smell. Do not worry about propriety, but instead keep ‘nos’ firmly limited only within the bounds of safety.
On fair weather days, infants can be unclothed and allowed to feel the sun, wind, and natural objects on the skin. Creepers and toddlers should be allowed to move and touch, and yes, even occasionally (safely) taste.
Keep talking to a minimum, but feel free to point out a crawling caterpillar or demonstrate how to blow the seeds of a dandelion, etc. Occasionally ask questions to get your child to see and explore further, even if they can’t understand everything you are saying. However, be sure to give them plenty of quiet time to come to their own conclusions.
"In this time of extraordinary pressures, educational and social, perhaps a mother’s first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet and growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it for the most part spent out in the fresh air." Mason
Sometime around this age, a child begins to hold a crayon or thick pencil and can begin drawing basic shapes. Also, children typically are able to share verbal information and answer any questions out loud. You are welcome to write down the information as they share with you, but as soon as the child is able, it is very important that the child takes responsibility for accurately documenting and assimilating the information.
Questions should never be in the form of a drill or any type of formal exercise, but feel free to ask questions spontaneously because you are truly curious of the child’s answer. Phrase the questions to be focused on the personal observation experience. (Examples: How does it smell to you? Why do you think the snail likes eating this leaf but not that one? What type of creature might have made this hole?) More questions that can help increase observation may be found at this post.
This is the age (and even before now) to introduce identification. As a child learns words and phrases, he should be taught the correct titles for the natural things around him. This is a great age to begin a collection and can further enhance identification skills. Even a young child can press wildflowers or leaves in a book and identify what plant or tree they belong to.
Children this age can also begin to learn how to care for and feed animals. Even a domesticated cat, bird, chicken, horse, fish, or dog provides invaluable interaction with nature.
Regardless of the child's increase in skills, the main objective at every age should always be provision of the freedom to explore with the adult providing as many different avenues of exploration as possible.
"There is no knowledge so appropriate to the early years of a child as that of the name and look and behavior in situ of every natural object he can get at." Mason
At this age, children can begin to take a more scientific approach to nature study. Of course, never should scientific information be allowed to crowd out the wonder, but instead the wonder should steer the child toward scientific discovery.
Basic taxonomy along with Latin names can be introduced early at this age along with a deeper understanding of the classification system as the child matures. Scientific descriptions such as measurements and the labeling of parts can further train a child’s observation skills and fuel even more questions, theories, and discoveries.
This is also a great age to introduce a microscopic and even begin the basic study of organisms on the cellular level. Also, consider volunteering with your child at an organization that allows children to become more involved in protecting and preserving our natural resources.
"Do not let the children pass a day without distinct efforts, intellectual, moral, volitional; let them brace themselves to understand, let them compel themselves to do and to bear; and let them do what is right at the sacrifices of ease and pleasure." Mason
At this point, if the child has been nature journaling for any length of time, he or she should be transforming into a seasoned veteran of nature study. Journal pages can become more planned, and the child may want to begin keeping various themed journals (i.e. the trees of Clay county, songbirds of the southern Appalachians, microscopic studies of saltwater fish scales, etc).
Journaling at these ages may become more purposeful and encompass a wider range of knowledge (addition of poetry, quotes, charts, statistics, mapping, history, etc), and you may notice your teen journaling more about the feelings that certain objects, subjects, or locations inspire.
Artistic skill will constantly increase, and older children may even delight in using their field sketches to create larger or more detailed works of art. However, within the field journal, watch for signs that the child is allowing artistic expression to trump accuracy and observation, and gently guide them back to the original purpose, if needed.
In the teen years, being an active participant in the stewardship of our planet is invaluable. Look for opportunities for the older child to volunteer and educate others about the importance of natural history and nature's resources. After all, teaching someone else is one of the best forms of education!
Even though children this age are quickly moving toward adulthood, it is still important that you make the time to share outdoor experiences with them. Ask the occasional question, listen deeply when they speak, but most of all, walk alongside them and quietly marvel that you were allowed to play a small part in their lives becoming this magnificent!