Charlotte Mason, a British educator and proponent of nature study, encouraged us “to not let the endless succession of small things crowd great ideals out of sight and out of mind.”
All humans are born with a naturally curious disposition, but unfortunately as we grow older, many times this curiosity that feeds wonder is ignored, denied, or buried under mounds of other things until it is no longer active in our lives— at least in a positive way.
“We have all we need to be trained to see and to have our eyes opened before we can take in the joy that is meant for us in the this beautiful life.” Charlotte Mason
Nature study through journaling can stay or reopen the doorway to joyful wonder. Though my own life is testimony that it’s never too late to open the door, exploring the pathway to natural wonders in early childhood is the best way to ensure that this innate curiosity is never lost.
There are other reasons to introduce nature journaling to a child. Nature journaling also provides an excellent means of scientific education. Studying nature puts us on a first name basis with the natural world— we learn the names of its inhabitants and their surroundings— and it introduces us to the laws that order our universe as well as the methods used to make scientific discoveries.
"Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories." Ray Bradbury
However, scientific observation does not need to be complicated. All we need to do is train our children (and maybe ourselves) to observe and look for obvious connections. Observation naturally leads to theories and relationships, and possibly even the testing of those theories through further observation and experimentation.
Drawing and journaling are simply tools that help develop the skills of observation. It’s important that a child is encouraged to draw only what is seen, not what he or she thinks is there. Asking questions is a way to encourage and train a child to observe, but it also leads to the child developing theories and discovering obvious connections throughout the natural world.
Questions to Inspire Wonder
What season is it?
What is the date & time of day?
Where am I (city/county/state, ecosystem, etc)?
What is the weather like (including temperature, moon phase, wind conditions, etc)?
Describe it. (Color, size, shape, smell, feel, sound, movement, etc)
Where do you see it (in the shade; beside the creek; on a dead tree; etc)?
What grows or is around it or above it?
What does it feel like?
What does it sound like?
What does it smell like?
It reminds me of…
How does it…
What causes it…
Why does it...
It makes me feel…
The first four questions are part of the "bigger picture" and are important because these observations help children begin to recognize and understand associations in nature. These questions can spur further discussions and apply to the context of the remainder of the questions listed.
Examples of questions that involve association: Where does this bird go in the fall? Why does this bloom close up at night? Does the cloud pattern forecast rain? Why is the squirrel gathering food now? Does this grow anywhere besides shade? Is this found only in saltwater?
Of course, at a young age, questions can only be posed orally. But questions posed by someone truly interested will often get the child to pause in their play and see this wondrous world on a deeper level.
Journaling to Inspire Wonder
Journaling should be introduced slowly, at the right stage of development, and should never be treated as a chore or drudgery. I’ve mentioned this before, but the best thing a parent can do is to journal right alongside a child or to journal for herself while the child plays.
If the child balks or loses interest in note taking and runs off to another activity, set the child's journal aside for a more opportune time. The goal is wonder, so if the nature journal is not bringing about this goal, set it aside temporarily or reconsider how it is being used.
Journaling is extremely important for many reasons, but mainly because drawing and writing not only increase the needed skills for observation, but also these activities connect us with and help us remember experiences in a profound way.
"The summer I learned to draw wasn't anything special at all, it was just the first summer I ever really saw." Hannah Hinchman
Tasks such as drawing and writing move passive observations beyond the brain and route information through the nerve channels of the body and then back to the brain. Not only does the child having a sensation (see/hear/smell), but they also make a decision (stop/notice) and permit a reaction (drawing/writing).
This process is referred to as a sensory loop, and it is the stage in which information begins to permanently imprint upon us. This can be an extremely positive thing when it helps us retain the good stuff in life.
Because nature journaling helps us linger in the moment instead of seeing or hearing something and moving on, the pause of documenting the subject causes it to become far more than a quick moment in time — it transforms it into an experience that is permanently etched upon us.
"We do not want merely to see beauty, though God knows even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words— to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it." C.S. Lewis
Since nature journaling is not really about art, strongly avoid criticizing or praising the sketches unless the praise involves accuracy of the drawing. Instead, use remarks that encourage and compliment observation such as…
- It’s important you noticed… (the mushroom had no gills, the bird had a different call when alarmed, the leaf’s fragrance when crushed)
- I like how you described what happened when… (the deer saw you, it began to rain, you poked the caterpillar with a pencil)
- What you observed/drew reminds me of… (the fern we saw, your Nana, a poem by Wordsworth)
The goal is to encourage the student to look longer, to smell deeper, to listen harder, and to connect these observations to other things that they have experienced.
In other words, to increase the wonder!