How to Teach Nature Journaling by John Muir Laws and Emilie Lygren
One of the things I’m trying to do in homeschooling for Caleb (and Naomi) is focus on the things that they would not ordinarily do in school—spend more time outside, read stories and comic books, build solar ovens or float boats in water, let them help out in the warehouse learning phonics while they pull ink colours for orders, grow plants. I don’t want him to be behind in math or phonics, and so we are doing some worksheets and practising reading together as well, but I know over the next 12 years his teachers are going to give him lots of teaching time in math. I’m trying to be intentional about what I do with him during this “time off” we have together.
One of things we’ve recently started is nature journaling. We are in the heart of the city here, so we sort of have to make an extra effort to find green things, earth to dig your hands into. We are lucky that we are just a short walk from the Don Valley trails, although it’s a bit of a hike still for Naomi. In trying to help Caleb and Naomi learn to be thoughtful about the world that we live in, we’ve started nature journals, each of us.
I’ve begun going through How to Teach Nature Journaling by John Muir Laws and Emilie Lygren, which is a beautiful, rich, detailed guide with illustrations and photos of sample notebooks. The book goes through everything from the philosophy of nature journaling and observation and curiosity to the science of recording things and looking at details to activities to do and how you can translate things onto a page. There are different activities with specific guidance, questions to ask, strategies and examples, as well as a discussion on the bigger picture. There’s also advice and help on drawing and labeling and how to look at nature holistically as well as in small details.
For someone like me, even though I was a teacher, the complexity that this book offers on nature journaling as a way to explore deeper, notice details, learn and be curious, or to be still and just watch, has been eye-opening to say the least. Rather than just looking at a leaf and wondering about what kind of plant it is, we’re slowly exploring its entire plant structure, and what else is in the soil around it and its environment. Different colours and veins and ecosystems and patterns.
Obviously much of it is too complex for us to do now (mostly for me—hah!), but it’s been a lot of fun to go through some of the activities and practice them together with Caleb, even just in our backyard, as well as making time to go out and explore. There are really terrific prompts and questions and structured activities that are good for people like me. There is a whole section on introductory journaling techniques, including four writing prompts that you can use over and over again to observe and make connections, as well as different ways to approach these prompts. The book goes on to different field activities and questions to ask, comparing different plants, searching for different aspects of plants to pay attention to, drawing things in various ways (looking at different perspective and sections of an apple by cutting it open), how to ask questions like a scientist, story-telling and poetry, drawing techniques and building drawing skills.
Caleb and I also look at the illustrations in the book a lot, especially some of the sample notebook pages, and then I read aloud some of the instructions or guidelines to see what we can do. There are so many things to do in the book, different activities and ways to do them, I think we’ll be coming back and dipping in and out of this text for years, and this time now has been a rare opportunity to explore slowly.
We haven’t gotten to the more scientific experiments yet, where we record data over the long term, although we might start with some of our houseplants, looking at roots growing in water and then measuring height. The houseplants are a bit of a cop-out for a mama with a lot of balls in the air. Even though they are miracles unto themselves, nature in the world, exploring and observing, is hard to contain in a terracotta pot.
I’m mainly just thrilled that Caleb is so excited about this venturing out into the world as a scientist and observer, gathering things to include in his journal later. We’ve found that having and keeping a nature journal, the material act of reflecting on paper what we observe in the world, has a way of creating opportunities to notice different things in different ways.