Nature Journals For the Long Haul

Often the words charming, delightful, reverent, joyful, peaceful, even sacred accompany descriptions of Nature Journaling in a Charlotte Mason Education. Bright walks, invigorating fresh air, beauty for every eye with subject matter abounding, is bound to make for refreshment and mind feeding. Take, for example, this quote from Charlotte Mason,

“As soon as he is able to keep it himself, a nature-diary is a source of delight to a child. Every day’s walk gives him something to enter: three squirrels in a larch tree, a jay flying across such a field, a caterpillar climbing up a nettle, a snail eating a cabbage leaf, a spider dropping suddenly to the ground, where he found ground ivy, how it was growing and what plants were growing with it, how bindweed or ivy manages to climb. Innumerable matters to record occur to the intelligent child. While he is quite young (five or six), he should begin to illustrate his notes freely with brush-drawings; he should have a little help at first in mixing colours, in the way of principles, not directions…his nature-diary should be left to his own initiative. A child of six will produce a dandelion, poppy, daisy, iris, with its leaves, impelled by the desire to represent what he sees, with surprising vigour and correctness.” Home Education Volume 1 pp.54-55

I have found that some of my children fit easily into this Nature Journaling description. The hours out of doors have spawned not only an interest in nature, but fostered a budding expertise in particular areas which the child has found of interest. To accompany, nature study has been a foundation source for a self taught drawing course, providing innumerable specimens for recording in Nature Journals. Specimens have become familiar friends as Charlotte said they would. Watching this process of transforming natural objects into long lasting friends was, in fact, what taught me to understand what Charlotte Mason meant by the Science of Relations.

“What we are concerned with is the fact that we personally have relations with all that there is in the present, all that there has been in the past, and all that there will be in the future—with all above us and all about us—and that fulness of living, expansion, expression, and serviceableness, for each of us, depend upon how far we apprehend these relationships and how many of them we lay hold of.” School Education Volume 3 pp.185-186

But sometimes reality doesn’t always match up to the descriptions in the volumes or my experiences. Sometimes the delightful and charming Nature Study times are strained and frustrating. Sometimes after multiple experiences of frustration, irritation surfaces and mother and child might slump into an exhausting battle ending with both being exasperated. But why? Where is the delight and willingness. Is the child lacking in intelligence!?

True, I am mother-prejudiced, but I think it is quite accurate to say, intelligence is not lacking in the child, as in frustration I might give as an excuse from the quote above. Maybe I wouldn’t say it is intelligence. Maybe I’d just say it is not the child’s ‘thing’. Maybe the child isn’t a nature kind of person. Maybe the child can’t draw. Maybe the child just isn’t interested.

But I know better from Charlotte Mason. What is lacking is my implementation. As mother~teacher, either I am flawed in philosophy or method. I know that Charlotte Mason has an answer for every educational and parenting circumstance I  encounter. What could Charlotte possibly offer me for this circumstance?

When I am faced with a situation that seems hopeless, I ask myself, “What do I know from Charlotte that can help me here?” There is always an answer. It usually involves me keeping quiet, and doing nothing, thereby doing no harm. Not reacting, not rushing, not pushing, not pulling until I have had time to think. Sometimes that thinking has taken me months, sometimes years. Although there is something to do – read the volumes. The answer is there.

Our journey.

This child began a Nature Journal at age 6 when formal studies began. New notebook in hand, we headed to the great outdoor classroom.

For the first three Nature Walks this child chose and drew a blade a grass.                                                   [silent pause for the punchline]

I think it was the SAME blade of grass each-and-every-time.

Three- nature- study- walks- in -a -row- [count ’em-three] and all we had in our new notebook were three pages with a green line on each page.  Two of the pages were half a line. I guess we just mowed the grass. Off to a flying start.                                                                                                     [sarcasm]

I threw the third picture away in frustration.

That is my regret and my first clue that I was going to have to rethink where we were heading in this process.

dsc_0866   dsc_0868


I knew this was going to become a battle. It didn’t take much thought to know that my irritation would soon lead to one or all of the three: offending, despising, or hindering. Eventually doing damage to the child by criticizing with my words or using manipulative force (meaning -mom gets mad). Any potential enjoyment from Nature Journaling would be extinguished.

“…as if the chief thing required of grown-up people is that they should do no sort of injury to the children: Take heed that ye offend not—despise not—hinder not—one of these little ones.” Home Education Volume 1 p.12

But, the child’s notebook is his own, under his own management, Charlotte tells us. Forcing the child doesn’t work in a Charlotte Mason Education. I’m not to put my two cents in nor am I to judge his performance by throwing pictures away.

“The children keep a dated record of what they see in their nature note-books, which are left to their own management and are not corrected. These note-books are a source of pride and joy, and are freely illustrated by drawings (brushwork) of twig, flower, insect, etc.” School Education Volume 3 p.236

Eventually, if we kept traveling this path, Nature Journal would be dropped from this child’s schedule. I was already looking for a peaceful option. But, avoiding and ultimately quitting were not the options I wanted to use. It is my duty to bring subjects to the child for their good, to educate them, to make them whole, living persons, to feed them. As one of my child’s studies, vital to the growth of the mind, I wasn’t free to disregard this issue or drop this subject.

“We may not Choose of Reject Subjects.—You will see at a glance, with this Captain Idea of establishing relationships as a guide, the unwisdom of choosing or rejecting this or that subject, as being more or less useful or necessary in view of a child’s future.” School Education Volume 3 p.162

“We soon cure all that: we occupy him with books instead of things; we evoke other desires in place of the desire to know; and we succeed in bringing up the unobservant man (and more unobservant woman), who discerns no difference between an elm, a poplar and a lime tree, and misses very much of the joy of living.” Parents and Children Volume 2 p.182

But for now, I gave up asking the child to draw and record in a journal, so that both of us stayed free of forming a habit we might later regret. I also made sure we did not add other hard to break patterns such as play in place of of Nature Studies and Journaling. I knew if Nature Walk turned into nature play, I would have a hard time reigning the child’s attention back in to focus when I was ready with a new approach. I wanted to take the “labour” out of Nature Journaling, but needed time to think.

“Let all he finds out about it be entered in his diary—by his mother, if writing be a labour to him,—where he finds it, what it is doing, or seems to him to be doing; its colour, shape, legs…” Home Education Volume 1 p.58

Instead, we walked and talked. Nature Journaling became verbal, observing and telling. I used a smaller scale form of what CM describes in her sight-seeing section. We walked and I asked him to tell me about what was on the tree, or in the creek, or under the rock. I dug up ants, he watched. Lots of “tell me what you see” and when answers were (are) short  “tell me all about what you see.”

“…while wits are fresh and eyes keen, she sends them off on an exploring expedition—Who can see the most, and tell the most, about yonder hillock or brook, hedge or copse. This is an exercise that delights children, and may be endlessly varied, carried on in the spirit of a game, and yet with the exactness and carefulness of a lesson.” Home Education Volume 1 pp.45-46

Meanwhile, I think.

Sometimes problems can be softened or resolved if we think about things from the other persons perspective. Sometimes if we attempt to do what we are asking of another, we see things in a different light. I decided to enter the trenches to see things as this child saw them. I discovered a few things.

Each child needs slow, steady training.

Homeschooling, no matter what philosophy you use, has to take into account the whole family. Often amid the book work there are little ones to shuffle the schedule around. I had scheduled Nature Studies and Journals to be done with the whole family, little one included. Because we were outside, I thought I could direct the little one (and noise and commotion) away from the older children, giving them some space, yet all being together. Quiet nap time was reserved for other subjects. But when these Nature Journal issues surfaced, I wondered if the distraction of the younger child during Nature Study was part of our problem. I was turning the older children loose with their notebooks which eventually is a goal we would want to reach in a CM Education. But just as I wouldn’t turn my 6 year old loose with a reading lesson, so I could not turn my 6 year old loose with a Nature Study lesson. Children need slow, guidance and training. This freedom was fine for my older children – possibly better. Charlotte says, “…nature note-books, which are left to their own management…”. I realized that my older children had experienced years of focused, somewhat individualized Nature Study training. But, in the march forward with the olders I forgot to return to the basics of Nature Studies for the youngers. Children absorb quite a bit through the family atmosphere, but not everything. Charlotte tells us to go slow and steadily build during our reading lessons; the same could apply to a Nature Study lesson and Journal.

“The teacher must be content to proceed very slowly, securing the ground under her feet as she goes.” Home Education Volume 1 p.204

Do one thing well.

Another issue that stemmed from having a little person about during Nature Journaling, was the lack of focus and attention. My attention was not focused on the task at hand because I was watching the little person. My child was distracted because I was not monitoring Nature Studies as a lesson. In Volume 4 Charlotte mentions the Dæmon of Restlessness. My attention was, at best, in two places at once. I was not doing anything well, and thus, of course, my child was reflecting the lack of focus.

“Worse still, the Dæmon of Restlessness possesses them, and they cannot settle to any kind of work or play because they always want to be doing something else. This is a very unfortunate state to get into, because it is only by going on doing one thing steadily that we learn to do it well, whether it be cricket or algebra…” Ourselves Volume 4 p. 19

“The object of lessons should be in the main twofold: to train a child in certain mental habits, as attention, accuracy, promptness, etc., and to nourish him with ideas which may bear fruit in his life.” Parents and Children Volume 2 p.229

Thus, a change in schedule was needed. Nature Walks got scheduled to provide a setting that reflected the priority they deserved on order to focus on the task at hand.

Learn to draw during drawing lessons.

One of the best ways to accomplish change is to model it. Before the schedule change, I typically had a younger child to monitor during Nature Walks so I had rarely had the opportunity to keep a nature journal myself. Now with free hands and mind, I decided to keep a Nature Journal. I thought it would be good for me and would provide an atmosphere that placed an importance on Journals to help encourage my child. I discovered Nature Journaling was difficult. I couldn’t draw the detail that I could see. I found it terribly frustrating. Knowing that this child had not done much drawing, I realized that Nature Journal drawings were probably frustrating for this child. So, I increased drawing lesson time. It became a priority-like history and literature (we never miss those).  Moving the drawing to drawing ‘class’ took the pressure off trying to draw a realistic looking specimen in our Journal and got us practicing with pencils, charcoal and watercolors. If the first quote I mentioned at the beginning of this article, had been freshly and completely embedded in my mind, I would have remembered that Charlotte gives us this tip that I had come to realize. (I left part of the quote out above for organization of this article). Here is the section.

“While he is quite young (five or six), he should begin to illustrate his notes freely with brush-drawings; he should have a little help at first in mixing colours, in the way of principles, not directions. He should not be told to use now this and now that, but, ‘we get purple by mixing so and so,’ and then he should be left to himself to get the right tint. As for drawing, instruction has no doubt its time and place; but his nature-diary should be left to his own initiative. A child of six will produce a dandelion, poppy, daisy, iris, with its leaves, impelled by the desire to represent what he sees, with surprising vigour and correctness.” Home Education Volume 1 pp.54-55

There it is. Drawing has its own instruction time and place – and no doubt about it. It had come naturally for some of my children. But for some children it needed a dedicated time and effort. It is separate from Journaling time. Sometimes Charlotte gives us our answers in black and white, and I miss it – for a while. But, if we keep looking, keep reading and re-reading, she gives us the answers, either obviously or by thought and introspection.

Journals are for recording and remembering.

Another change I made came from a field trip we took to a local nature preserve. We were there one evening for a hike and to watch local naturalists net (catch) bats. As the group was gathering, the professor in charge sat down and began writing in a little black book. It was a little larger than his hand, had blank pages, and had a mottled, curled look from its home in his pocket. Always (too) excited when I see CM practices in action, I whispered out loud, “Nature Notebook.” “Yes,” he casually replied, to my embarrassment. And then he began to record the names of the people present, the date, the weather, the time, the harassing mosquitoes, and where the nets were located. There were no drawings, only text. No real organization or structure although he probably has a pattern that he uses knowingly or unknowingly. I realized that he was using his Nature Notebook for the purpose it was meant- journaling experiences, recording information, remembering what the mind is working on in a visual way- a narration, a written narration.  After this experience, I replaced my assumption that our Nature Journals would include pictures. I moved to a place that understands that our Nature Journals are to serve us in whatever form that takes. As CM would say, they ought to be a good servant, not a bad master.

If you browse through Margaret Deck’s House of Education Notebook you’ll notice quite a bit of text. Certainly, there are gorgeous drawings, but there is as much text as there is drawing.

I made pages for us to chart what we were seeing outside. At some of the local preserves we visit I have seen charts recording the peak seasons for particular species of flowers and birds in our area. Charlotte Mason also refers to charting and lists as an activity that is done not only throughout an entire year, but throughout out a child’s entire education. Evidently, she saw value in this exercise to have it run the entire course of a child’s life, term after term, year after year.

“The study of natural history and botany with bird lists and plant lists continues throughout school life, while other branches of science are taken up term by term.” Towards a Philosophy of Education Volume 6 p. 220


Keep it simple, so it is doable.

Another thing I noticed from that evening, was this professor had his notebook easily at hand. When we caught a bat he took measurements and recorded them in his journal which was with him in his pocket. It was always with him and recording was simple. One of the struggles I have had for many years is hauling around all the gear for Nature Journaling – the paints, the brushes, the water, the dabbing cloth, the journal, the pencils…. the water spilling, the baby crying because they want the paints, the favourite green handled brushes lost in the grass. Sometimes it is just too much stuff and with stuff comes complication. Some of the lack of focused Nature Journaling especially for my younger children was my lack of motivation to handle all the stuff. It wasn’t so bad with one or two children, but with more children came more stuff. No doubt, some mothers are better at this orchestration. But… what can I say?… So, I made a real effort to simplify. I am still on the look out for more simplifying. Some of my children are now old enough to deal with all their stuff – paints, brushes, water. But for others, I work to keep things manageable for me and possibly more suited to the child. I’m encouraging text and record keeping as much as drawing. For ease on our Nature Walk, the drawing may be done with the pencil in hand. Not everyone is an artist. But everyone is a fellow being on this created earth needing to form relations and learn the art of knowing.

“We spread an abundant and delicate feast in the programmes and each small guest assimilates what he can.” The Philosophy of Education Volume 6 p.183.

“We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his 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.” Home Education Volume 1 p.61.

I made a nature notebook that works better for text and pocket carrying which we call our field notebook. I made printable lists to chart the recurring things we see. We make small sketches and notes. Sometimes we add water color drawings, but more often we do those inside during drawing time. My older children who manage all their equipment and are more comfortable with watercolors do more regular outside brush-drawing.

Keep to the time.

I found one more area where I could have better awareness. Time. Keeping lessons short. We enjoy the outdoors, and so sometimes Nature Studies ramble on.  But just because some of my children can Nature Journal for hours doesn’t mean that all of them ought to.

“ ‘I’m sorry to say it lasted half an hour. The child’s interest tempted me to do more than I should’.” Home Education Volume 1 p.212.

A key part to a Charlotte Mason Education is to keep lessons short. Just as we keep reading lessons short for a young child, we ought to consider keeping Nature Studies short for a young child.

“The power of reading with perfect attention will not be gained by the child who is allowed to moon over his lessons. For this reason, reading lessons must be short; ten minutes or a quarter of an hour of fixed attention is enough for children of the ages we have in view,…” Home Education Volume 1 p.230.

Keeping it short even in the beautiful outdoors, is another aid to use when attention and skill are being trained. Nature Study lesson should be that- a lesson. Rambling, PE and out of doors play must also have their due time, but not in the midst of Nature Studies. I began taking a timer on our walks to remind me that we are in lesson time. I have a tendency to walk too long, the child has a tendency to stray. A timer reminds me to use our precious time well, fit in what I can, and then, our work done, move to the next thing. Free play can happen afterwards- and maybe should happen afterwards. Charlotte tells us, a little focus and sticking to the time that the attention will allow, makes free time joyous for all.

The bright hours fly by; and there is still at least one lesson on the programme, to say nothing of an hour or two for games in the afternoon. The thought of a lesson is uninviting after the discussion of much that is more interesting, and, truly, more important; but it need only be a little lesson, ten minutes long, and the slight break and the effort of attention will give the greater zest to the pleasure and leisure to follow.” Home Education Volume 1 p.80.

In the following pictures, you’ll see the path that my child and I have followed for Nature Studies. This journey has been two years of refocusing, rescheduling, rethinking. We are making progress- progress in patience, taking time to see, giving attention to the matter at hand, and building relationships with the things of nature.

One Walk at a time, one foot in front of the other.

Photo Journey.


After the grass pictures, I told him to pick something different and use more of the paper.



One of the next attempts was charcoal in the fire pit.



Drawing and asking questions to which we don’t know the answer. “I don’t know what that stuff is.”



I’m asking more questions about surroundings and specimen and taking the “labour” out by doing the writing.



I’m asking questions and writing answers. Drawing of a pine needle. The next lesson, drawing a Maple leaf, was too frustrating. It was abandoned.



Asking more questions, writing more text. Lesson on milkweed.



Questions, text.



Making lists of things seen. Collecting and pressing the summer’s four leaf clovers.



July 2018

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