What to include in your nature journal

nature journal | how to get started and what to include | nature study

We were a few years into nature study before I started keeping my own nature journal along with the kids. I’ve stumbled along and tried a few different methods of sketching and journaling, but I’ve finally found a groove that’s working for me. If you are stumped about what to include in your nature journal, here are a few ideas to get you started.

What to include in your nature journal

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Start with a heading. Include the date and place of your hike, maybe the time of day, the weather, and anything else that seems pertinent.

Make a list of things you spotted on your hike. For me, this is the best way to get past the “writer’s block” of nature journaling. Instead of staring at a beautiful blank page hoping I don’t ruin my nature journal with my lack of artistic talent, I start with listing all of the plants and creatures we identified on our walk, even if it’s just a few common birds and flowers, turtles on a log, frogs in a pond, dragonflies, etc.

nature journal | nature study | whole-family learning

Sketch and caption of a few of your favorite moments. As I’m making my list, I usually always have a few favorite memories from our hike. I sketch two or three of these favorites into my nature journal, and then journal a sentence or two about what we saw and what happened. I’m far from an artist, so these are much more about remembering than anything else, just a rough sketch. I’ve tried a few different tools, but I’ve found I love using watercolor pencils and a watercolor marker most of all for my sketching, and a Sharpie pen or Micron pen for the journaling itself.

Include a few new discoveries. Our routine is to take a few pictures of “mystery” plants or creatures and then to use Google Images to identify them. After we’ve figured out our new discoveries, we sketch these on a page in our journals, practicing observation skills as we sketch the details. I’m not super talented, but I don’t feel I have to be. We’re learning plenty with our rough sketches and fun memories.

So often in education, we make the process of learning and discovery much harder than it has to be. Nature journaling and nature study do not have to be complicated or intimidating. It’s really about discovery and wonder and shared memories.

If you’d like a little gentle direction for your nature study, check out these NaturExplorer studies (affiliate link). Each study gives you fun books to read, tons of nature walk ideas and activities, as well as printable pages to add to your nature journal.

Our Journey Westward

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Preparing Tapestry: our Fourth Year

We are headed into our fourth year of our Tapestry of Grace curriculum, which means we will have completed the cycle at the end of this year. (It also means this is my last year of all grammar level.) Last year, I felt like we really made Tapestry our own and found our rhythm, our stride. It felt good, like a fitted glove. Of course, when you end a year like that, it makes planning the next year exciting. I love the aspect of homeschooling where I trouble-shoot and research and find our answers, but the Lord knew I would be doing that in several other areas of our life; so homeschooling was off the hook. No massive revamping this year. With that said, preparing Tapestry for this year went really smoothly.

In summary, I love manilla folders. I keep 36 folders for our weekly “must-do” assignments like language and math and Latin. Then I keep a second set of folders for Tapestry that are labeled by Term (we do three 12 week terms) and by topic (I don’t cover everything; instead, I select the events and topics that will best suit my learners). All of our reading lists, media lists, and project papers are printed off and filed in these topic folders.

So here’s what it looks like. At the beginning of a week, I pull out two folders: the week we are in and the topic we are studying. Within the weekly folder, I pull out assignment pages and file into the kids’ daily pockets inside their binders (we use case-it binders with the accordion file inside). Within the topic folder, I look at my list all of the books and projects assigned for that topic and the number of weeks that I’ve guessed it will take us to complete (i.e. Titanic, 2 weeks). I then allocate those assignments that will fit with our week’s schedule. Last year, this method cut my weekly prep to about 30 to 45 minutes total! Both kids filed and ready to go in around a half hour. It was beautiful.

Reading Lists

Tapestry’s reading lists are copyrighted, so I can’t share the specific book titles that we are using. However, I will list a couple of other resources I use to compare and substitute book titles. SimplyCharlotteMason.com has a book finder feature that I love. Just type in the event or person you are studying, the reading level of your students, and a great list of engaging living books is listed for you. My second resource is my local library online catalogue search feature. Again, I type in the event or person, narrow it to children’s resources, and voila! I love my local library. It has an enormous selection.

I also use SimplyCharlotteMason’s Story of America and Story of the Nations ebooks as my core. These are not Tapestry titles, but the table of contents make it very easy to assign chapters that fit what we are covering. And the books are very engaging. We love them.

I select my favorites. Depending on how long we intend to study a topic, for each week I will select one to two read-aloud titles, one to two independent reading titles per child (depending on the length of the book), and the rest will be assigned merely as reference, as in “let’s look at more pictures.”

Media List

I love audios. Awhile back I scored Diana Waring’s history audio from Answers in Genesis‘ history program. We love listening to these on the way back and forth to karate and co-op. So, on the days we don’t get to our reading, we are still getting to our history. And this is another very engaging resource.

Netflix is also a resource where I search for related films to what we are studying. We don’t always get to this, but it is great for those off-days or sick days to already have this list compiled.


Homeschool in the Woods is not a Tapestry resource either, but we LOVE these projects. I use the Time Traveler activities. We make notebooking pages using both the notebooking and lapbooking project ideas. Especially since my kids are finally old enough to do their own cutting and pasting, these have been really fun activities to assign. They work on these while I read-aloud. It keeps their fingers busy but doesn’t distract them from the reading.

I generally choose the projects that fit what we are studying, our time-frame, and my kids’ interests. I spend one long afternoon printing all of my chosen activities and filing into my topic folders. This saves me so much time during the school year.

I also have the Draw Through History titles. My son loves to draw; my daughter loves to trace. And it gives them some ideas for drawing and enhancing their notebook with images of what we are studying.

Our Rhythm

I mentioned that I note about how many weeks I think a topic will take us. Last year, this was very fluid. We moved on when our books were read and our projects were done. And I found that in the end, things balanced out. Some topics took longer than I estimated, and some topics didn’t take as long. If we read everything in a week, we moved on. If it took us five weeks, because of interest or illness, we took our time and enjoyed it all. Sometimes, it was just a dud, and rather than struggle through 3 more weeks of something we were not enjoying, we covered the basics and moved on.

I’m also sensitive to my kids’ reading interests. There were some books that my son just hated, and while I realize that not all learning can be interest-driven, I think at the younger levels, reading should be. Occasionally, I’d make a call that he just needed to get through a book. But if I made that call, I ensured that I had a very tantalizing book as a reward when he finished. There were books we didn’t read cover-to-cover. (Pause for you to gasp in horror.) We survived, and were no worse for that decision.

In spite of all that flexibility, I was amazed by how much my kids retained and learned. A little went a really long way.

What about discipline and teaching kids to push through the difficult stuff? I split my subjects into two categories: our discipline subjects like math, grammar, spelling; and our inspiration subjects like history, science, and reading. This helped me define my objectives. My discipline subjects were challenging but in short spurts (no more than 15-20 min. per lesson/subject). My inspiration subjects were kept inspiring and interesting and often took closer to an hour or hour and a half (hands-on projects take awhile). But again, I watched my kiddos. If they were engaged, we took our time. If their eyes were glossing over, it was time for lunch.

Want to know more specifics? I’ve listed our specific curriculum choices here. Feel free to browse those links. Not sure what your homeschool style is? Be encouraged with my post about losing the labels.

I’m looking forward to another really great homeschool adventure, and I hope you tag along on our journey.

Losing the Labels

Sometimes, labels can be very helpful, allowing us to define our vision or explain that vision in a way others can quickly identify with. At other times, we allow those labels to shackle us to a lifestyle or an approach that maybe isn’t quite the right fit.

Crunchy, organic, homesteader. Attachment-parenting, grace-based parenting, traditional. Classical education, Charlotte Mason, unschooling.

I think to escape the label in homeschooling, a lot of us settle on “eclectic” and call it a day. It’s easier than trying to explain the exceptions we’ve made to this philosophy and that approach. But I will take the time to explain some of our exceptions, just to help you see our journey and maybe bring some clarity to yours.

eclectic homeschooling

We started out hard core classical educators. Lots of memory, early Latin, art and music appreciation. And while I still love the learning levels and cycle of history, some of the rigidity and rigor has slipped away, for our sanity and survival.

I loved everything I read about Charlotte Mason, and was fully prepared to embrace the majority of that educational approach at the beginning of the year. Short lessons saved us this year, transformed our homeschool. My little ADHD kiddos thrived with short intense bursts and learned more than you could imagine from lessons that were no longer than 15 or 20 min.; it fit them perfectly. They could succeed and still be Tiggers. I also loved the connection with people rather than simply memorizing events. We merely discovered the events as we got to know people. My son saw himself in the life of Charles Dickens, saw who he wanted to be in Abraham Lincoln, and saw what he wanted to achieve in the lives of inventors like Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers.

Reading great books

On the other hand, even though the idea of teaching language the Charlotte Mason way really appealed to me, it was a colossal failure in practice. My son simply hated learning spelling through dictation; and while I enjoyed teaching the language lessons, I did not enjoy the fact that the method was so teacher-dependent. We gave it a try for quite a while and then I realized it was pointless to continue something that wasn’t working for my son simply because I was idealistic.

I learned this year, with all of our personal challenges, to be flexible, perhaps a little more realistic and a little less idealistic. I learned that no approach to education is the right approach for every child (after all, isn’t that why many of us homeschool to begin with?). And I learned that what I’m doing has to be a fit for BOTH me AND my child.

I’ve learned that labels are for canned food and toothpaste, not people.

Losing the labels

Incorporating Art in Learning

I love art. All of it. I’m not picky. So it’s always been important to me to incorporate art into my kids’ experience. Not necessarily making artists out of them, but equipping them with a desire, an appreciation, and some basic skills if they want to pursue it at some stage in their life. I guess to me, art is an avenue of worship, taking time to pause and appreciate the beauty our Creator has placed around us.

In the past, I’ve included it as a formal subject in keeping with the Classical Education model, and I think that worked well when they were really little. Now though, I’ve streamlined the essentials of our homeschool, what we must get done, and let art become a fluid part of our life. I’m incorporating art in the various subjects, activities, and areas of learning.

Learning to Draw | incorporating art

The one remaining “formal” aspect to our art is artist study. But even this is trimmed way down in Charlotte Mason style of “less is more.” We studied two artists from our history time period this year: Winslow Homer (for most of two terms, 24 weeks) and Frederick Remington (for our last 10-12 weeks). And by “study” I mean I have 4×6 prints that I either bought from Dover (artist post cards) or printed from online resources. We spent about 5-10 minutes a week on this, either reading the artist’s biography or admiring his pictures. Then, I tacked the picture to a gallery of the artist’s pictures on our window. That’s it. Next year, I plan to take the same approach with Norman Rockwell and Kandinsky.

Less has really proven to be just as effective (and much less stressful) than more.

Otherwise, art is an option for “play time” and “quiet time” activities. Art supplies are rewards they can earn with their chore point system. Personalized sketchbooks are birthday presents. And I peruse The Artful Parent resources for ideas to stimulate their creativity, when the moment presents itself.

Toddler Art | incorporating art

Then, I set an example. I pursue art myself. I’m playing with Zentangle and card-making. I’m bringing out my calligraphy and using it again. I’m teaching myself to paint. I practice sketching.

Learning to Paint | incorporating art

The perks? Art is fun. It’s not a task that I have to do or that I feel guilty about not having gotten to on the lesson plan. I can’t get “behind” in art. And my kids get to pursue what truly inspires them. My “messy” artist gets down and dirty. My OCD child gets to keep his hands clean with sketching. My toddler gets to do it all! And learning new skills becomes a life-lesson, not just a class activity.

Incorporating Art

Tailoring Tapestry of Grace to a Custom-Fit

Tapestry of Grace | tailoring Tapestry of Grace | customizing homeschool curriculum

I re-evaluated everything last spring, even Tapestry of Grace, and asked myself some hard questions. I was disillusioned with it, to be quite honest. I had expected the first year fog, but the second year I thought I ought to have found my stride. Unfortunately, I still had some growing pains. The kids were fine; they’re fine with just about anything I do. (Bless them!) But my expectations weren’t being met, or at least, I was feeling insecure. I started looking at other curriculums (gasp!) and wondering if Tapestry of Grace truly was our match.

I asked myself some hard questions. One of those questions: why had I loved Tapestry to begin with? My #1 reason wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t the book lists or activities; it wasn’t necessarily the whole family learning or the integration of subjects. I love many of those aspects, but at the top of my list was customization. Of course, you CAN customize just about any curriculum, but what I love is that Tapestry of Grace is designed to be customized.

I “customize” and find substitutes for a lot of the books a lot of the time. The activity suggestions I’ve almost entirely replaced; they just didn’t our family and my time-limits. I loved the Bible suggestions and world-view, but even those were merely a jumping off point.

Bottom-line, I’m not a curriculum-follower; I’m a curriculum-creator with not enough time to create from scratch. Tapestry of Grace allows me to customize, and I love that.

After learning that about myself and about Tapestry, I’m maximizing that possibility. I am customizing the curriculum to the point where some of you might not even recognize it. I’m tailoring Tapestry of Grace, and I’m loving it so far.

Tailoring Tapestry by Topics, not Weeks

Toward the end of last year, I found myself totally overwhelmed with keeping up with the week plans. Trying to accomplish the reading deadlines was throttling our joy of reading and learning together. I hated it. To survive, I tossed the week plans and studied by topic instead. We studied the explorers, the colonies, and the American War for Independence. We moved on when we were ready, when our books were read—and we took the time to enjoy our books.

This worked so well that I’ve implemented it from the very beginning of this year. I’ve selected the events we will cover (and we won’t cover them all; no history curriculum does) and arranged our terms by topic instead of by week.

I do have a rough idea of how long we will spend on each topic, but I’m keeping it rough.

Tailoring Tapestry by Terms, not Units

Tapestry is divided into four 9-week units. But I overhauled this, too. It became difficult last year to work our vacations around our units. Also, some units were very busy while others seemed pretty empty. By arranging our year by topics, I could smooth these busy times out. But then my units were all messed up.

Instead of units, I’ve arranged our year into three Terms of about 12 weeks. Tapestry, for the most part, will fit into the first two terms. (That’s right, 24 weeks instead of 36.) And the last term will be for science. Why?

To counter-act burnout. When spring hits, I’m ready for a change and so are the kids. Tapestry felt like it dragged on forever both years we’ve done it. When the sun comes out, I want to study outside and explore. Science seems like such a natural subject that time of year.

I’ve even rearranged Tapestry topics to tailor this. For instance, at different points in Year 3 we are supposed to study inventors and inventions. I’ve pulled these weeks out of place and arranged that topic for part of our science study in Term 3.

I told you, I gave Tapestry a massive overhaul. But it’s custom, and it fits.



What about maps?

I’m only using the maps as a reference point for our reading and discussion. We will be using the Classical Conversations dry-erase “Trivium Table” maps instead. And an old GeoSafari, for those who remember what that is.

What about chronology?

I’ve kept the topics in order for the most part. The only rearranged item were the inventors. I’m really wanting to free us up to form relationships with the people we are studying, something I felt too rushed to do in the past.

What about books?

I use Tapestry as a starting point and search my library by topic. I also do a lot of comparing on the SimplyCharlotteMason.com website. I’m pickier about book choices. We only have time for the best, living books. No dry fact summaries. And I’m not opposed to searching Netflix or my library’s videos. Liberty Kids was a life-saver toward the end of last year, and very effective.

What about activities?

There’s nothing wrong with Tapestry activities. In fact, when I first looked at Tapestry, this was a huge selling point for me—making bricks like the Israelites did, making armor like the medieval knights wore, etc. But, life happened. And I realize that I’m just not up for that most of the time. I don’t happen to have rebar or cement or wire or washers on hand. Not to mention that I’m tired of feeling guilty for not fitting it in. It’s just not us. (Not that my kids wouldn’t love it. You are more than welcome to come over and stomp bricks with them in the wading pool. But I’m lucky to have supper cooked and laundry caught up.)

Oldest likes to draw and caption, while Middlest likes to imagine and execute her own craft ideas. We like paper-crafts with glue and scissors. That’s more our speed.

Why do Tapestry at all if you are going to maul it like that?

This is my own question asked to myself. And my answer is, I looked at all the other curriculums very closely once more. Tapestry still had the core of what I wanted, more so than all the others. I like the literature woven into the history, I like the discussions and world view highlights, I like the 4 year rotation and the classical learning divisions (grammar, dialectic, rhetoric). I like that Tapestry was designed to be customized.

So there you have it. A face-lift, an overhaul, or a demolition—whatever you want to call it, I call it tailoring Tapestry of Grace to a perfect custom-fit.

**UPDATE: Curious to see how this turned out for us? Check out my update on our Tapestry of Grace changes.**

Narration: the art of story-telling

Children love to tell stories. My day is filled with little voices narrating what happened in the bedroom upstairs, what happened in the backyard, and what happened just 2 minutes ago at the table right in front of me.

Even Littlest has started this. The other day, he threw a piece of trash into a receptacle with a revolving lid. At the angle he was standing at, he got smacked in the head with the lid as he pushed down on it. I saw it happen, yet he turns to me and tells me exactly what I saw. “Da’ tash bonked ma head,” he said. He’s learning language by using it, by putting the events of his day into words.

That’s what narration is. It’s teaching knowledge and language through retelling, challenging the child to put his thoughts into spoken words. But because it’s spoken, he’s learning this skill without having the added worry of how to spell and punctuate those thoughts, at least not yet.

I mentioned before that Oldest has been a little hesitant to make the switch to narration. I know it’s a different thought-process than what he’s used to (regurgitating the right answers to my questions), so I’ve been patient with his transition. I’ve also seen, when he has been less self-conscious, what an enthusiastic narrator  he is. Example:

“There was a fire [insert sound effect]. And the flames went up like [another sound effect]. The animals all ran away [he hops across my floor like a rabbit, screaming, ‘AHH!’].”

So here are some practical things I’m trying to make the transition smoother and to make narration more varied and appealing.

  • Draw pictures. This was our very first alternative when telling the story was simply too overwhelming at first. After I finished our reading, they chose a scene they remembered and illustrated it.
  • Act it out. Middlest sparked the whole idea when she suggested we make our own paddle boats to go along with the Paddle to the Sea audio-story we were listening to. The kids made their canoes, and then each day, they acted out the part of the story we’d just listened to. It was a huge turning point for Oldest, and their narrations were very detailed and enthusiastic. (See the example above!)

narrating with props

  • You Pick. One of the free resources at SimplyCharlotteMason.com is a narration bookmark, which includes a myriad of ideas for how to ask for narrations from your child. I printed off these bookmarks and gave one to Oldest to use in his independent reading. Then, I allowed him to read his bookmark and choose how he wanted to narrate his reading to me after he’d finished it on his own. Not only was it great accountability, allowing me to double-check that he’d read and comprehended, but he was much more willing when he had a choice in the matter.

How do I ask for a narration? Well, I’m still learning, and that bookmark has helped me quite a bit, too. But when I ask for a retelling, I try to do one of two things. First, chapter titles can be very helpful. If the chapter title is “Night in the Settlement,” then I ask “Describe what the first night at the settlement was like.” Another idea I’ve used is to reread the first couple of sentences (after I read the selection) and then pause and wait for them to continue the story.

One more idea I found simply hilarious and can’t wait to try was from one of Catherine Levison’s books. She said that when her children hesitated and resisted narrating, she’d say, “I guess our story was about a pink rabbit that met an elephant.” And her kids would rush to correct her.

One last thought here. I have not required Middlest to narrate. Sometimes after Oldest is finished I will ask her if she has something to add, but that’s usually because I can see her squirming with excitement about to burst with what she has to add.

This has been a very fun journey for all of us, including Oldest. And in just 3 weeks, I have seen both of their narrations and the details they include improve tremendously.