How to do Nature Study (when you don’t have a clue)

how to do nature study when you're not an expert | nature study resources and tips

I love nature study, but please don’t read that and think I’m an expert. I can’t identify every plant and mushroom or tell you the name of every bird by listening to their song or even identify tracks and burrows. I don’t know all the answers to my kids’ questions, but I love studying and observing nature. Over the years, I’ve gotten more comfortable with not knowing everything, and I’ve accumulated some favorite resources that help us study and identify our discoveries. I’ve learned how to do nature study, even when I don’t have a clue.

We started nature walks when my kids were very little. Gradually, we identified some favorite birds and plants common to our area. Then we moved from the east coast to the west coast. It was like moving to a different country! The birds are different, the plant life is different, the climate is different. The knowledge about nature that I had gained did us no good on our nature walks in our new tromping grounds. But we still loved nature study, and gradually we are discovering and learning the nature of our new home. My point is—you don’t need to be a nature expert to do a nature study with your kids. Instead, model the learning process with them.

nature study resources & tips | how to do nature study when you aren't an expert

Simple Steps for Nature Study

  1. Discover. Nature is all about discovery. It’s perfect for every age because there is always something for everyone, your preschooler to your high schooler. Sometimes I offer the kids a specific theme. Find signs of spring. Find signs of animal life. Find different leaf shapes. Kids are natural detectives, and mine have always craved a mission of discovery.
  2. Observe. Every nature walk, we take at least two items: our nature journals and a camera or my phone. (We also bring magnifying glasses, a field guide, and water bottles.) We choose “mystery” creatures and observe them closely, taking pictures and sketching in our journals so that we can go back later and research what they are. On our latest nature walk we had a journal full of unidentified discoveries—tracks, holes in the ground, two mystery birds, etc. We photographed each item and researched them in field guides, our local park and wildlife resource websites, and my favorite bird identifying app. Eventually, we identified nearly all of our mysteries, with lots of surprising results: cougar tracks, red-eared slider turtle nest, and a couple of new birds. The process is half the fun!
  3. Learn. I think the best part of nature study is that my kids see me learning beside them. I’m modeling with them what it means to discover, observe, and learn. I keep a nature journal and share my pages with them. I spend my birthday money on nature books and guides and studies. We read about it together. We learn how to keep a journal together. We enjoy and marvel at God’s creation together. They learn that it’s okay to not know the answer. It’s okay to be excited about a new creature or plant that we haven’t identified yet. And over the years, our repertoire of what we can identify is growing.

Below are a list of some of our favorite nature study resources. But I encourage you to find what you love, resources that work for you. As I followed nature study blogs and tried out different resources, I discovered that what many homeschoolers loved I absolutely hated. Handbook of Nature Study was a resource touted by many. I own it. I never use it. It just didn’t work for me. These are the books and nature studies we’ve used and loved, but you may have your own favorites (list them in the comments for us!)

steps to nature study | nature study resources & tips

 

Nature Journal resources

(Note: Some of these links are affiliate links. That simply means that when you click on the link and make a purchase, I get a small fee that helps me offset my blog and homeschool expenses. It doesn’t cost you a thing, and helps me a lot! For more info, feel free to read my disclosure.)

My nature journal

Oldest’s nature journal

(My daughter has nature study pages in her “Fun-schooling” journal, and my youngest just uses a spiral notebook.)

Nature Connection (I love all of Clare Walker Leslie’s books, but this one is my favorite.)

Nature Study Books and Guides

Discover Nature series (another author I love, Elizabeth Lawlor)

Book of Nature Projects

Clara D. Pierson’s Among the People Series (A living book at it’s finest, this fictional story provides lots of information about the lovable animal characters.)

NaturExplorers are another of my favorites! I love the nature walk ideas, the printable notebooking pages and scavenger hunts, the book recommendations, the art and music suggestions, and the emphasis. There is a ton to learn in these studies, but the emphasis is beauty and wonder not merely scientific observation. I love bringing the joy and wonder of nature into our nature walks and times together. While the ideas given are perfect for lower elementary, additional suggestions are provided for including the older student. When we first moved to the Pacific Northwest, we did a study on Remarkable Rain. I loved it! I loved the poetry, fictional tales, and art that rounded off our nature study. Currently, we are using the Animal Signs study, and loving it equally as much, especially the nature study notebooking pages provided in the study.

Nature study does not have to be intimidating. It doesn’t require a ton of research and preparation. It just takes opportunity. Take a walk in nature and notice what’s around you. That’s it! And chances are, your kids will do the rest for you.

Our Journey Westward

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A Nature Journaling Memory

I love our summer nature studies. Oldest has especially bonded with his nature journal this summer. He’s always got it with him, including when we went on vacation. He sat on the balcony of our hotel room and sketched. When we visited with friends, he and my friend’s son sat outside on a rock pile with their nature journals and shared colored pencils.

books for nature study

I consulted two different sources this year: The Handbook of Nature Study and Nature Journaling, both from my library. The Handbook is rather intimidating, I’ll admit—very comprehensive and very hard to use with young children. I always feel like a momma bird when I use the Handbook; I have to read and digest the information and then feed it to my children in small, already-been-chewed bites. But I do understand when others write that you can’t do nature study without it. It is very comprehensive. On the other hand, Nature Journaling is inspiring and inviting. It not only provides ideas for how to have a nature journal but intentionally removes the fear factor. This book is why my son loves his journal.

journal for nature study

I haven’t forced a curriculum or made journaling an assignment. When he shows me an entry, I’ll ask him questions that relate to what we’ve been studying. Is it a vertebrate or an invertebrate? What classification is it? But his journal is not purely scientific; it’s a place for him to record his summer memories—the blue-taled skink that regularly visited our front porch, the squirrel they tried to lure with acorns, the varied leaves found in the yard.

His journal is made with my Proclick binder: a piece of cardboard for the backing, some notebooking pages with places to sketch and lines to write on, and a laminated cover.

But it’s not really how I made his journal that makes him love it; it’s about how I’m letting him make his own memories and then experience them a second time on paper.

nature study for little kids

Testing the Waters

I have a confession to make: nature study absolutely terrifies me. I love the idea of having my children explore the outdoors and learn about science as they observe and ask questions. But truthfully, it also makes me a little uncomfortable because I often don’t know the answers.

Last summer, our nature study consisted of using our senses. I was okay with that. All I was really doing was moderating their experiences of taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell. But this summer, as we tip-toe toward REAL nature study, I feel a little hesitant. So as I relate our summer to all of you, I’ll really be sharing how I am overcoming my nature study insecurities. Hopefully, some of you will chime in with your own experiences and cheer me on a little.

(That was my disclaimer. Now for your first installment of my rather insecure start to this summer’s nature study.)

 

The other day, my oldest asked me if he could do a craft outside. Inside, I panicked. I saw scissors on my sidewalk, melted crayons in the grass, and tiny bits of paper floating on the breeze. Then, I snapped out of my nightmare and offered my son a more mom-friendly alternative: nature study. I pulled out his nature journal from last year and his box of colored pencils. He happily trotted off to sketch the great outdoors. He came back in a few minutes later with this.

This, folks, is a picture of a mushroom; and, of course, he wanted to know the name of this creation so that he could write it in his journal. I could feel the anxiety surfacing, but instead, I led him to the computer where I typed into google the name of our state and the word “mushrooms.” A university website came up in the search, and we scrolled down through the photos until we found the one that matched his picture: purple-spored puffball.

He copied the name onto his page and went back outside. A few minutes later, he dashed back inside with a new sketch and a new question. Once again, we headed to the internet and discovered the white clover flower. (Sad, friends, isn’t it? that I didn’t know the name of that flower without the aid of the internet? I am ashamed. But I’m hoping my honest confession will inspire someone else who feels totally inadequate when it comes to nature study.)

My first day of nature study, and it was all that I feared it would be: lots of questions that I didn’t have answers for. But I realized that through my ignorance, I’m teaching my children a lesson even more valuable than mushroom and flower identification.  I’m showing them how to learn and how to find the answers they are seeking. And, Praise the Lord! Google is coming through for me.