Workshop Notes: Nature Studies

I can’t get enough of Charlotte Mason … even if I don’t actually DO a lot of what she teaches. It just sounds so ideal. So just like The Art of Writing, I’ve now attended this workshop twice. Hopefully this time I will be able to implement some of these principles and practices into our homeschool. By the looks of things -see AHAW week 3 -I haven’t made much progress.

Hey, It’s only been a week. Gimme some time. We’ll get there.

This workshop was presented by Karen Rackliffe (I’m pretty sure this is her, but she didn’t mention anything about her book with a gazillion positive reviews during her workshop, so maybe not. Or she’s just humble.)

Mrs. Rackliffe is what you would expect of a veteran homeshool mom. She is her own person and is comfortable being her own person. Which is refreshing. And she’s an artist. And a nature enthusiast. So, lets just say the tone and pace of this workshop was completely different from the one on Passion Driven Education. Very different in many ways, indeed.

Anyway, the idea behind nature studies is 1)  we go out into nature, although she mentioned that often she would take her kids to parks and that counted. So probably your backyard could count, although I can’t imagine you would get the same feel. 2) We observe our surroundings. 3) We draw, sketch, or paint someone of interest to you – this is where we pay attention to detail and try to recreate the leaf or bug or stick or flower in our notebooks And 4) we record poetry, sayings, quotes or other information relevant to the natural item you painted next to it in your nature journal.

So, why nature notebooks? It is visual and tactile learning, she says. The children use pictures, and you can use words too if you want. Also, and this is a key factor, when you draw or paint, you have to SLOW DOWN. You have to take time to observe and see what is really there. We don’t just see a tree and then draw a quick scribble of a generic tree. But instead we “look at the real tree and see what it can tell you.” (Mrs. Rackliffe says at this point, “wow, that sounds a little touchy feely, doesn’t it?”)

I wish I had a copy of her notebook pages (she’s an artist, remember!) but I remember on one page she had drawn the tree, and then next to it a leaf of the tree, actual size. She included the seed pod, the environment where she found the tree (name of park, natural surroundings) and then she labeled her pictures in pretty handwriting. All with beautiful detail.

Also, she stressed, the number one rule is to write the date on the top of your page. She said, “now maybe I am a little bit of a free thinker, but..” to her it didn’t matter what the child chose to focus on and observe. The key was that they 1) wrote the date on their page and then 2) observed something.

One day her daughter chose to draw a squirrel, and she came up with this great fantastical story about the squirrel. On the same day her son took a sprig from a  pine tee an counted and drew every single needle! Her daughter chose fantasy and her son chose exactness. You can learn a lot about your children by looking at their drawings. (And she says, “don’t say ‘what is that?’ say ‘tell me about your drawing.'” since especially with the little ones, you may have absolutely no idea!)

Below are some examples of notebook pages I found online. And this blog post from Joyous Lessons shows what it all looks like.


Journals can be used for science experiments, hopes, dreams, fears, quotes (a good way to work on beautiful handwriting), and travel.

Her goal was to go out once a week. Sometimes that doesn’t happen so occasionally they would pick up “treasures” along the trail and keep them in a “treasure box.” Then on weeks they couldn’t get out, the kids could just pick something out of the box to draw.

One parent in the room asked her how we were supposed to get our kids to sit and paint an entire picture. She answered it doesn’t matter how long you work on your page. Your goal is just to do a page. Also, she approached their nature journals as the reward for working hard all week. “In my mind this was school, but in their mind it was play.” The nature walk was the treat and therefore the kids looked forward to it. Also, they would often go to a park or some place in nature where the kids could play. She’d give them 50 minutes or so to play while she worked on her own page, and then when she was done she would call the kids in and have them work on their pages. If the kids were new to nature journaling she would pick something and tell them, “ok, now we are going to observe this for 5 minutes and see what we can figure out.” Or she would tell them some interesting fact about the item to spark their interest. Once she had two canaries and she told the class, “Now, I was told one of these is a male and the other is a female, but I don’t know which one is which. Let’s see if we can figure it out.” And boy did those kids observe and find all sorts of minute difference and details in the cute little birds.

She also spent a lot of time talking about materials. Essentially, get really think and sturdy watercolor paper. Also, don’t use crayola or prang water colors. She says get the paint that comes in tubes -except NOT the reeves tube paint from JoAnn’s. Essentially, you can get a good Strathmore journal from Hobby Lobby or even Crayola Watercolor Paper from JoAnn’s, and then a Windsor and Newton paint set at JoAnn’s as well (use a coupon, she says.) Synthetic brushes are just as good as horse hair brushes. You really only need three: a big flat one, a medium round one, and a tiny detail brush.

Ok, workshop over. Here is why I haven’t done this before and why, although I want to, I am skeptical that it will really work out well.

  1. My perfectionist children are going to get mad that they can’t draw anything as realistic as real life. That’s just drawing. When we add watercolors, I just foresee complete meltdowns.
  2. My non detail oriented children are just going to want to go play. I can see them spending about 5 minutes working in their journals on the first outing, 2 minutes on the second outing, and then completely refusing to comply on the 3rd outing.
  3. My little itty bitty children are just going to be playing anyway, so that’s going to make it hard for the older to concentrate and will lead to frustration.
  4. I am not an artist and I am not particularly excited about doing this myself. Not because I don’t see the value, but while I am focusing and concentrating and observing my little pinecone, whose going to be focusing and concentrating and observing my toddler eating the dirt and wood chips?
  5. By the time we get done hiking or playing in the river or woods or whatnot, it is time to go home and take naps or have “reading and rest time.” (More on that to come!) I’ve gotten better about not over exhausting the kids when we’re out and about, but I still have such a hard time pulling them away from just playing out in nature so I let them go to what I think is the last minute. I’m really big into letting kids play… and run on sentences.

I think, in the end, it all comes down to trying it out, trying again, then again, and tweaking things so that they work for you. I have this mental picture of what this is supposed to look like, and it doesn’t look like my family. But maybe it’s because my mental picture is wrong. I would really like to go out with someone who actually does this and just see how it all in action.

We’ll at least give it a try. Of course, we didn’t last week and we probably won’t have time this week…oh wait, what was that she said about slowing down?

Ok. We’ll try harder.