Becoming a Naturalist

Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar Rachel A. Freedman 1171x593

An Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar enjoys a snack at Brookside Gardens in Maryland.

Rachel A. Freedman

Nature Journaling: Week 2

Find our complete Nature Journal series here.

“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the Earth and in contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility.” —Rachel Carson

Nature is everywhere you are. Finding it is easy, especially if you are curious about clouds, trees, weather, stars, rocks, birds, ants, or anything else outside. True magic lies in your curiosity about these everyday things.

How we experience nature has a lot to do with where we live, what season it is, and the weather on any given day. No matter where we are, the natural world is constantly changing and it has been since the beginning of time. Becoming a naturalist involves watching these changes outside carefully, recording your observations, and asking questions about what you see. Naturalists have been around for centuries and their observations have led to discoveries that we still study. Stepping into the role of a naturalist, you might discover something no one else has ever noticed.

No supplies are needed to become a naturalist. You just have to be curious and willing to be an outdoor detective. But to make your outdoor explorations more enjoyable, consider bringing:

  • Proper clothing for the weather
  • Reusable water bottle and snack
  • Binoculars
  • Nature journal or paper and clipboard
  • Pens, pencils, and erasers
  • Coloring pencils and watercolors
  • Tape or glue
  • Magnifying glass
  • Small field guides
  • Sun and bug protection

“I never go out knowing what I am going to find.The interest is in finding what I didn’t know I was going to find.” —Henry David Thoreau

Prompt #5:  Eyes to the Sky

Materials Needed: Nature journal or paper, pen or pencil, coloring materials like markers, crayons, colored pencils, or paints.

Assignment: Find a safe spot to observe outside (backyard, porch, by a window) and look up. Draw the patterns the plants and trees make against the sky.

Additional resources:

Journal Prompt:

How many different types of plants can you spot? Identify them (using field guides and phone apps). When you identified your plants, did you learn anything about the health of this environment?

Prompt #6:  Levels of Observation

Materials Needed: Nature journal or paper, pen or pencil coloring materials, watch or phone timer

Assignment: Find a safe spot to observe outside (backyard, porch, by a window). This assignment will lead you through four levels of observation. Spend only two minutes on each round. Choose a large area to observe, from the sky all the way to the ground. Break the area up into three parts: an upper section (the sky, the tops of trees and/or buildings), a lower section (the ground), and a middle section (everything in-between the upper and lower sections).

Observation Round 1: Observe and record details about the upper section of the area you selected.

Observation Round 2: Observe and record details for the lower section.

Observation Round 3: Observe and record details for the middle section.

Observation Round 4: Looking at the entire area as a whole, record details that you missed. Draw the most prominent observation from each round of your recordings.

Additional resources:

Journal Prompt: Are you surprised by the amount of information you were able to record about each area of focus? Do you think the main observations you made and drew capture the essence of the outdoor place you were observing? Why or why not?

Prompt #7:  I see... I wonder... It reminds me of...

Materials Needed: Nature journal or paper, pen or pencil coloring materials.

Assignment: Find a safe spot to observe outside (backyard, porch, by a window). Spend some time studying your environment.

First: Take a few moments to jot down or draw what youobservein this environment. This is purely what is readily apparently based on your senses—what you can see, hear, smell, or feel.

Second: Write down what you are curious about. What do you wonder, what do you wish you knew, and why are things occurring the way they are?

Finally: Write down any connections you can make between the environment you’re observing and any past experiences you have had. Do the components of this environment remind you of anything?

Additional resources:

Journal Prompt: Write a letter to someone (a friend, a grandparent, your teacher) who has never seen the place you observed. Use words to describe the setting so they could imagine being there.

Prompt #8:  Field Sketching 101

Materials Needed: Nature journal or paper, pen or pencil, colors (markers, pencils, crayons, or watercolors), printed images or magazine cut-outs of wildlife and/or the wilderness.

Assignment: Things in nature can move quickly. This activity will allow you to practice capturing the essence of your subject quickly and adding details later—just like a true naturalist!

Part 1: Select one image of wildlife or the wilderness. This can be online or from a magazine. Spend the first few moments recording information about what you see and how you feel about it. Write in prose or use poetic language. Once you’ve finished, paste or tape the image into your journal or onto the paper you’re using.

Part 2: Using basic art supplies, spend five minutes quickly capturing a simple drawing of the image you selected. Use shapes, colors, and lines. Add comments to explain the drawing in further detail. Once your drawing is complete, feel free to ‘finish’ it with more details, colors, shading, etc. Spend about 15 minutes completing your entry.

Additional resources:

Journal Prompt: Looking at the image you selected, create a list of questions you could  research  to learn more about the wildlife or wild place in the image. Challenge yourself to develop questions related to many different subjects, i.e. history, culture, physics, economy, etc. Example: [image of a cardinal] How do hollow bones help cardinals fly? Are baby cardinals also red? Why is the cardinal the state bird of Virginia?

If you have more time, here are some famous naturalists to learn about:

  • John James Audubon: famous for his paintings and descriptions of birds
  • Henry David Thoreau: author of Walden,a book about living a simple life in nature
  • Charles Darwin: scientist who developed the theory of evolution
  • Rachel Carson: author of Silent Spring,a book that helped launch the modern environmental movement
  • Edward Wilson: a biologist who probably knows more about ants than anyone else in the world
  • Jane Goodall: researcher of chimpanzees and founder of the Roots and Shoots Institute

We would love you to share your nature journal entries on CBF's Learn Outside Facebook Group!

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