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The Evolution of My Nature Notebook by Nicole Williams

04 Feb 2018 3:43 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

My children have each worked their way through several nature notebooks throughout their school education, but I am still working on my original one. My first entry was on June 11, 2009. It’s interesting to see the evolution that has taken place in my style over the years. I attribute the change to, 1) my growing need to express myself more thoroughly, and 2) my understanding of the way the nature notebook should be used.


Early on, my entire focus was to paint an object I had found in nature. The children and I would go for a short walk with the purpose of finding an item to draw. Each of us would place our specimen on the table in front of us — the picnic table if it was a nice day, or the dining room table if it was not — and then prepare our supplies: notebook, paints, water, paper towel, etc. It is a lovely scene to imagine, and it is true that this sort of drawing forces the student to look very carefully at the object so they can paint it in a more lifelike way, but I would suggest that what I have described is more along the lines of a drawing lesson. Though not quite. At best, it is the merging of two separate lessons, with neither of them done well. 

When explaining the use of the nature notebook, Charlotte Mason said, “As for drawing, instruction has no doubt its time and place; but his nature diary should be left to his own initiative” (1/55). I understood this directive to mean the child would learn to draw during drawing lessons, but it didn’t help me know how drawing was to be used in my notebook.

As time went on, I wanted to include more description of what I was observing, but I didn’t want to wreck my book. I tried to be neat and tidy, keeping my notes short and clever. Then eventually, I just had to leave my perfectionism behind, so I could include some of the things that I desperately wanted to add. This last step was a relief because now I could enter things that I couldn’t set on my kitchen table, or sit next to in the field.

It also caused the following few sentences from Home Education to take on new meaning. I had read this quote many times before, but this time, I viewed it through a different lens. Notice that most of the notebook entries she mentions are not things that would stay still for the child to draw.

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. (1/54)

It is true that not all of the items she suggested entering would be flying through the sky or jumping from tree to tree. She did go on to say, “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” (1/55). But we must consider the whole story, not just the part that fits our preconceived model. I was coming to understand that the bulk of my nature notebook entries were meant to be written narrations. Possibly this is why Miss. Mason sometimes referred to it as a ‘nature journal.’

I was further assured that this idea was correct when I read the Parents’ Review article “Nature Work at the House of Education” by Mr. Geldart. He had the job of reviewing a nature notebook from each graduate of the House of Education. To give you an idea of how much material was included in one year's notebook, he writes, “when I began reading these books the average time occupied by each book was about five hours, but such a set of books as were sent last Christmas took seven hours each” (9/487). Imagine the quantity of material, both written observations and illustrations, that would have required five to seven hours to review!

Illustrations do have an important place in the nature notebook, (Mr. Geldart lists them as the third in priority in his article,) and a child can begin adding them to his nature notebook even before formal lessons are begun. Charlotte Mason said, “While he is quite young (five or six), he should begin to illustrate his notes freely with brush drawings” (1/55). Still, we need to remember that they are not the central component. Their value is in further clarifying, further narrating, what a child has observed.

My understanding of the use of a nature notebook has come so far, and I can see now that I was cutting off the end of my roast because my mother always did, as Emily explained in her CMI article “The Importance of Memory Drawing in Nature Note-Books.” She pointed out that if we “seek first to understand the principles, we see the reason for, and importance of, each practice given to us, and will be better able to apply them to our own time and situations”

To consider the principles behind nature notebooks, I believe we would be wise to consider how other lessons are constructed. Recently one of my children took notes as she was reading a challenging book. I hadn’t noticed until my other daughter exclaimed hotly, “She cheated!!” In a Charlotte Mason education, we don’t encourage note taking but instead start with small enough sections that a child can narrate fully. As time passes, we assign more and then more, all the while expecting a full narration after the reading is complete. In this way, we train our child to pay attention, make mental pictures, and then use their words to tell what they know. It makes sense that we would use this same outline to train our children to study nature.

Charlotte Mason instructs:  “Children should be encouraged to watch, patiently and quietly, until they learn something of the habits and history of bee, ant, wasps, spider, hairy caterpillar, dragonfly, and whatever of larger growth comes in their way.” (1/57) And then, once a child spends ample time watching, (she suggested an hour,) he can record everything he has noticed. 

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; it’s colour, shape, legs: someday he will come across the name of the creature and will recognize the description of an old friend. (1/58)

Charlotte Mason suggests several activities to build up the child’s power to observe nature.

Sight-seeing is described as an exploring expedition, which challenges the children to observe every little thing they can and then return to mother to tell all.

Picture-painting is a bit like a picture study: “the children to look well at some patch of landscape, and then to shut their eyes and call up the picture before them . . . When they have a perfect image before their eyes, let them say what they see" (1/48).

Object lessons, “assist a child, by careful examination of a given object, to find out all he can about it through the use of his several senses” (2/180). And with this new knowledge the child’s vocabulary grows, “for it is a law of the mind that what we know, we struggle to express” (1/68).

Bird-stalking is the challenge of "tracking a song or note to its source” (1/89). 

In Parents and Children, Chapter 17, Charlotte Mason details the importance of training the child to use all of his five senses to observe, to use his mind to judge, discriminate, and compare, and then to use language to describe what he has noticed. In conclusion to that chapter, she said,

A boy who is observing a beetle does not consciously apply his several senses to the beetle, but lets the beetle take the initiative, which the boy reverently follows: but the boy who is in the habit of doing sensory daily gymnastics will learn a great deal more about the beetle than he who is not so trained. (2/189)

Careful observation is fundamental to nature study. It is the meat of the lesson. The nature notebook then, is the narration, the record of what has been observed. In my first nature notebook entries, I was setting out to make a lovely drawing, and by doing so, I was mistakenly putting the practice before the principle. Once I understood the priority to be an intent observation of the natural world, through the use of all of my senses, I saw that my nature notebook is a tool for narration, mostly that of written narration, with some illustrations added.

To learn more about the components that make up a nature notebook, listen to the A Delectable Education Podcast Episode 111: Notebooks and Paperwork, Part 1 or read the article Nature Notebooks on SabbathMoodHomeschool.com.

© 2018 Nicole Williams

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