At SCCS each child from kindergarten on receives a small notebook with stiff covers and high quality paper. This will serve as a nature journal and follow them from grade to grade for as long as they are at our school. A notebook containing watercolor sketches of dandelions and acorns may evoke an image of something quaint from yesteryear, like a Victorian picnic–charming, but not particularly relevant or serving any real purpose.
The truth is that nature journaling is full of pedagogical value. When children attempt to replicate an object from nature they must exercise their powers of observation and concentration. Their drawing must mirror the true size and scale of the object, and they must experiment with mixing colors to replicate the real colors of that object.
The close study of nature, in general, is the heart of our science curriculum at SCCS, and nature journaling is just one important component of this.
Another important aspect of our science curriculum is phenology— the study of how nature changes through the seasons. At the beginning of each school year, each class in every grade adopts a tree somewhere near the school grounds (our smallest kids always name their tree something endearing like Maple or Branchy) and then visit it through the change of seasons, discussing and sketching what it looks like to keep a record of its changing leaves and branches.
Through time spent with an object from nature, looking closely at its details, children come to know and care for nature more intimately and personally. Nature journal entries are typically labeled with the common and Latin name of the object. This ties in well with our Latin curriculum and also helps students expand their ability to identify plants and animals.
Similar to nature journaling, square foot study is another activity that brings our students closer to nature’s details. Areas on the ground–exactly one square foot–are marked off using stakes and twine. Students will sit with a square foot of paper and create a drawing that corresponds to whatever they see on the ground within that square.
These exercises are not easy and require a certain amount of stamina, thus developing the habit of attention— one of many habits we, as a Charlotte Mason school, try to help our students develop.
“A child of six,” says Charlotte Mason, “will produce a dandelion, poppy, daisy, iris with its leaves, impelled by the desire to represent what he sees, with surprising vigour and correctness.” (Vol. 1, p.55)
Some curriculums, in an attempt to point children in the direction of environmentalism, introduce them to the woes of rainforest destruction or the phenomena of oil spills in far-off oceans. We think this is misguided. In his book Beyond Ecophobia, David Sobel says: “If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it.”
Sobel recommends that children begin with their immediate surroundings. In this vein, we do not ask our students to sketch exotic flowers imported from another hemisphere. We choose native Missouri plants, objects found on nature walks in Tower Grove Park, or vegetables from our own school garden.
Following this philosophy and inspired by David Sobel’s book, Mapmaking with Children, we also make mapping a part of our SCCS curriculum from kindergarten onward. Our youngest students make maps of their own bedrooms, their house within their own neighborhood, their classroom, and our school grounds as well. Maps grow more sophisticated by grade level. Fourth graders “map” a puddle to learn how to draw depth. Through these assignments students learn how to read maps and acquire other skills and concepts such as drawing to scale, bird’s-eye view, elevation, and topography.
Giving children a sense of place and opportunities to know and connect with their immediate natural surroundings gives them not just knowledge, but also a sense of stewardship. In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv says: “We cannot protect something we do not love, we cannot love what we do not know, and we cannot know what we do not see. And touch. And hear.”
Lastly, it is also worth noting that our nature journals at SCCS are never allowed anywhere near the nether regions of a backpack, to emerge water-stained and crumpled. When our students move on from SCCS, they can count on having these journals, of archival quality, to keep and treasure.
(The photos included in this post were taken with permission from the nature journals of three of our current fifth and sixth grade students.)