“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” — Journal, 5 August 1851
“I do not know where to find in any literature, whether ancient or modern, any adequate account of that Nature with which I am acquainted.” — Journal, February 1851
“We, too, are out, obeying the same law with all nature. Not less important are the observers of the birds than the birds themselves.” — Journal, 20 March 1858
The above quotes come from the journal of one of the greatest American naturalists and philosophers of all time, Henry David Thoreau. While he is best known for his book Walden, Thoreau kept extensive journals throughout his life, which documented his everyday thoughts, observations, and interactions with nature. Some of these journals are even used today for long-term studies of flowers.
The nature journal is a long-utilized tool that has been a staple in environmental education. Journaling can be a great way to help students become more aware of the environment around them as well as strengthen their writing, artistic, and listening skills!
It is easy to get started journaling! Have your students get a simple notebook or make a journal out of paper and string. Or make digital or online journals with them instead. The ‘journal’ can be an archive of photos, or even a blog.
One of the great things about journaling is that it can take any form the author chooses. Some people are more comfortable sketching than writing, while for others the opposite is true. Personally, I prefer writing, but I occasionally try to sketch what I see.
Journals can help students integrate observations with their thoughts and feelings. While they are writing, encourage students to use language like, “I feel” or “I think” and let them personalize their understanding of scientific observations to find their own ways of recording their experiences.
Don’t worry too much about editing or ‘cleaning up’ the text or sketches in these journals. They are meant to be rough. The purpose of the journal is to provide a place for the student to reflect on his or her experiences in nature, to capture observations, impressions, and experiences in a way that is meaningful to the student. Unless there is an intent to publish, there is no need for revision or editing. The journal only needs to make sense to the student.
To start, especially with students, it is a good idea to set aside some time every week to devote to journaling. Take the journals outside, either on a hike or to a set location, and have your students write or draw whatever catches their attention: the birds, the clouds, something that has changed since they last visited, their thoughts, poems, doodles, anything! Use the journal as a way to supplement your students’ science education and spark their creativity.
Drawing a sound map is a good exercise to help a new journalist begin using more senses. Have them sit down in one place for several minutes and try to create a map based just on what they hear. This map may use drawings or words to depict what is heard. Students don’t need to know exactly what made each sound, just describe it as best they can!
Alternatively, making use of journals on a hike or nature walk can help students keep track of what they thought, felt, and encountered on their way, like a roadmap of the trip!
Spending even just 15 minutes a week journaling can enhance appreciation of the local habitat while building observation skills. As your students continue this practice, they may notice trends in the environment or phenomena they previously overlooked. Keep track of these! Have students revisit old entries and reflect upon how their impressions and ideas have changed with time. Observations often lead to questions, which may launch investigations or contemplation of the world. Who knows? Like Thoreau’s journals led to Walden, those journals may lead to some great essays or experiments someday!
Examples from my own journal
I've kept many journals over the years, documenting my adventures in the great outdoors both in my backyard and around the world.
Here are just a few snippets and sketches from those:
“Like a match held to paper, the edges of the leaves begin to curl and color, the fire of winter’s coming causing them to smolder…”
“The cruise was the highlight. It was cloudy and dim but it didn’t take away from the experience. Birds. So many birds! It didn’t matter that I had no idea what many of them were. We cruised through canals, observing the daily lives of the locals and hearing the calls of dozens of species…”
“Even the smallest of things can be breathtakingly intricate and beautiful. Tiny patterns and details invisible to the naked eye. Sponges, barnacles, cnidarians, all beautifully complex and efficient when seen under a microscope.”
“The spring peepers appeared tonight, filling the air with their unending chorus of mating calls, each one screaming: ‘I am here! Come find me!’ The air has a chill tonight, reminiscent of deep winter. How many of them will survive?”
This post written by Kim Snyder, BirdSleuth student employee.
- Use your journals in conjunction with our free resources like Using eBird with Students and Investigating Evidence to add citizen science and inquiry to the process.
- Our new self-paced course, Integrating Inquiry for Educators: Developing Student Science Practices, is designed to help educators explore the process of inquiry and scientific investigation, especially as inspired by outdoor observations and citizen-science participation.
- Our kits can provide great lessons in outdoor education and many journaling opportunities for students! Purchase our Habitat Connections or Nature Detectives kits or consult our free BirdSleuth resources for some great accompaniments.
- Spend 15 minutes with birds to kick off your journals!
- Need some help constructing a journal? Check out this wikiHow!
- To learn more about how Thoreau’s journals are still being used today, check this out.