Or, easy homeschool nature study

I do believe Charlotte Mason’s plan for nature study is the best method for elementary science, but making it out of the house with all the young ones in tow and all the supplies on hand can be daunting – easy to procrastinate.

Three years ago, when I was pregnant with #5, planning for a school year where I’d be pregnant for the first half, deliver a baby midway and then have a newborn, I knew nature walks were not realistic. Maybe we’d make it out a hand-full of times, but I couldn’t count on it.

But my boys enjoy drawing, and I’d just read some Wendall Berry about growing to love your very own Place, and so I made a plan I knew could happen and that I was happy with: Nature Journalling would be independent work in our very own backyard.


I decided nature journalling was what I wanted most, and teacher-talk, guided learning, and visiting new places were not necessary for us at that point. Nature study went on the boys’ independent checklist, and all I did was check the lists and ooh and aww over their finished work.

It worked well for us that year, and I’m adapting a similar plan again this year, even though I’m not pregnant. Then if nature walks happen, they are bonus Good Things, but nature journalling happens regardless.

Here’s how I assign it so that we’re never behind and it’s hands off for me.

Supplies for Independent Nature Journalling

With supplies, there is a trick between balancing accessibility and accountability. I don’t want to have to babysit the supplies, but I also don’t want them left outdoors.

Here was my compromise:

I kept colored pencils in a box with a sharpener, along with each child’s nature journal in a diaper bag in the coat closet. On Wednesdays, which was the day that had the nature journal assignment on their checklist, I pulled down the bag and they could get their stuff when they needed it. I put it somewhere it would be in my way so I’d get it put away before the end of the day, checking first to make sure the child had put his stuff back away. Of course, half the time he hadn’t, so I called him to do so before sticking it back up high.

Last year, I kept the same diaper bag with the journals ready to grab-and-go for nature walks (which we did more frequently), and it did have a container with some colored pencils, but we’d returned at this point to each person having their own set of coloring utensils (some chose pencils, some chose crayons, I’m not doing watercolors), so before we’d leave, I’d have each person grab his own set and stick it in the bag.

This year, the older two will not only have their own container with supplies (I love these, especially for nature walks, because of the handle), but will also keep their nature journal in them. The diaper bag will still hold the supplies for the 7-and-under crew, but the 10-and-up crew have enough experience, desire, and know-how to keep their own nature journal, and they will be free to add to it above and beyond what is assigned.

(The year we did independent nature journalling, I also took hardly any photos. This is from an Official Nature Walk last summer.)

Plans for Independent Nature Journalling

We homeschool with six-week terms. So, I chose 6 things in our backyard and assigned one per week. This way, they were observing the same things through the seasons Here’s our backyard nature study assignment that goes on their weekly school checklists:

  • Week 1 – Draw a deciduous tree.
  • Week 2 – Draw an evergreen tree.
  • Week 3 – Draw something from the garden box.
  • Week 4 – Draw the grape vines or a rose bush.
  • Week 5 – Look for a bird, squirrel, or cat to observe & draw.
  • Week 6 – Choose any natural object to draw.

So, with that on their checklist, they simply grab their stuff at some point during their Independent Work (funny thing, they usually pick it first), head outside, and draw. I think it’s a great way to get more nature journalling in because it helps them open their eyes to their very own home and see with new eyes what had been simply background.

If a week gets skipped, I shrug and say, “Oh well, hopefully next term we won’t skip that week.” This is “Pick up where you are and do the next thing” planning, not “We absolutely have to have 36 drawings in our nature journal before the school year is over” planning.

Interestingly, when nature journalling was an independent work item, they did more of it in their free time, too. It seemed to occur to them more often that it was something they could do. They could get their stuff and go outside and draw something that caught their eye.

When nature study has been an Event – even these last two years after the independent work assignments – they tend to simply wait for the Event to happen to them rather than think of doing it on their own, in their own yard. So, back on their independent checklists it goes, even though we’ll be trying for 1-2 nature walks per term as well.

If nature study has been hit-or-miss in your house as it has in mine, remember that something is better than nothing (depending on the thing), and be willing with me to not let the Perfect CM Nature Outing be the enemy of actually making time and space for your kids to get out and observe and draw.

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  1. Brilliant!

    Would you mind sharing what the children’s checklists look like?

    We’ve never done anything like that–the checklists are usually mine to keep track of.

    1. I had thought I’d shared them before, but I can’t find any posts with visual examples!

      The posts about their grades will have a picture of the checklists, and I’ll write up a post about different iterations we’ve used over the years, if I can scrounge up old examples. :)

  2. Wonderful! I’ve been lamenting the fact that nature journaling just hasn’t been happening in our homeschool. So this is a great idea for my 8 & 7 yr olds, especially as #5 is due any day now! = )

  3. I love this. What a fantastic way to take something off of my to do list and help my children feel more responsible for their own work. A wonderful, genius idea. Words cannot express for this simple yet very helpful idea. Thank you.

  4. I love your CM hacks, Mystie. What a great idea! I’ve done a fair amount of official walks this year, but I feel like mine tend to be too teacher-directed. I love how this approach gives kids so much more ownership of their observations, but still gives them some structure with the prompts.

  5. I’m interested in the checklists as well. I’m also interested at what age you start independent work. I feel like I’m starting to move in that direction, but I’m not quite sure where to start.

    1. When to start independent work depends on the student and the situation, but in general, I’d not start until 3rd or 4th grade. However, my second-born was started at 2nd grade because he was a fluent reader and I was going to have a baby mid-year so I knew my inner resources would be low. That year was my oldest’s 4th grade year and the first time he had charge of his checklist.

      My third-born will be 2nd grade but is not a strong reader yet. She’ll have her own checklist because she wants one so badly, but the things that are “independent work” are “run a lap outside” and “draw a picture with the art books” – not academic learning on her own. What she does with me will be on her list so she can see what’s coming and have the satisfaction of crossing it off.

  6. And ditto on the “I’m stealing this idea!” comment.

    Nature study happens all the time at our house with group and individual observation, but there has been very little sketching, which I would like to work toward. Putting it on them (vs. “all together now!”) makes so much sense. Awesome. Thanks for the nudge.

    1. We read books about concepts and nature, but informally until third grade. From third grade up, the reading becomes more systematic, but reading is the backbone, not experiments. I am currently planning for my high schoolers to jump into “real” science with labs at the local community college.

    1. I was thinking primarily of the theme of Place in the novel Jayber Crow, although I know it’s a concept he’s written about elsewhere, too. I’ve not read many of his essays.

  7. I really like how you had a particular area of focus assigned for each week in the term. I tried to do something similar to this a few years ago, but I didn’t give enough direction and my daughter got frustrated because she had a hard time deciding what to draw. (Living on 10 acres of forest does present quite a few possibilities!) It would spin out into this huge thing where she couldn’t decide what to draw, didn’t like what she was drawing, would decide to draw something else, and in the end would sketch the same thing she sketched last week that she found easy to do. I’m sure it would be more successful at her current age than it was several years ago, but I bet I could have reduced her angst quite a bit by giving her more direction.

  8. Mystie,

    Is there a particular nature journal you recommend?

    What about colored pencils or supplies?

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