Written by Kelly Johnson
The Nature Journal–Part 2 of Weaving Nature-Study into the Montessori Elementary Classroom
The nature journal is a time tested way to document and assimilate nature experience and discovery and was a very popular pastime during the Nature-Study movement. Nature has been an inspiration to humans throughout history and nature journaling has been practiced by some of humankind’s greatest thinkers, artists, naturalists, and scientists, including Dr. Montessori herself! The nature journal is a place to document observations, information, and then assimilate discoveries in a creative, yet scientific, way and is where many generate inspiration for their life work.
Through journaling, patterns and observations discovered in nature that may have otherwise gone unnoticed or overlooked can be tracked. This type of pattern work enhances students’ ecological intelligence and connections to the natural world, while cultivating the skill of focused observation. The nature journal is also a wonderful anecdotal record keeping tool. Teachers can track observation, drawing, and writing skills, as well as pattern thinking once the children become more adept at documenting their discoveries. It is a natural cross curricular learning tool that seamlessly integrates across all Montessori curricula.
In addition to regular daily or weekly time to journal in the outdoor environment: nature journals are a great way to focus high energy levels generated from outdoor excitement; always bring the nature journals on outings to natural areas or to museums for these locations provide inspiration and often exhibit the patterns witnessed in the school outdoor environment; and try taking the journals to urban plazas to have children discover and document the unexpected nature found there.
Upon returning home or to school, have students share a favorite sketch or thought from their journal regarding the day’s activity. Sharing is a great way to recap, assimilate the experience, and assess the child’s learning. Then, embark on developmentally appropriate cultural research projects that identify and elaborate on what has been discovered in these locations and compare them to what is known about the schoolyard environment. This makes the journal a springboard for biological and historical research that integrates directly into the botany, biology, and geography curricula threads, while inherently tying across reading, writing, handwriting, and even math if measurements were taken of discoveries.
Any unidentified natural object discovered on an outing, or in the schoolyard, can be carefully drawn in the journal and be brought back to the indoor classroom for further research that often ends up involving the entire class in a new discovery. The findings can then be prepared and presented at sharing/show & tell time, to other classes, at a parent event, or in a common area as a display. I once had a student who, for our monthly sharing time, would create the most wonderful posters telling the stories of her nature discoveries and outings from trips to pick apples to small backyard nature discoveries and at home research work. Her mother did a wonderful job of encouraging, facilitating, and interconnecting the school based Nature-Study work with family life experiences and then creating engaged outlets for her child’s assimilation of nature experience. This is how those really deep and memorable connection s are made, the ones that create adults who love their natural world enough to work to protect it.
For those schools required to incorporate technology initiatives, nature journals can prove to be beneficial tools that bring a softer side to technology in the Montessori environment. Try this: create a nature walk through a nearby park, wooded area, or the schoolyard’s perimeter using digital cameras to take photographs of flora, fauna, and their habitats. Back in the classroom, have the students research the anatomy, needs, desired habitats, habits, and historical cultural significance of their discoveries. Then, write accounts documenting the important facts and create poems or drawings expressing the natural items and the experience.
Use this documentation to create a local field guide style pamphlet using a design program or a blog in a photo essay format that features their natural history research, photography, and creative interpretations of local flora and fauna. Update the blog monthly or seasonally and visit the areas being documented regularly over the course of the year and let the children’s discoveries inspire their learning throughout the year.
Make Classroom Nature Journals
Of course, a nature journal can be made from any notebook or sketchbook, but there is something extra special about having children make their own. I’ve observed that creating nature journals encourages more personal accountability for the journal when it is taken out of the classroom and distinguishes it from any other notebook in the cubby.
Journals can be made from materials found in the average classroom and could even be incorporated into a recycling lesson if you use recycled paper. The adult preparation time is about one hour for twenty-five journals. If the students are younger than third grade they will need a little adult help to assemble the books, so this project may be best done with a volunteer. Remember to make a journal for yourself, any associate teachers, or parent volunteers so everyone can journal together modeling the significance of the work to the children.
Let the children know that the journals are a place to record in words and pictures the things they see and discover in nature. They are also a place to record their questions and feelings about nature. Try to use the nature journal frequently. The more the children (and the adults) journal, the better they will get at observation, documentation, and detecting patterns in nature.
Once you feel that the children have reached a minimal level of proficiency, you may want to introduce the use of viewfinders, rulers, magnifying lenses, field bags, bug boxes, and technological devices into the journaling process. Depending on age level, use discretion when introducing new field materials (especially if using technological devices) so handling the extra materials does not distract the actual journaling process.
Materials Per Book
- 8.5×11 inch sheets of paper (ideally 100% post-consumer recycled). The number of sheets will depend on how many pages are desired in the journal. More pages can be easily added later if needed.
- 1 piece of construction paper or other decorative cover paper, 9×12 inches, also easily found recycled
- 1 regular rubber band
- 1 thin stick or bamboo skewer, 8.5 inches long
- A single hole punch
- Colored pencils or markers to decorate the covers
- Fold the 8.5×11 inch sheets of paper in half horizontally to create 8.5×5.5 inch folded sheets. Depending on the number of pages, the sheets may need to be folded in smaller groups and then compiled into one “book block” or stack of folded pages.
- Measure 1.5 inches from the top and bottom of the “book block” and punch a hole at each mark. Depending on the thickness of the “book block,” the hole punching may also need to be done in smaller groups of pages and then the pages recompiled.
- Fold the cover paper in half horizontally.
- Measure 1.75 inches from the top and bottom of the cover paper and punch a hole at each mark.
- Give each child a “book block,” cover paper, rubber band, and stick.
- Insert the “book block” making sure all holes line up. Have the children check if they can see through the hole, if so, then they know the holes are lined up.
- Pinch the rubber band in half and from the bottom, thread it up through one hole so a little loop pokes through.
- Insert one end of the stick or skewer through the loop securing it from falling back through the hole. The stick will be on the top side of the journal.
- Flip the journal over and holding the rubber band tightly, stretch it to the other hole. Pinch and insert the rubber band through the hole. Thread it up through the hole so a little loop pokes through on the top side.
- Tightly holding the loop through the hole, flip the journal back over to the top side and slide the free end of the stick or skewer through the bottom loop securing it from falling back through the hole.
- Have children write their names on and decorate the covers.
- To add more pages, disassemble the book and add a second “book block” stacked underneath the first. Do not place the new book block inside or around the first this will rearrange the journals chronological order. Reassemble the rubber band and stick or skewer
Kelly Johnson (BFA, MA, AMS 6-9) is an artist, author, Montessorian, and children’s garden guide in Neptune Beach, Florida. Through her book Wings, Worms, and Wonder: A Guide for Creatively Integrating Gardening and Outdoor Learning Into Children’s Lives, blog, articles, student and teacher workshops, garden consultations, eCourses, and handmade garden accessories, Kelly inspires children and adults to creatively connect with their natural world through gardening and the arts. Contact Kelly at [email protected] and follow her blog at wingswormsandwonder.com for more Montessori and Nature-Study inspired children’s gardening and nature journaling fun.