Teacher helping group of students.

Lisa Gottfried March 2, 2021

How a Simple Nature Journal Practice Can Nurture Student Engagement in Any Subject

Lisa Gottfried

BetterLesson Master Teacher

“I’m just alive and paying attention. The amount of information I can discover and wonder is infinite.”

- John Muir Laws, Naturalist Educator

Observing Nature: A Core Self-Care Practice During the Pandemic

Since March 2020, I really haven’t gone anywhere. My family has gotten groceries delivered. I teach in front of my computer all day. The only thing that has kept me sane has been going for walks outdoors, appreciating the light on the leaves of a tree, watching the cycles of flower/seed/dormancy in the neighborhood plants, and watching and listening to the birds and squirrels outside my window. This slowing down and paying attention to the smaller details of my neighborhood has been the upside of living in a considerably smaller world that involves staying away from other human beings. Being outside and enjoying nature has become a core self-care practice for me during this pandemic. As for many others, it has been my sustaining and nurturing refuge.

Social-Emotional Learning: Meeting Students Where They Are

But what about my students? What about their social-emotional learning needs?

It became clear after several months of distance learning that my high school students were not getting out of the house or caring for themselves. They rarely left their rooms or their beds except for food and family chores. There is nothing worse than watching the teens, who I know to be vibrant and creative people, suffer from a lack of social life, as well as show day-to-day exhaustion and a lack of engagement from too much screen time.

Even before the pandemic, a 2018 study by JAMA Pediatrics of 3,826 adolescents showed that increases in screen time were found to be associated with increases in depressive symptoms. And now my students were being asked to sit in front of the screen for hours at a time for online schooling. The disconnection and isolation could so plainly be seen in their webcams as the weeks went on. One student seemed to be shrinking further and further into his chair as the days went by. While doing classroom check-ins, they spoke of stress, anxiety, depression, and a general sense of hopelessness.

“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”

- Anne Frank

I started experimenting with nature journaling on my own, as a way to cultivate a practice of mindfulness and curiosity as I walked my neighborhood and as a way to take a break from my own screen time. I even looked to Anne Frank as a source of inspiration for coping with the shelter-in-place situation.

But how could I get my students to focus on “the beauty that still remains”? How could I raise engagement while teaching them some real coping strategies to address social-emotional learning? My hope in bringing nature journaling to my students was that they too would find a small respite from the worry in their lives; that by having them journal, they would have a break from events of the day. That for one part of their day, they could take a breath, have some quiet and calm where they could record the sights and sounds of their backyard, or examine the lines and colors of a rock found on a walk around the block, or even to wonder why their house plant had a particular leaf structure.

A Seashell on the Doorstep

And so it began, first, as a very unstructured activity. I delivered seashells to their houses for them to draw. I asked for weekly observations with doodles, drawings, words, and numbers.  I gave them a variety of prompts, ranging from recording air quality — we were in the middle of local wildfire season — to observing with the five senses, to using the simple protocol of “I notice…I wonder…It reminds me of…” What I got in return was a beautiful representation of not only the nature they were observing but a small look into their inner emotional lives. As we proceeded, each week, I could see them coming out of their hidey-holes, could see them noticing the small and accessible beauty that they could find right in their homes or right in their neighborhoods.

A Lesson in Perseverance and Self-Compassion

Alongside the enthusiasm, there was reluctance too. I was surprised at how students who were perfectly comfortable making digital art with a mouse in hand completely froze up when asked to use a pencil to draw. I emphasized that nature journaling is about observation and documentation, not about making pretty art, and that everyone has to start somewhere.  Assignments were often open-ended, with a very loose framework to follow so students could explore their own interests. Assessment was not based on skill, but rather whether the student engaged with the prompt. Beginners were encouraged to give it a shot and to keep persisting through the challenge. It was a great lesson in grit and agency. With the regular practice, I could see students loosening up and improving over just a few weeks’ time.

The flexibility of the activity made it easy to personalize to each student’s skill level and needs. We discussed the reasons why students sometimes felt a resistance to draw, exploring what might have happened in the past to cause the anxiety and what we could do now to help each other move through it. What a powerful learning experience it became for my students and for me!

How to Bring Nature Journaling into Any Course

Cover Your Content: More than Just Art and Design

So many content areas could be connected to a nature journal foundation. In my Graphic Design class, we explored color theory, use of line, iconography, typography, and repetition. But I have seen educators using nature journaling to explore math, social studies, creative writing, science, and more.

For example, students could:

  • Explore measurement, percentages, and ratios for math class
  • Read and write poems or practice procedural writing for English class
  • Connect natural elements to their  role in history (Everything from the agriculture of your region to the influence of fabrics, metals, minerals, and foodstuffs on trade and culture) for social studies class
  • Practice setting and testing hypotheses, making observations, changing variables, and analyzing results for science class.

Finding Nature Everywhere

It’s also important to show students that “nature” doesn’t just mean walking through a forest. Many of our students don’t live near verdant parks, and younger ones may not be able to leave the house unsupervised. We must teach them to find nature all around them.

Some ideas:

  • Go on a refrigerator safari. Produce is nature too!
  • The next time you leave the house, bring back a leaf to study the vein structure.
  • Rocks can be found on every corner, and are amazing to observe or draw.
  • House plants can be a great source of inquiry.
  • A bean in a wet paper towel and a sandwich bag can grow in the window and spark scientific/artistic/mathematical thinking.
  • Weeds are amazing and beautiful! What grows in the sidewalk cracks?
  • Observe the animals you may see out your window (From birds to squirrels to bugs) or while on a walk
  • Wonder about your family pet

Combining Offline Activities with Building Digital Skills

A key feature of nature journaling is taking deliberate time off-screen, absorbed in real, tactile objects and reflections. But it’s also a fertile material for students to build their digital, creative, and collaborative skills. You can use tools like Adobe Fresco, Adobe Spark Classroom Account, Adobe DrawAdobe Rush (Video), or any drawing app.

To connect nature journaling to your lessons, consider these BetterLesson instructional strategies:

Look for Community

I have also found a vibrant nature journaling community online. Did you know there are thousands and thousands of nature journalers around the world, from The Nature Journal Club and Nature Journaling in Education on Facebook to the John Muir Laws website? In the Facebook group I joined, everyone was incredibly supportive and gave such great feedback and information about techniques and processes. I shared work from the Facebook group with my students as well as sharing student work publicly to the Facebook group with their permission. The goal was to create a weekly practice of looking, enjoying, pausing, breathing, documenting, appreciating, and creating — with no judgment.

Nature Journaling is Skill Building, Community Building, and Social-Emotional Learning All in One

The amazing thing is, it’s such a simple concept. Go outside, if you can, or look out your window or in your fridge, if you can’t. Find something from the natural world to examine. Stay curious. Try to draw what you see. Use words and numbers to describe your thoughts and record data about what you are observing. Have fun. Follow your nose. Accept your own limitations and push past them. Find a way into learning engagement. Find your sense of wonder. Trust your own observations. Stay curious.

We have grown and learned so much through this process. It occurs to me that if we truly want to raise the next generation to understand both how to care for their own well-being AND to care for the future of our planet, it is up to educators to help them find their way. When we return to in-person learning and worries of Covid are in the past, I will continue this classroom practice of nature journaling, no matter what subject I teach, no matter who I have in my class.