How do you set aside time to connect with nature? Journaling is a great way to hone your powers of observation and your sense of the world around you.
Age Level: 5 – Adult
Supervision Requirements: Outdoor safety
- Writing or drawing tools (pencils, pens, crayons, markers, paints)
- Notebook or sketchbook (Make-your-own nature journal instructions coming soon!)
- Access to an outdoor space
There’s no wrong way to make a nature journal! A nature journal is simply a tool to guide you in discovering (or rediscovering!) the natural world through art, science, thoughts, ideas and feelings.
The first nature journals or notebooks were made by scientists and researchers who used this tool to sharpen their observational skills and record changes over time or notice differences between one discovery and another.
Today, we can capture images of newly discovered species using photography. We can map a new area using GPS. We can record changes over time using data-tracking software and digital spreadsheets and graphs. But nature journals still provide a unique function: they help us practice observing detail, noticing subtle differences in the world around us, and remember reliably what we’ve seen and sensed in our environment. Some people use nature journals as a meditation, some people use nature journals to stretch their artistic muscles, and some people use nature journals to remember what they felt when they saw something special in nature.
It’s important to respect nature while we’re out journaling about it. Here are some rules to follow that will help protect the natural beauty you’re celebrating:
- Watch where you step: to observe details, it’s important to get close to your subject. But make sure you’re not trampling another plant, disturbing soft ground, or crushing an animal’s home to do so!
- Leave nature where it is: we draw and describe so that we can take an image and memory of what we find, while leaving it intact where it is.
- Observe local rules: some locations ask that visitors stay on a path. Never explore on private property without asking permission.
Nature Journaling Prompts
Sometimes it’s tough to know what to journal about. Below are a series of prompts to get your creative juices flowing and to inspire you to get outside. Some prompts ask you to try something specific (draw a picture, write a poem, compose a letter), and others will give you something to observe or consider. Some prompts ask you to use your observational skills, and others invite you to use your imagination. It’s up to you to decide how these ideas make their way into your nature journal!
Pick a prompt at random, or work your way through the list one at a time. Can you do one a day for a whole month?
Prompts for Ages 5 – 10
Content coming soon!
Prompts for Ages 10 – Adult
- If you could be a part of nature, what part would you be? Sketch this item and describe what that life would be like. Make sure you’re drawing this item while looking at it — the goal is to observe carefully and notice details! If you’re worried it might move away (like an animal or a cloud), you can take a photograph so you can keep sketching after it’s gone.
- While exploring outside, can you find a natural item to represent each color of the rainbow? (That’s red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet!)
- Take a walk. Find letters hiding in nature — like a pinecone shaped like a J, a seed shaped like a T, or a flower shaped like a W. Can you find all the letters in your name?
- Secret Plant Scavenger Hunt (for 2 or more people): Select a plant, but don’t show your partner(s). Draw and record as many details as possible, then challenge your partner to find your exact plant.
- What’s your favorite season? Write about your favorite activities to do during that season.
- Find a comfortable place to rest where you can see the sky above you. What’s up there? Look for clouds, airplanes, birds, the moon, etc. Sketch the furthest thing you can see, and write a short poem about it.
- What’s your favorite type of landscape? Desert? Mountains? Forest? Beach? River? Sketch and label what you like about it. If there isn’t any of this landscape near you, search the internet for photographs to use as reference.
- Imagine you’re the first snowflake to fall this winter. Write a poem about that experience.
- Find a comfortable place to sit outside. Look around. Can you think of something that threatens any of the things you see? Sketch that thing and write about how you can protect it.
- Stretch your drawing muscles with some plant drawing! Pick a plant that could fit inside a shoebox as your subject. Then, pick one or more of these exercises:
- Place your pen or pencil on the paper, and then don’t look at the paper again until you’re done drawing. Look only at the plant! How weird does your final drawing look?
- Make a sketch of your plant that’s the size of a penny on your paper. Then, make a sketch that’s the size of a playing card. Finally, make a sketch that takes up the whole page. What details can you capture in each version? Which one was the most frustrating to draw?
- Draw only the outline of your plant as you can see it. It might help to place a white paper behind the plant and to squint your eyes to determine what shapes you’re really seeing. Fill the whole page with your outline. Note: don’t be tricked by how your imagination says the plant should be shaped! Draw it exactly as you observe it. Then, drop a quarter somewhere onto your drawing and trace it (don’t have a quarter? Draw a quarter-sized circle somewhere on your plant drawing). In that circle, fill in as many details from that section of the plant as you can. What shapes are there? How can you translate those textures onto paper? Does it have tiny hairs, scales or patterns you didn’t notice before?
- Would you rather live in a secret forest or on a deserted island? Draw a scene of your life there, and write a story encompassing one day living in that place.
- Two Peas in a Pod: find two specimens of the same thing — like two branches from the same tree, two mushrooms of the same species, two flowers from the same plant, two blades of grass from the same swath of field — and draw them side by side. What differences do you notice?
- What’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen or visited? Write about what made it beautiful.
- Consider an aspect of your local natural environment that you feel has been impacted negatively by people. Draft a letter to your local city, sharing why that aspect of nature is important to you and to the community. Include ideas for solutions and actions that could be taken to improve the situation.
- Walk somewhere with trees. Take a moment to observe the different leaves. How are they similar? How are they different? This goes beyond shape and color — how do they move? How do they sound? How do they smell? Choose a leaf to sketch and imagine you’re that leaf falling from the tree. Write a story about your experience as the leaf.
- Write about your favorite memory from playing outside. Who was there? What were you doing? Can you remember what you heard, smelled or felt?
- Sitting in a natural area, set a timer for 3 minutes to observe your surroundings. Take the whole time just to observe and notice with all your senses. When the timer runs out, sketch something nearby that makes you curious. What are you wondering about it? What would you like to learn about it?
- Nature has inspired people for thousands of years – it has inspired art, technological inventions, exploration and more. In what ways does nature inspire you?
- What’s your most memorable experience that happened in nature? Write about your memories from that time. Can you remember the sights, sounds and smells? What about other senses? Explore how this experience shaped your relationship with nature and how it has changed you as a person.
- Imagine you’re a tree that’s been standing in your community for over 100 years. Write a short story about the changes that tree has seen over that time.
- Find a place you want to explore. Gently toss a rubber band, hair tie or a small loop of string onto the ground in front of you. Zoom in and focus on just that tiny circle of the world. Make a list: how many different kinds of plants, dirt, bugs, hair, fur, seeds and rocks can you find? It’s okay if you don’t know their names; just describe how they look to you. Sketch two or three of those elements that are most interesting to you. Then, toss your loop again! If you were in the shade, try tossing it into sunlight, and vice versa. Zoom in again. What can you find?!
- Go someplace with lots of noise – nature isn’t as quiet as you might expect! Make a sound map: mark a spot in the middle of your journal page to represent yourself. Set a timer for 10 minutes, and be as silent as you can. Really listen for all the sounds around you. Each time you hear a sound, draw a representation on your map, taking into consideration which direction the sounds come from, how far away their source seems to be, and how loud they are compared to each other. Draw them all relative to each other and relative to where you are in the middle of the page.
- Consider the differences between the view of a beetle and of a bird. Find a plant, and record your observations as though you were noticing it from afar – as a bird in flight might notice it. Next, get down close to the ground to observe the same plant. Record what a beetle on the ground might observe of this very same plant.
- From your favorite spot to relax in nature, create a map of the area around you. What types of plants are found there? Are there any patterns to the way things grow? Which areas get more sunlight, moisture or disturbance from passers-by?
- Go for a walk today. Draw a map of the route you plan to take. Along the way, stop and make a quick sketch of any treasures you find. Name the location of each treasure and label them on your map.
- Find a spot where you can spend some time making observations. Start with a quick sketch of the first thing that catches your eye. Then, come up with 10 questions (or 20, or 30!) questions about your subject. Just keep writing, even if you think you might already know the answers, or if you think it might be impossible to find out the answers! The more questions you wonder, the better observer you will become. Bonus: find out an answer to one of your questions! But don’t use your memory — search the internet for a reputable source, or use your own powers of observation to answer the question.
- Write a letter from the leaf to the sun. Take a look back at any sketches you have of leaves. How do you imagine these leaves would interact with the sun differently, if they had personalities? What questions would they ask the sun; what stories would they share? What would happen to the leaf if there was no sun? If you’re still in the writing mood, choose another pair of subjects from your previous observations — maybe a rock and a frog or a flower and a tree — and write another letter from one to another.
- Go on a walk, and imagine the trees along your way begin talking to you. What would they say about humans? How would you respond? Would it change the way you interact with the natural world? Tell a story about your experience.
- Observe and take notes of a bird eating. What does it eat? How does it grab, hold, carry or otherwise manipulate the food? What senses does the bird seem to be using? How long does one bird spend eating at once? Does it eat alone or in a group?
- Do you consider yourself a nature person? Why or why not?
- Find a comfortable place to sit. Notice any animals around you, both big and small. Choose an animal and note its behaviors. Draw a comic strip of you on that animal’s back as it continues those behaviors with you along for a ride! Note: struggling to find an animal? The key may be patience! Look up high and down low, and remember that there might be animals hiding nearby that were startled when you arrived. They might come back out in the open when they realize you’re not a threat! Another place you’re likely to find an animal right away? Lift a rock or a log! What can you find scurrying underneath? Just make sure you set the rock or log gently back in the same position you found it in.
Dive in Deeper
Looking for ways to expand this activity? Try one of these options!
- Too rainy, windy or cold to write or sketch outside? Do a little sketching practice with a pet or a houseplant as a subject.
- Looking to expand your nature journaling into a more rigorous practice? California Native Plant Society’s Nature Journaling Curriculum is an excellent resource for honing your drawing skills, setting goals and challenges for your nature journal, applying the scientific method to your practice and for leading others in nature journaling activities!