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Nature Journaling: Learning by Drawing

Learning about nature and the environment can be fun and inspiring. But not everybody feels a strong bond with the natural world. This post explores nature journaling as a tool to increase environmental awareness, learn and teach about nature and communicate about science.

Make Learning Fun with Nature Journaling

In a world where environmental challenges are ever-present, learning about nature and the environment plays an important role in finding solutions to some of these challenges.

But motivating people to learn about nature and the environment isn’t always easy. That’s because many people don’t think of learning as a fun activity. We probably all remember these times when we were frantically studying for a test. We tried so hard! And yet we couldn’t make our brain remember anything of it. 

So learning isn’t the first leisure activity that comes to mind after a long workday. In our free time we just want to relax or do something fun with family and friends.

The problem is that we often have a wrong idea of learning. We think of it as an obligation rather than a leisure activity. But if you know how, learning can actually be a lot of fun. It can be something new and very satisfactory.

So the key is: Make learning about nature fun!

There are many ways to achieve that and there is no one-fits-all solution. People are different and of course they enjoy different things.

But most people enjoy interactive learning experiences. Being creative feels good and producing something worthwhile makes people feel satisfied. Appealing visuals can play an important role too when it comes to learning. That’s where nature journaling comes in. Nature journaling combines all these things making it a great tool to get people enthusiastic about nature and the environment.

What is nature journaling?

The Basic Idea:

Keep a journal to record personal nature experiences.

It’s a creative way of exploring the natural world. The general idea is to go outside, observe and record your observations in your own personal journal. You can record your observations directly in nature or later at home.

There are many ways to record your observations, but most people use a combination of drawing and writing.

A quick pencil sketch or a detailed watercolour painting. Add some scientific notes, some information on the weather or just some random thoughts. There is no right or wrong and you should do whatever inspires you. Be creative and most importantly, have fun!

Now in More Detail:

Nature journaling can be quite an intuitive process. You go outside and look around and something inspires you; A bird that you’ve never seen before, a rare plant, an interesting rock formation or the reflection in a lake. Let nature inspire you.

However, the process can also be more focused. Maybe you have something particular in mind that you would like to learn about. Perhaps you are curious about which plants grow along the little stream close to your house? How do different parts of a particular flower look like? What birds regularly visit your balcony? Having some questions in mind you can go outside and actively look for the answers.

Looking up additional information on the Internet or in a book can be a nice way to complement your observations and maybe get a better understanding of what you observed.

You could add some scientific information such as the latin name or some other characteristics. But many people actually also like using a form of creative writing to complement and personalise their drawings.

Check out the list below for some inspiration:

What nature journaling is not about…

Even though there aren’t really any rules, it is good to keep a few things in mind to have fun and not get demotivated. If you look for inspiration on Youtube or Pinterest for example, you will find a lot of really beautiful and impressive drawings. They are beautiful and impressive and some of them look like exact copies of nature. But they might also be a bit intimidating. If they inspire you to get started and work on your skills, great! But if they have the opposite effect remember that this is not what nature journaling is about.

Nature journaling is not about copying nature and creating pretty pictures. It is about observing nature and learning from it. And of course it is about having fun.

The combination of drawing and writing is very powerful to learn about nature because it allows us to record observations mixing different methods.

This is best explained with an example

Think of an early morning. The sun just came up and there is still some fog over the fields. You would like to capture this special morning atmosphere. But somehow you don’t really manage to capture it with your pencil or brush. Adding some descriptive words here might do the trick instead and help you remember the situation.

On top of that written notes allow you to add even more information such as temperature, time of the day or geographic location, things that are difficult or impossible to capture with a drawing or painting.

Nature journaling is not about learning to draw but about drawing to learn.​

So “I can’t draw” isn’t a good excuse to not giving it a try. Don’t confuse nature journaling with botanical art or similar.

Image description. Nature journaling example: quick sketch

Of course, you will get better at drawing and painting the more you do it and there are some techniques that can actually help you capture the things you observe better. Check out the John Muir Laws site for some helpful tutorials. But the cool thing about nature journaling is that you don’t have to be good at drawing.

Nature Journaling and Learning

Nature Journaling makes you spend more time in nature. And there are several studies indicating that spending time in nature might not only be beneficial for your health but potentially also boost your concentration and problem solving skills. Nature journaling is often a combination of observing, drawing and writing. This combination helps you to create long-lasting memories and thus benefits learning.

Pay Attention to the Detail

Nature journaling makes you slow down and pay more attention to the detail. You train your observation skills and become more mindful of the environment, nature and the ecological processes around you.

Being outdoorsy and spending time in nature is popular at the moment. These days a lot of people spend their leisure time outside hiking, cycling, skiing, climbing, surfing…

However, while these activities are fun and certainly good for your health, they mainly use nature as their playground. We consume nature, but we don’t give much back.

Nature journaling is different. It makes you realise what is really happening around you. The longer you observe something, the more you discover and the more you will learn from this experience.

Slowing down gives you the chance to observe and learn about things that you would otherwise easily overlook.

At the same time you will become more conscious about yourself and how your actions affect the environment. In this way you can give back to nature.

Recording your observations in your nature journal helps you to remember what you’ve learned.

Focus on the Essence

While paying attention to the detail is an essential part of nature journaling, focusing on the essence is as important.

Remember, nature journaling is not about copying nature. So focusing on the detail helps you to identify the most essential aspects. Trying to capture the essence helps you remember the most important aspects of your observation.

What is essential, however, is variable and depends on your focus and your aim.

Imagine you want to capture the essence of a certain plant for instance. You could focus on the colours. Maybe the blossoms have a very particular colour. Or you could focus on the shapes of the different parts of the plant. Do all the leaves look the same? The petals? How do the seeds look like? Or maybe you are more interested in its function within the ecosystem than in its look. How does its habitat look like? Which animals feed on it?

Depending on your focus, the result will look very different. You can put a lot of information in your nature journal. Yet you will never capture everything. So focus on what is important to you. This will help you to guide your learning process.

Nature Journaling for Teaching and Science Communication

Nature journaling makes learning fun and easy and is a cool tool to spark curiosity and motivate people to learn about nature. It is a great tool for learning and hence also a great tool for teaching.

Nature journaling is a fun and interactive activity and great to teach kids and adults alike about nature and the environment.

Nature Journaling in the Classroom

To illustrate its benefits for teaching, I would like to share one of my own learning experiences.

During the exam of a BSc course on agricultural plants we would get a small part of a plant based on which we had to identify the plant. Easy if you get a piece of a carrot, but potentially a lot more difficult when you just get a leaf, a blossom or a seed.

Unless, you really paid attention to the detail during studying!

That’s where drawing and writing comes into play. It’s not easy to remember all the details of a large amount of plants just by reading about them. But looking at these plants and trying to capture their characteristics in a drawing with some informative notes makes the job a lot easier.

And that’s exactly what we had to do during our weekly practicals before the exam: observing and drawing – nature journaling basically. As we had to do it in a certain amount of time, there was no time for pretty pictures. Just informative sketches!

I have to admit that I was sceptical at first and didn’t really see the point of “wasting” time with drawing plants. But now I know better. Spending some time taking a good look at the plants and drawing them helped a lot with memorising and it definitely helped me pass the exam.

Nature Journaling to Communicate

Nature journaling is not only great to memorise things. It is also great to communicate and make information accessible in a visually appealing way. That’s why it is a great opportunity for environmental science communication.

Combining drawing and writing is very powerful in capturing complex information and making it accessible. Many people are visual learners and our brain processes visual information quicker than written information. We write about it in our post on visual content for environmental communication.

So if you want to communicate about nature and the environment, some sketches could be really beneficial to bring your message across. Nature journaling could be a different way of taking field notes that you could then easily share with your audience as stand-alone or as an addition to a presentation or handbook. They also add a personal touch to your communication, which could help you to connect better with your audience.