Start a Nature Journal
Creating a nature journal is a great way to connect kids to the outdoors and encourage them to observe the natural world around them. Nature journals can be as simple or as creative as desired, can have a singular theme or cover many topics, and record findings in your backyard or findings from a hike. There’s no right or wrong way to make a journal, as kids can freely draw, write, create poems, take pictures, or collect things to fill their pages with many wonders from nature. Below are some resources to help you get started on your own nature journal as well as some journal themes and activities to help inspire you.
Theme 1: Backyard Birds
Venture into your backyard, or on your favorite trail, and observe the birds around you. Record what species you see and how many. Answer questions like: What do they look like? Sound like? What are they eating? Where do they live? Do you think you are seeing the same birds each time you observe? Or are there different ones? Learn to identify birds (Merlin Bird ID is a great identification tool) around you through the activities below, and see who your bird neighbors are! You can also share your findings with Citizen Science projects such as iNaturalist or Project FeederWatch.
► Activity 1: Counting Birds
Identify 5 or more birds that you commonly see in your backyard or on a favorite trail. Write their names down and then tally how many you see. Print or draw pictures of your birds to help you remember which bird is which. As a bonus, learn their scientific names and record that along with their common name.
► Activity 2: Field Marks
Learn to use Field Marks as a way to identify the birds you see. Pick a bird you see that you’d like to draw, and then use a field marks guide to label the bird’s identifying marks. Remember, most of the colorful birds you see are male. Use a field guide to identify what the female of your chosen species looks like.
► Activity 3: Where Are the Birds?
Where you spot a bird can tell you a little about the bird’s mannerisms. Birds on the ground usually specialize in finding seeds or catching insects. Birds in trees are often there to find fruit or make nests - or, if they are a woodpecker, to catch bugs inside the bark. And birds that soar high in the sky, like hawks and crows, have strong eyesight to look for their next meal.
Make a chart with three columns and in the first column list:
1. Birds on the ground (or walking)
2. Birds in the trees (or sitting)
3. Birds in the air (or flying)
4. Birds in the water (or swimming)
In the second column, tally how many birds you see in each of these areas. In the third, you can write a total of all the birds in each tally.
► Activity 4: Beaks and Feet
Look closely at the beaks of the birds you see. Each beak is a different tool, specialized to help the bird eat the food in their diet. By looking at the shape of the beak, we can make a good guess about what kinds of food they eat. Draw or write a description of the type of beak the bird (or birds) you’re observing has. Use guides to determine what the beak is used for and write down what your bird(s) normally eat.
Birds’ feet can also tell us about their lifestyle. Observe the shape of your bird(s) foot then use a guide to see what their feet help them specialize in.
► Activity 5: Bird Songs
Learning bird songs is a great way to know what birds are near you before you even see them. To help people learn bird songs, the songs are written out using mnemonics, memory aids that use a pattern of letters, phrases, or relatable associations. For example, an American crow’s song sounds like “caw caw caw.” A Northern cardinal’s sounds like “cheer-cheer-cheer.” An Eastern towhee says “drink your teeeaaaaa.” And an American goldfinch sounds like it’s saying “po-ta-to-chip and dip.”
Listen to the birds you hear and try to make a mnemonic for their songs. Or use a guide to see what mnemonics are already listed. Be sure to write down these bird songs so you can learn which song belongs to which bird.
► Activity 6: There’s an App for That!
This activity is less about what you put in your journal and more about what you can do with your findings! Become a citizen scientist, and help scientists gather information on birds simply by submitting what you observe. Apps like eBird and Hummingbirds at Home help detect changes in bird populations and give us information so we can better protect our bird neighbors.
► Activity 7: Owl Prowl
Theme 2: Trees, Flowers, and Other Plants
Outside, there are so many plants around you! Trees, bushes, grasses, flowers, shrubs, etc. Go out and record what species you see and how many. Identify whether or not they are native, or even an invasive species. Keep track of the seasonal blooming of plants and discover the relationships among seasonal natural phenomena.Through the activities below, you can begin to learn about the plants in your backyard or on your favorite trail. Use apps like iNaturalist or PlantSnap to help you quickly identify plants from your phone.
► Activity 1: Plant Neighbors - Native or Not?
Draw or take pictures of 10 different plants (trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers, etc.) you see in your backyard. Use a guide or a plant identification app to identify what plants you’re observing. Record the names of your plants and write down whether or not they are a native species. If they are not native, find out where they are from, and whether or not they are an invasive species that could harm the local environment.
► Activity 2: How to Identify Leaves
When you are not sure what type of tree you are looking at, recording the appearance of the leaf is a great way to find out its species. Pick 3 different trees in your yard or on the trail. Carefully study the shape and characteristics of the leaves, drawing what you see. Focus on the shape of the leaf, the shape of its tip, its edges, its veins, how it’s attached to the tree, and where it’s located in relation to other leaves.
► Activity 3: Changes in Trees - Phenology
“Phenology is the study of the timing of the biological events in plants and animals such as flowering, leafing, hibernation, reproduction, and migration. Scientists who study phenology are interested in the timing of such biological events in relation to changes in season and climate.”
Trees are an easy and immediate way to study seasonal changes all year round. In your journal, begin a Phenology Wheel, focusing on a deciduous tree (a tree that sheds its leaves) in your backyard. Draw what that tree looks like for the current month then repeat this observation each month for a whole year. How did the tree change? For older children, record the tree’s characteristics during a phenophase, which is the periods of change during a particular season. Phenophases can be observed in trees through the color and amount of leaves, or by whether or not flowers or fruit are present. Use this brochure for a quick guide on tree phenophases.
► Activity 4: Leaf and Bark Rubbing
Need to quick record a leaf or the bark of a tree? Make some rubbings! All you need is paper and crayons. Printer paper works best. When you finish your rubbings, cut them out and paste them into your journal, labeling what tree the rubbings are from.
► Activity 5: Parts of a Flower
Can you identify the different parts of a flower? Pick 3 flowers in your yard or on the trail, draw or take pictures of them, and then label the different part using this diagram. Some flowers have parts that are harder to identify than others. Search the internet for the insides of any flower you’re having trouble seeing.
Resource: Kids in Parks Flower Diagram TRACKtivity
► Activity 6: Nature’s Color Palette
Pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, are responsible for the reproduction of flowers, so flowers develop bright colors to help attract these pollinators to land on them. Pollen sticks to pollinators as they move from plant to plant, spreading pollen to other flowers, allowing the flowers to produce fruit and or seeds. How many different colors of flowers can you find around you?
Try to find one flower of each color:
Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple, Pink, White.
As a bonus, watch your flowers to see which pollinators most frequent each flower. What colors seem to get more visits from bees or butterflies? Make a graph with rows representing different colors of flowers, and columns listing different types of pollinators. Make a tally each time you see a pollinator visit a certain colored flower.
Further Resources for Nature Journaling with Kids
- Nature Journaling with Kids by Expeditionary Art
- Nature Journaling with Kids from No Fuss Natural
- Handbook of Nature Study
- Natural Journaling for Kids: 10 Ways To Help Them Enjoy It
- Nature journaling for all ages by Christine Elder, science educator and visual artist
How-tos and DIY Resources
- Easy Homemade Journal from A Beautiful Mess
- DIY "Smash Book" from Red Ted Art
- Kids Camera Guide
- How to Draw Birds by John Muir Laws
- How to Draw Mammals by John Muir Laws
- How to Draw Plants by John Muir Laws
You can also use our Kids in Parks Nature Artist Worksheet, which you can download below.