Nature Journaling With Your Family

Ronnie's Awesome List presents a guest article by the AWESOME John Muir Laws, Freelance Illustrator, specializing in nature and wildlife illustration. Join him at his free (donations accepted) nature drawing classes in Tiburon, San Francisco, Foster City, Oakland, Cupertino, or Lafayette open to all ages. Dates and times are listed at

Imagine sitting in nature with your children, all of you focused on drawing and describing this spring's wildflower bloom. Time slows, wind moves the grass, your senses seem heightened, and though each of you is lost in the moment, you feel connected through your common activity. You are all authentically engaged, deepening observation skills, curiosity, as well as developing your drawing technique. This is not a fantasy but an experience shared by real families and you can make it a part of your family's experience as well. Keeping a nature journal is the most powerful way to enhance your observation skill, memory, and naturalist awareness. It is a skill set that you can learn and develop as a family and it will change your life.


Have you encouraged your child to keep a journal but found that it became something they "should" do and is starting to feel more like a chore? In the same way that adults can get stuck in a rut, kids also need help to open up and make journaling a habit.

Motivating your children with a reward gets them journaling for the wrong reasons and it doesn't stick. When the reward goes away, the drive to journal goes away. To make this a part of your life, and your children's lives, harness intrinsic motivation. There are three factors that drive this kind of self motivation for kids and adults; autonomy, mastery, and purpose. 

  • Autonomy: Nature journaling is a self directed endeavor. Your own interests and observations will pull you along paths that no one has ever explored. You can give your children a simple framework and then let them go and make it their own.
  • Mastery: The more you do it the better you get. You will see progressive improvement in your own work and that of your children. They not only get better at drawing, but observing, and questioning as well. 
  • Purpose: Nature journaling will open profound and beautiful worlds. Encourage your child to keep focusing on observing more deeply and to remember their experiences more richly.

Setting Expectations and Giving Feedback

Many children feel discouraged by their drawing ability. Nature journaling is the key to reconnect them with art. By keeping a clear objective of enhancing observation, curiosity, and memory you give a child permission to take risks and put pencil to page. The most important aspect of improving drawing skills is to make more drawings. With the pressure off, you will watch your children's drafting skills grow. When you look at your child's artwork, it is only natural to say "Great job honey, that looks so good." However, this reinforces the idea that the goal of nature journaling is making pretty pictures and children are very good at detecting false praise. Instead try giving positive reinforcement in these two ways:

  1. Point out real observations that are recorded and complement the child on their observational skills. "I see you noticed that the leaves come out opposite each other. That is an important observation." Or "Oh, you show the torn ring on the stalk of the mushroom. That  was really subtle. Do all the mushrooms have that feature?"
  2. Call out a specific note taking or illustration method that you child is using that you would like to reinforce. "The way you add written notes to these sketches and draw lines to the details on the drawing is a great way to combine sketches and writing. I am going to try that myself in my journal." Or "By showing the side view and the top view of this flower you help me understand its shape. What other subjects could you use this strategy?"


It does not help to tell yourself that you “should” be journaling more. To make it happen, set clear goals for yourself and help your children do the same. At first, the push to start journaling more regularly will feel unnatural or forced. That’s because it is. It’s not yet their habit or routine. Do not be put off if it feels a little like work at the start.  You are training your kids to make a new habit. Once it becomes a part of their routine, it will feel natural and they will do it all the time on their own accord. Use the S.M.A.R.T. formula to set better goals. 

Specific: Instead of saying “I want to keep a nature journal,” be as detailed and specific as you can. Answer the questions: What are you going to do? Why do you want to do it? Where are you going to journal? When are you going to do it? I am really interested in natural history so my goal might look like this: I want to keep a journal of natural observations, and places I explore. I want to do this to help me observe the events of my life and the world around me more deeply and to help me remember these experiences. I will journal on my travels and on walks around my home. I will journal on my birding walks, nature hikes, and other expeditions in addition to around my home when I find something interesting. 

Everyone will have different goals. An equally exciting goal would be to capture the people, places, and events of your live, sketching in cafes, over a bowl of soup or a good taco, at concerts or other venues. The question is what are you excited about? What do you want to do?

Measurable: A number of pages per week is a measurable goal. You will be able to hold yourself accountable and measure your progress. Remember, it is a numbers game. The best way to get better is to fill more pages.

Attainable: If you decide to fill 100 pages a week, you will probably fall short of your goal (at least I would.) Choose a number that you can do but will push you a little outside of your comfort zone.

Realistic: You will get better, give it time. Do not judge yourself on how pretty a picture is, but attend to what you discovered, or how much richer your memories of the moment have become.

Timely: When and how often are you going to open your journal? Think about the fabric of your day. Every moment is already filled so how can you fit in something new? Journal entries need not take hours. Let yourself get out your journal to catch fifteen minutes here and ten minutes there. Try connecting routines that you already have with the practice of journaling. If you have a cup of tea every morning, open your journal at the window at the same time. If you go birding or hiking, start to journal on these expeditions.

How to Start

Start by assembling your own journal/nature study kits. Each member of the family should have one. This preparation is exciting and fun. Go to the art supply store together and let each of your kids choose their own journal (a very personal choice.) You can find ideas and suggestions for equipment and drawing tools at

Breaking in a new journal can be hard. Begin by writing your name, phone number and email inside the front cover. If you loose your journal, this will help someone get it back to you. If you feel intimidated by the first blank page, start on page 2 and circle back to that front page some other day. I like to start each page by writing the date, location, and a little weather icon on the bottom. This ensures that this essential "metadata" is included in your notes, transforming them from some pretty pictures to scientific data. It also breaks the pure whiteness of the page and makes it easier for other things to follow. 

The infinite range possibilities of what you could do on your page is overwhelming. Here is a trick to jump-start you and help you begin. Rather than trying to do everything, pick a little piece and do that well. The constraint will help you to focus. One way to do this is the alphabet trick: Pick a letter of the alphabet (lets say B.) Think of things that start with the letter B that could become the focus of a little investigation (birds, beetles, berries, things that are blue, etc.). Choose one of these and use it as a lens through which to see the world. You will be amazed at what you notice when you start looking for blue everywhere… Oh, and if you choose berries, be sure to add a smear of the juice on your page next to each sketch. The next time you go out, pick a different letter. You will never get bored.

As a further reference, you can download the free curriculum Opening the World Through Nature Journaling. This kid tested series of activities and framework for investigation. 

Join John Muir Laws at his free monthly nature journaling classes great for all ages.

You can also connect with him at, Facebook, on Twitter, and YouTube.

* Illustrations from The Laws Field Guide to The Sierra Nevada. Illustrations may only be used with permission of the artist © John Muir Laws.