What Is a Nature Journal? Plus, How to Start and Keep Your Own

By Bethany Johnson in Natural Products

Have you ever experienced a moment so sweet you wished you could pause time to savor it? Often, when I'm out hiking, biking, or boating with my family, the sights, sounds, and feelings of nature overwhelm me, and I want to preserve the sensation.

So I do just that! And you can, too. All you need is a nature notebook. Here's exactly what that means.

Just What Is a Nature Journal, Exactly?

Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis (of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition), Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are just a few of the history makers who kept a nature-themed notebook. The journalers put down reflections on everything around them: the date, the time of day, the weather, the smells, sights, sounds, and feelings they experienced. Best of all, they recorded hypotheses and experiments that tested the elements and their own powers of observation.

Sometimes a nature journal can even create a breakthrough in conservation. Henry David Thoreau's notes on nature, such as when ice broke up on Walden Pond in the spring and when migratory birds returned to the area, are now helping scientists study climate change in the northeastern United States, writes National Geographic.

Today, the National Park Service offers free naturalist notebooks to Junior Rangers and their adventurous families. But you don't need to visit a national park just to get your own; any old notebook will do. Alternately, kids can fold together their own and tie it with yarn or twine to bind it. Or if you'd like to buy one pre-made, a variety of natural observation notebooks are available at any bookstore.

Truly, what makes a nature journal is not whether it's homemade or store bought, spiral-bound or tied, colorful or neutral. What makes it a nature journal is its content.

And that's where you and your young explorer come in. Here's how to transform a blank book into a volume full of nature-inspired collections, observations, sightings, games, experiments, and adventures.

page from a nature journal

How to Keep a Nature Journal of Your Own

Most diaries and travel logs are full of observations and feelings about yourself or your relationship with others. A nature journal is the same thing, with one big difference: nature takes center stage. My own nature journal started with basic notes, such as:

  • Which experiences engaged multiple senses. For example, I could see, smell, and touch a flower.

  • What made an observation memorable. For this, my family contrasts observations against expectations. For example, a cluster of spring crocus flowers and the appearance of a red-breasted robin always seems to surprise us, though these springtime pioneers arrive on the scene around the same time every year.

  • What, if anything, your findings may say about you as a naturalist. "I would not have noticed something so subtle just a few months ago. I'm becoming more in tune with my surroundings," perhaps, or "A walk through the woods really helps me get through a long homework session."

  • How the object of observation relates to its surroundings. "A tree trunk on a steep slope manages to stay perfectly vertical," is one of my nature journal entries.

  • Questions that arise naturally. Why do trees creak and groan when they sway in the wind? Do younger trees do that or just old big ones? Write down every question you or your family members have as you explore.

  • Hypotheses and experiments. A few nights ago, our own family's nature journal inspired our daughter to brainstorm a game where each family member would put a leaf on a paper plate, and balance the whole thing atop their head. The goal was to move around without letting the leaf blow off the paper plate. Her hypothesis (that a flat leaf resists wind) was tested and proven.

  • Lists of natural elements you might find in personal care, household, or kitchen products. There's nothing quite like familiarizing yourself with something found in nature (by journaling your observations), then later finding that same ingredient on a food, cleaning, or personal care product label. How much more enjoyable are natural elements if you already know how they work in nature!

The Power of Nature Journals

What is a nature journal without a few natural materials inside? My kids have recently gone beyond pasting and drawing pictures in our family nature notebook, and they've begun taping small keepsakes into the pages. Found treasures like feathers, freshwater oyster shells, colorful leaves, and even the occasional arrowhead have graced the pages of our family nature log.

The power of the nature journal is not in the single entry. It's the transformative power of observation itself... over time. Slowing down to look, listen, smell, feel, and even taste your surroundings enhances your ability to do all the above. The longer you jot down and capture your many impressions and reflections, the more you'll be able to do the same again and again.

Image source: Badlands National Park via Flickr | Bethany Johnson

The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.

Why It’s Good

Getting outside and enjoying nature is good, but jotting down what you see, hear, smell, and feel makes your time outdoors even more worthwhile. Plus, getting kids started with a nature journal early on can cultivate a life-long love of the environment.