Natural Nature Learning

watercolour-pencils-nature-studies-02by Deborah Taylor-Hough

Our family hasn’t been blessed with acres of property off in the country for our children to frolic to their hearts content. But a small city lot and many local parks have offered us tremendous opportunities for outdoor learning activities.


To make up for the lack of open natural space in our neighborhood, we go to various local parks at least two to three times per week. We don’t go to the parks for the play equipment but for the exposure to a more natural setting. We are about half-an-hour driving time from Puget Sound so we often frequent parks with direct beach access.

When the tide’s out, the kids explore tidepools, find crabs and enjoy the fresh salt air. Digging in the sand and making castles and roadways is always fun, too!

There’s a “wilderness” park in our town which has access to a river bank, several walking trails through undisturbed woods, and a big open field for frolic and running.


Last year, we started bringing the children’s Nature Notebooks whenever we went to the wilderness park (Nature Notebooks are artist sketchbooks where the children can draw whatever natural items strike their fancy).

Throughout the Fall, we revisited the wilderness park once each week and kept track of the changes we observed as the season progressed. Everything was green and full of leaves, at first. Then we saw the gradual change of colors, until finally, after an early snow storm, the trees were bare and the ground covered with leaves.

We casually discussed the difference between deciduous and evergreen trees and the kids really saw first-hand what that means. At first, the evergreens were barely visible amongst the heavy foliage. After the Autumn leaves were gone, the evergreens were the only observable green in the woods.

The kids also noticed on their own that the level of the river had gradually gone down over the several months we’d been observing it.

We watched a large group of mushrooms spring up and practically overrun a section of the park’s grass. The kids had great fun sketching the odd-looking mushrooms with their funny little caps. “They’re like little umbrellas, Mom!”

One day, my oldest daughter sat entranced by a Black-Capped Chickadee darting between the branches of an Autumn-clad maple. Although she had her Nature Notebook with her, the busy little bird just wasn’t cooperating and holding still for his portrait.

When we arrived home, my daughter ran to the bookcase and grabbed a bird identification book. After looking up Chickadees, she used the illustration in the book as the model for the sketch she then added to her Nature Notebook. She also drew in a background of various trees we had seen at the park.


Another Nature activity we’ve participated in right in our own small yard is the Backyard Bird Survey sponsored by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. I know that many other States offer similar programs, so if you’re interested, contact your local Department of Fish and Wildlife to find out more.

The way the Backyard Bird Survey works: we do a bird count in our yard for a two hour stretch of time twice during each two week observation period. This surveying goes on throughout the Winter months.

By participating in the Survey, we’ve learned a great deal about bird identification and the children have actually started bird watching at other times and in other places as well. The binoculars have become a favorite “toy.”

One time during our Survey hours, we saw a Sharp-Shinned Hawk snatch a small House Finch off our feeder. Rather traumatic–especially since the hawk ate its meal in an open tree within our line of sight–but a much better learning experience than the best wildlife drama on television!


I want to encourage those of you who might not have easy access to your own fields and forests, there are other readily available opportunites for outdoor play and learning activities.

I can’t stress enough how valuable I’ve found the Nature Notebook idea to be. We are going to start taking our Notebooks (I keep one too) with us whenever we go on any sort of outdoor adventure. Even trips to the local zoo could probably benefit from their own sketchbook. My understanding of the Nature Notebook idea, however, is that it should only contain sketches of objects the child has actually seen first-hand in natural settings. Probably zoo trips would require a separate “Zoo Notebook.”

About the Author:
Deborah Taylor-Hough (long time homeschooling mother of three) is the editor of The Charlotte Mason Monthly email newsletter, and author of several bestselling books including Frozen Assets: Cook for a Day, Eat for a Month (SourceBooks).  Visit Debi online at A Frugal Simple Life

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One response to “Natural Nature Learning

  1. Thanks for this post! We too have just a small garden in the suburbs but are blessed to have a city with many parks, beaches and forests! I have started to pack a nature notebook for my two oldest children in their back packs when going out exploring. My challenge is to let them record how THEY see not how I would 🙂 It has been lovely to see their eye for detail increasing! We have also been taking small glass jars (baby food, jam etc.) or small snap lock plastic bags with us to collect treasures to record later.
    Thank you for your inspiring blog! Your journey encourages our own!



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