I remember the first time that I nature journaled with my children. It wasn’t hard to convince them to come outside and draw. A balmy summer morning beckoned us to abandon our regular indoor routine. Elizabeth, age 6, headed up to the garden and picked a few ripe strawberries. Eric, age 11, found a tiny Monarch caterpillar on a milkweed leaf in the field. Claire, age 15, snapped off some purple coneflowers from the flowerbed next to the house. We spread blankets on the ground and opened our sketchbooks. The three older children, heads bent and eyes fixed, immediately began to draw. Anna, age 3, ran and tumbled in the grass before plopping down on a blanket next to me. I picked up a strawberry leaf and looked intently at the serrated edges. Timidly, I applied pencil strokes to the paper. I hadn’t drawn on a regular basis since art school. Drawing felt foreign. I wondered how the children were feeling as they drew from nature for the first time.
As the sun warmed our shoulders, I wasn’t aware that my children’s education had just been enriched beyond anything I could ask or think. Nature journaling is the course of study the Lord has used to make my children more aware of His abundant Creation and the ability He has given each one of them to capture it on paper.
A Method of Drawing Instruction
One day, Elizabeth, who usually drew out of her imagination drew my sewing machine which was sitting on the table in front of her. I was dumbfounded. Was drawing from life a step I had missed with the older children? Even though I had grown up in a creative home where drawing was encouraged, I didn’t know what method to use to teach my children how to draw. What could I use that would keep my children – all of them – captivated and wanting to draw for a lifetime?
As I browsed the parent-teacher section of my local library I found a book by Catherine Levison entitled, A Charlotte Mason Companion. Charlotte Mason, a late nineteenth-century educational reformer from England, based her philosophy on the Latin word for education, educa , which means “to feed and nourish.” Understanding the natural affinity that children have for nature and desire to learn of it first hand, she recommended that every child keep a nature journal.
Could teaching art really be so simple? Was drawing from nature the very thing that would inspire all of my children to want to draw? In the months that followed, the answer to that question was a resounding “Yes!” God’s awe-inspiring Creation was right outside our window the whole time! How could I have been so blind! Children love nature—they love to hold it, draw it, and let it go.
It’s been amazing to hear Anna (age three) say, “Bring that in the house, Mom, so we can draw it!” She has spontaneously drawn spiders, leaves, and sunflowers. Elizabeth (age seven) is enthralled with nature and loves to draw from it anytime. She loves collecting insects and making herbarium (plant) collections. It has been gratifying to see Eric (age 11) become a more confident artist as he trains his eye by drawing from life. And Claire (age 15) didn’t know that she could draw anything other than horses until we started drawing from nature. All of us have become sensitized to plant, animal, and insect life for the purpose of recording it in our journals.
The Skill of Observation
Learning how to draw is a process, and yet it’s rarely viewed as such. People often think you “have the gift” or you don’t. The truth is that everyone has the ability to put marks on a paper, but they must be willing to take the time to observe and practice. There is a vast difference between looking at something and really seeing it. Seeing takes time.
The definition of the word observation is “the act of observing or taking notice; the act of seeing or of fixing the mind on anything.” In order to observe something, we have to look at it for a sustained period of time. That’s hard for some of us to do because we have to make a choice to sit still. Do you really have to sit alongside your children and draw in a nature journal? No, you don’t have to, but you get to!
In the book Plain and Simple, Sue Bender says one of the most important things that she learned from living with the Amish is that they only think about one thing at a time. When they are sewing they don’t think about gardening, and when they are gardening they don’t think about washing dishes or preparing dinner. They only think about the task at hand, and everything is given equal importance and value. That’s what it’s like whenever you sit and draw in your nature journal. Life comes to a screeching halt, because it takes your full concentration to really “see” what you are looking at. It’s so relaxing to fix your eyes on a specimen and try to recreate it on paper. When you teach your children the quiet art of sitting and sketching from nature, you teach them to see what others miss―a God who loves, color, variety, and design. There are many valuable lessons to learn in the pages of your nature journals!
When children are young, five to eight years old, they draw symbols to represent objects. They may decide that a green triangle represents a pine tree. Yes, they know what a pine tree smells like; they’ve been pricked by one at the Christmas tree lot. They know a pine tree is not a green triangle, but when it comes to drawing it on paper—well…it’s easiest to draw a green triangle. This stage of art development is called the symbolism stage. A child is happy to draw out of his imagination, using the same symbols repeatedly to represent everyday objects.
Around the age of nine or ten, however, children become visually aware of the world around them. They want their drawings to look realistic. During this phase they can become overly critical of their work if they can’t make their drawing look “just right” in terms of detail and proportion. This is the stage where many children stop drawing. That’s why nature journaling is such a powerful tool for helping children see the way an artist sees. It requires them to develop the observational skills needed to move out of the symbolic stage to drawing realistically.
Enjoy the Process
One of the hardest concepts to teach older children about journaling, whether writing or drawing, is that the process is more important that the product. For writing, the process is “thinking.” For drawing, the process is “seeing.” We live in a product-oriented society. We want quick, measurable results—that’s how we know we’re a success. However, you can’t expect a perfect drawing every time you nature journal, especially if you’ve never drawn realistically before. Drawing from life is a process that can only be developed over time―through practice.
If your children become dissatisfied with the product of their efforts, encourage them to slow down, relax, take their time, and draw the object with as many details as possible. If your child is patient and persistent in journaling on a regular basis, year in and year out, he will grow in artistic ability.
When I was at a used book sale at our library last fall, I noticed a woman buying quite a few art books. We started talking and I found out that she was a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago. I told her about how I had attended the American Academy of Art many years ago, that I was now homeschooling my children, and how we nature journaled together on a regular basis. We talked some more about art and her childhood experiences in that area. Then she said the most profound thing to me. “You know,” she said, “Your kids will never have to go to the Art Institute if you work with them the way you are. All I am is a disciplinarian!”At first I was stunned, but I knew what she said was true. She gave her students assignments to make them produce. My children produce because they love what they’re drawing, especially when I draw with them.
Nature journaling is a wonderful opportunity for the parent to model the process of creative expression so that the child will wholeheartedly embrace it. If a child is willing to take a risk and put his pencil to paper (because we have assigned it), then we too can take a risk as his teacher and draw with him. You don’t have to be an advanced artist to nature journal with your children. You will learn more about the process of drawing as you practice. Be encouraged that your family members will grow in artistic expression as you draw God’s creation, together.