Nature Notebook Phases

Nature Notebook Phases

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of original articles by Nicole Handfield on the topic of keeping a nature notebook.

When I started learning about Charlotte Mason about five years ago, I was pretty sure the nature notebook was supposed to look like Edith Holden’s The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. And, truly, I love that book; I love its elegant poetry, prose, and paintings. The biggest problem with this book as a model for the nature notebook may actually be its elegance, though, because it feels unattainable for most of us who don’t really consider ourselves to be “artists.” I don’t think there is anything wrong with Holden’s book as a prototype for one way of keeping a nature notebook; the problem is that most of us have no idea how to get there. So I wrote this article to give you my suggestions for getting there.

In short, I recommend adopting the parts in three phases:

  1. Set the stage
  2. Present your child with his own notebook
  3. Begin drawing lessons

I like to introduce the nature notebook in phases because it results in children and adult beginners feeling successful while minimizing unnecessary roadblocks. As I will explain later, in some cases you may want to introduce all phases at once. But regardless of the way you introduce the nature notebook in your family, please remember this is a process; the product will take care of itself.

Phase One—Set the Stage

In this first stage, the parents start their own personal nature notebooks, the family goes outside every day possible, and the children begin to train their observational powers.

Parents Start Their Own Nature Journals

As soon as possible, you (mother and father) should spend time noticing nature and recording your observations in a nature notebook with words and brush drawing. It’s never too late—start today! Use whatever supplies you have handy and get out there; you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the delight and refreshment keeping a nature notebook can bring. For a bit more on the importance of parents leading the way, please read “The Force of Public Opinion in the Home” (Home Education, pp. 58-59).

Go Outside

Go outside every day that you can. Access to nature builds the relationship that we want ourselves and our children to enjoy for a lifetime. Charlotte Mason counsels:

Children should be encouraged to watch, patiently and quietly, until they learn something of the habits and history of bee, ant, wasp, spider, hairy caterpillar, dragon-fly, and whatever of larger growth comes in their way. (Home Education, p. 57)

A major benefit I have noticed is that my kids have better behavior and are more willing to go to bed at night when they have been outside for most of the day. For further discussion on the benefits of outdoor time and what to do while you’re out there, please read all of the “Out-of-Door-Life” sections from Charlotte Mason’s Home Education and Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods.

Begin to Train Powers of Observation

Training the senses to make worthwhile and accurate observations of natural objects is a process. To understand the perils of “having eyes and seeing not,” I heartily encourage you to read “The Study of Natural History as an Educational Discipline” by Arthur Thomson (Parents’ Review  volume 7, pp. 332-339). This lovely article is truly worth your time to read the whole thing. Here’s just a snippet:

I knew a learned philological student—since dead—who did not know how many wings a butterfly bore, nor how many legs a frog had… Specialism and pre-occupation make us all stupid, perhaps stupidest when we are at our best… the philologists’ ignorance was due not to a momentary forgetfulness, nor to the remoteness of the butterfly and frog from his keener interests, but to an entire absence of perceptual education…he had learned to think, but not to see. He had seen many butterflies, yet he had never really seen one. He had been content with a vague sensation of a flying patch of colour. He was an educated philologist, but not a thoroughly educated man. (pp. 335-336)

Charlotte Mason suggests several specific activities to train the observation power of the senses (in our children and also in us):

… here [in nature] is the mother’s opportunity to train the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and to drop seeds of truth into the open soul of the child, which shall germinate, blossom, and bear fruit, without further help or knowledge of hers. (Home Education, p. 44)

Object Lesson

The object lesson is perhaps the primary tool we have to train the senses in powers of observation. We “assist a child, by careful examination of a given object, to find out all he can about it through the use of his several senses” (Parents and Children, p. 180). Mason also said:

A boy who is observing a beetle does not consciously apply his several senses to the beetle, but lets the beetle take the initiative, which the boy reverently follows: but the boy who is in the habit of doing sensory daily gymnastics will learn a great deal more about the beetle than he who is not so trained. (Parents and Children, p. 189)

I believe Mason is saying that the object lesson, which includes questions asked by the teacher, constitutes part of his “sensory daily gymnastics” and prepares the child to learn more from “unassisted” observations he will later make without the teacher present. “Object Teaching; Or, Words and Things” (Parents’ Review  volume 3, pp. 13-23) by T. G. Rooper, Inspector of Schools and frequent contributor to The Parents’ Review, sheds some light on this topic. He thus describes the method of Object Teaching:

The key to the art of training the senses is analysis. An object presented to a child for the first time gives him a confused set of impressions. The child must be shown how to divide this whole into convenient parts in an orderly manner. His attention must be directed first to one part and then to another, and afterwards the bearing of one part on another must be carefully worked out. After this analysis or study of detail the object must again be studied as a whole. It should never, after being thus pulled to pieces, be left in fragments, as it were, the careful division of the separate parts should be followed by a reconstruction of them into the original whole. Such an attentive study of an object must replace the hasty, fugitive, and unstable glance which usually satisfies a child. In studying an object it should not be forgotten that in nature things are not separate and independent existences; the attention must not be so wholly confined to the object and its parts as to allow the child to forget its relation to other things. Let the child see what part the object plays in its usual surroundings, and dwell upon its material, its origin, its use, its hurtfulness, its opposites, and its resemblances.

Even children can study a particular object thoroughly up to a certain point, and the habit thus acquired extends itself to objects which are not treated of by the teacher in school. In fact, the right sort of Object Teaching develops a faculty of study which is of infinitely more consequence than the actual information obtained. (p. 20)

Rooper continues: “One of the ablest specimens of Object Teaching in its elementary stage is printed in Mrs. Sewell’s Life, and I can give no better illustration of my meaning” (p. 21). He then quotes from The Life and Letters of Mrs. Sewell, a biography of the author of Our Father’s Care and the mother of Anna Sewell, the writer of Black Beauty:

A little boy—we will say about four years old, runs from the garden to his mother.

‘Oh! mother, do come and look at this beautiful thing on the rose-tree. I want to know what it is.’

‘I am busy now, Charles. Tell me what it is like. What colour is it?’

‘Oh I think it is red.’

‘Oh I suppose it is a ladybird.’

‘Oh no, it is a great deal bigger than a ladybird.’

‘Well, perhaps it is a tiger-moth, that has two red wings. Look—like this,’ and the mother slightly sketches the tiger-moth on the slate.

‘Oh no, it is not at all like that.’

‘Is it this colour?’

‘No, it is not so red as that.’

‘Perhaps it is the colour of this mahogany chair?’

‘No, not just like that.’

‘Perhaps like this nut?’

‘Yes, it is very much like that.’

‘Well, this is light brown, not red. But what shape is this beautiful creature?’

‘Oh, I think it is round.’

The mother draws a round figure on the slate. ‘Is it like this?’

‘No, not so round.’

The mother makes a long thing in the form of a long caterpillar.

‘No, it is not so long.’

The mother then draws an oval.

‘Yes, it is very much like that.’

‘And has it no feet?’

‘I think it has some feet.’

‘How many? I suppose two feet like the birds. Are they like these?’

‘Oh no, I am sure they are not like those.’

‘You had better go and look at it again, and come and tell me.’

‘Mother, it has six legs.’

The mother draws two on one side and four on the other. ‘Is that right?’

‘No, it has three on each side.’

The mother corrects it. ‘Is that right?’

‘Yes, that is really right.’

‘And what sort of a head has this wonderful creature?’

‘Oh mother! its head is like the branches of a tree.’

The mother immediately attaches a small branch of a tree to the body, with several twigs, not forgetting a few leaves. ‘Is it like this?’

‘Oh no, it has no leaves.’

She rubs out the leaves. ‘Like this, then?’

The child looks at it intently. ‘It has not so many little twigs.’

‘Perhaps you had better go again and see how many twigs there are on the branch.’

‘It has two branches, and one little twig on each.’

The mother then carefully sketches the stag-beetle, and a rapturous burst of applause follows; and the mother turns to her ‘natural history,’ shows the delineation, and ends its history.

You will see by this example how much of accurate observation this lesson will have taught the child. Children will never weary of this sort of instruction, and it is impossible to calculate how much the child will gain: very soon he will endeavour to guide his mother’s fingers to the correct form, and next endeavour to form the figure himself. The value of the habit of accurate observation is not to be told, nor the unceasing occupation and interest it has given to children. In this way a child obtains the power of using his own mind, and he learns the value of correct language and description. There would be no end to lessons of this kind, including all natural and artificial objects, and each one bringing fresh knowledge and, if the teacher be skilful and cheerful, both moral and spiritual instruction. Had the mother simply complied with the child’s request, and gone into the garden, and said ‘That is a stag-beetle,’ the subject would have been closed and the child’s interest quenched. Had a servant been with the child, she probably would leave the question thus—‘Oh that’s a nasty beetle; don’t touch it or it will kill you with those great nippers: come away from it:’ then the child would not only have its interest quenched, but fear created, and the creature would become an object of disgust.

Children led on after this manner will daily become less troublesome and more interesting: they will find their own amusements, and the more they learn, the more independent will they become of toys and nursemaids. Do not help too much. If they are utterly at a loss, suggest and hint, or furnish a clue which, through their previous knowledge, you believe they will be able to follow; but let them come to the end of their capacity before you give direct information: this will teach them their own ignorance, and increase their sense of your superiority, and their confiding trust in your wisdom. (The Life and Letters of Mrs. Sewell, pp. 107-109)

This lovely little vignette, quoted in part by Rooper, was quoted in full by Lady Campbell at the 1900 PNEU Conference and printed in her article “Nature Study,” in Parents’ Review volume 11, pp. 578-584.

To summarize, perhaps once or twice a week you give an object lesson, while you are looking at a specimen. You ask a series of questions that guide your student to make certain observations. For example, you might do an object lesson on a particular bird that you observe at your feeder or near your pond, such as a red-winged blackbird. You might ask: “What color are the legs? How long are the legs? What color is the beak, the wing, the eye? What other special color patterns can you find? What is the pattern of flight? What have you been able to observe of its behavior?” If you aren’t sure you can come up with questions like this on the fly, I heartily commend to you Anna Botsford Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study. While this tome is too heavy to bring with you on a nature walk, you can spend some time with the lessons (and questions) it contains, perhaps during a free afternoon of mother culture®, and you will quickly feel comfortable with object teaching.

Please note that this form of questioning is not the same thing as telling the student what should be noticed or what the teacher noticed, both of which we should not do. The distinction between discovery and telling is subtle but critical if we are to form the habit of observation in our children.

The following observation-training activities are described in Home Education, under the heading “Out-of-Door Life for the Children.”


Sight-seeing can be described as “an exploring expedition.” Essentially, sight-seeing challenges the children to observe everything they can of a particular place and then return to describe it all to mother. “Who can see the most, and tell the most, about yonder hillock or brook, hedge or copse” is a delightful occupation that builds the child’s observational powers. Please see Home Education, pages 45-48.


Charlotte Mason explains picture-painting on pages 48-51 of Home Education:

Get the children to look well at some patch of landscape, and then to shut their eyes and call up the picture before them… When they have a perfect image before their eyes, let them say what they see. Thus: ‘I see a pond; it is shallow on this side, but deep on the other; trees come to the water’s edge on that side, and you can see their green leaves and branches so plainly in the water that you would think there was a wood underneath. Almost touching the trees in the water is a bit of blue sky with a soft white cloud; and when you look up you see that same little cloud, but with a great deal of sky instead of a patch, because there are no trees up there. There are lovely yellow water-lilies round the far edge of the pond, and two or three of the big round leaves are turned up like sails. Near where I am standing three cows have come to drink, and one has got far into the water, nearly up to her neck,’ etc. (p. 48)


Bird-stalking, the challenge of “tracking a song or note to its source” (p. 90) is another delightful occupation that trains the child’s observational powers. Please read Home Education, pp. 89-92.

In summary, I would like to again emphasize that the goal of all of these activities (object lessons, sight-seeing, picture-painting, and bird-stalking) is not to accumulate nature knowledge (even the names of plants or animals). Furneaux, in A Nature Study Guide, tells us:

In [nature study] the work of the teacher is not to give information, but rather to stimulate the children to observe and discriminate for themselves, and to form their own conclusions.

Of course, in the case of young children, the ideas formed and the conclusions framed will always be more or less vague and imperfect; but since these ideas and conclusions are the result of the children’s own efforts, they are of far more value than the clearer conceptions imposed by the teacher on a class that is merely passively receptive. (pp. 2-3)

Dowton, in “The Charm of Nature Study” (Parents’ Review  volume 42, p. 184), echoes Furneaux’s sentiments: “We see and know nothing unless we ourselves make the effort.”

While these activities are generally treated as by-the-way games for younger children, they can certainly be enjoyed by students of all ages. We incorporate some of these activities into the Handfield family schedule with an “outdoor hour” Monday through Thursday right before Daddy gets home and a longer nature and geography walk with our local Natural History Club every Friday afternoon.

Phase Two—Present Your Child with His Own Notebook

In phase two, the child receives his own nature notebook. Mother writes dictated notes, and the child illustrates with brush drawings.

Mother Writes Child’s Nature Notes in Child’s Notebook

Once a child has spent ample time watching an interesting find, write his observations in his own nature notebook, as dictated to you, until he is comfortable writing them on his own:

The child who spends an hour in watching the ways of some new ‘grub’ he has come upon will be a man of mark yet. Let all he finds out about it be entered in his diary—by his mother, if writing be a labour to him,—where he finds it, what it is doing, or seems to him to be doing; its colour, shape, legs: some day he will come across the name of the creature, and will recognise the description of an old friend. (Home Education, p. 58)

Of course, the more children you have, the trickier it is to manage everyone’s notes. My nine-year-old is quite comfortable writing (she often writes books and letters to friends for fun), but I still write her dictated nature notes whenever I can so that she can focus on her observations without slowing down to write them. I find that her written observations are significantly more descriptive when she is not writing them.

Perhaps your child is not ready for the responsibility of managing his own nature notebook. My daughter misplaced her nature notebook (along with her pricey paints and bag) more than once. If you do not think your child is ready for his own nature notebook, dictated observations (from multiple children as well as the parents) could be kept in a shared family nature notebook. Mason mentions this in Home Education on pages 85-86:

All that has been said about… observations to be noted in the family diary, belongs just as much to winter weather as to summer; and there is no end to the things to be seen and noted. The party come across a big tree which they judge, from its build, to be an oak—down it goes in the diary; and when the leaves are out, the children come again to see if they are right.

Child Illustrates His Notes with Brush Drawings

Mason writes:

While he is still quite young (five or six), he should begin to illustrate his notes freely with brush-drawings; he should have a little help at first in mixing colours, in the way of principles, not directions. He should not be told to use now this and now that, but, ‘we get purple by mixing so and so,’ and then he should be left to himself to get the right tint. As for drawing, instruction has no doubt its time and place; but his nature-diary should be left to his own initiative. (Home Education, p. 55)

Starting a young child out with brush drawing might seem counter-intuitive to adults who usually carry a lot of “I’m not an artist” baggage, but children do not usually have that problem. They can draw the details they notice with their brush even if they do not have the vocabulary to describe these observations with words.

Alternatively, if your young students cannot be trusted not to eat the paints or handle them responsibly (even after slow and methodical teaching on how to handle the tools and materials), then maybe they are not quite ready to be painting—you can still have them dictate their observations while you write them down in their notebook without any brush drawing. This is a perfectly valid form of nature notebooking and still very beneficial for the child.

Phase Three—Begin Drawing Lessons

Drawing lessons can help children with their nature notebook paintings. Drawing Lessons take place during a separate drawing lesson time, not while they are painting in their nature notebooks. If you notice your student struggling to convey three-dimensionality on a pinecone or foreshortening on curled leaf as he is working in his nature notebook, it is best not to say anything at the time. Or, if he is really upset with his attempt at painting what he sees, you might say what you see: “I notice you seem to be struggling with something. Would you like to tell me about it?” Perhaps the best thing would be to work that into future drawing lessons.

I have much more to say about the drawing lessons from The Parents’ Review, so stay tuned for a detailed discussion about that in future articles.

What If My Students Are Older?

That’s great! You are not too late; you are perfectly on time. Instead of thinking about these sections as phases, you might think about them as parts; so just make sure you incorporate all of the parts, even if they are all being introduced at the same time.

Alternatively, if it is overwhelming to start everything at once, you could still introduce one new phase at a time—perhaps one per term. For example:

  • In term 1, have mom start her nature notebook, get everyone outside daily, and work on observation skills orally (with object lessons, sight-seeing, etc.);
  • In term 2, start students with nature notebooks using words and brush drawing to record observations;
  • In term 3, start formal Drawing Instruction Lessons.

How Was This Handled in the PNEU?

If you would like to know how the PNEU handled the nature notebook and drawing lessons during Charlotte Mason’s lifetime, we can take a closer look at portions of Programme 98 (January to March, 1924) as well as timetables for the various forms. I’m sharing my understanding of how the timetable and programme together can tell us what might have been done in the PNEU, but these are just my best guesses. If you know more than I do, please share in the comments!

Form I

The time-table from 1928 shows two 20-minute classes labeled “Natural History” and two 10-minute lessons labeled “Brush-Drawing.”

Natural History.

A & B Keep a Nature Note-book (P.N.E.U. Office, 6d., and see Home Education). Find and describe (a) six twigs of trees; watch, if possible, and describe (b) ten birds, (c) five other animals. [Countryside Rambles, by W. S. Furneaux (Philip 2/6), may be used for special studies (January to April) and for reference].  See also Tests in Nature Lore (P.U.S Scouting).

A On the Seashore* (“Eyes and No Eyes Series,” Cassell, 1/3), pp. 44-80. Tommy Smith’s Animals* by E. Selous (Methuen, 2/9), pp. 1-73.

B Within the Deep (“Eyes and No Eyes Series,” Cassell, 1/3), pp. 39-79. Tommy Smith Again at the Zoo, pp. 129-180 (Methuen 2/9).


A & B Six twigs of trees; six animals that you have been able to watch; scenes from your Tales, in brushwork. Memory drawings. Children should draw occasionally with brush or chalk from memory. Pencils should not be used…

I think one natural history session (20 minutes) would have been spent reading and narrating the Eyes and No Eyes book while the other 20-minute session would be for reading and narrating the Tommy Smith book. I don’t think the nature notebook was worked on during morning lessons since there are two natural history books listed with two natural history timetable slots. And, since there are two 10-minute sessions dedicated to brush drawing in the time-table, I think it is fair to assume that at least one of these would have been a drawing instruction lesson. I assume the natural objects (“Six twigs of trees; six animals”) would be painted in the nature notebook. Since twigs do not fly away but birds do, I am guessing the birds would be painted (or drawn in chalk) from memory.

Form II

The time-table shows two 30-minute lessons labeled “Natural History.” The time-table does not show any (morning) classes for drawing.

Natural History, etc.

A & B The Sciences,* by E. S. Holden (Ginn & Co., 4/-), pp. 185-224 (children should make the experiments where possible), or, (A), An Introduction to Elementary Botany, by C. L. Laurie (Allman, 1/6), chapters 1-5, inclusive. Keep a Nature Note-book (P.N.E.U. Office, 6d., and see Home Education). Make special studies for January to April with drawings and notes: Countryside Rambles, by Furneaux (Philip 2/6), may be used. Tests under P.U.S. Scouting (P.N.E.U. Office, 6d.), or “Guiding.”

A Life and Her Children,* by Arabella Buckley (Macmillan, 6/-), pp. 201-232.

B Life and Her Children,* pp. 1-32.


Teacher should consult: Drawing, Design and Craftwork, by F. J. Glass (Batsford, 12/-).

A & B Six (a) twigs of trees, (b) studies of animals, that you have been able to watch, in brushdrawing. Studies from objects,  following method in, but not copying, The Art of Drawing, Album 5 (Phillip & Tacey 1/3). Original brushdrawings from scenes in books set for reading, and from Nursery Rhymes. Memory drawings. Paint-box with specially chosen brush and colours (P.N.E.U. Office 2/6)*: pencil must not be used. Join the P.U.S. Portfolio: for subjects for January see P.R., January, 1924.

Since there are two natural history sessions, I suspect one was for reading and narrating Buckley’s Life and Her Children and the other was for reading and narrating Holden’s The Sciences (as well as performing the experiments). This means that the nature notebook and special study work were all happening as afternoon occupations. And all the brush drawing at this point must also be happening as an afternoon occupation, since there is no drawing class on the time-table.

Form III

The time-table shows one 30-minute lesson labeled “Botany” and one 20-minute lesson labeled “Natural History.” No drawing classes appear on the time-table.

Natural History and Botany.

The Study of Plant Life,* by H. C. Stopes (Blackie, 6/-), p. 141-163. Winners in Life’s Race,* by Mrs. Fisher (Macmillan, 6/-), pp. 43-88.

Keep a Nature Note-book (P.N.E.U. Office, interleaved 2/3), with flower, bird and insect lists, and make daily notes. For out-of-door work choose some special January to April study. A Nature Study Guide,  by W. S. Furneaux (Longman’s, 6/-), may be used for seasonal studies. See also “Guiding” tests.

General Science.

Our Wonderful Universe,* by A. Giberne (S.P.C.K., 6/6), pp. 151-179. The Fairyland of Science,* by Mrs. Fisher (Macmillan, 6/-), pp. 99-149.</>


[There is a description of what should be drawn, with books to be used, but no reference to any natural objects or anything linking this assignment with the nature notebook or out-of-door work.]

I assume that whatever book work was not read and narrated during the lessons in the mornings would be completed in the afternoons. I am certain that the nature notebook and the special study would both be completed as afternoon occupations. Of note, the end-of-term examination includes out-of-door nature notebook-type work: “Describe four kinds of moss you have seen this term, with drawings.”

Form IV

The time-table shows one 30-minute lesson labeled “Natural History” and no drawing lessons.

Natural History and Botany.

Winners in Life’s Race,* by Mrs. Buckley (Macmillan, 6/-), pp. 43-88. Elementary Studies in Plant Life,* by F. E. Fritsch (Bell, 3/6), pp. 42-74; 81-90; 97-101; 177-181. Keep a Nature Note-book (P.N.E.U. Office, interleaved 2/3), with flower, bird and insect lists, and make daily notes. For out-door work, take some special January to April study, from Furneaux’s A Nature Study Guide (Longmans, 6/6), e.g., leaf-buds and growth of seedlings. See also tests under “Guiding.”

General Science.

First Year of Scientific Knowledge,* by Paul Bert (Relfe, 5/-), pp. 192-234. Some Wonders of Matter,* by Bishop Mercer (S.P.C.K., 5/-), pp. 1-33.


Teacher should consult Drawing, Design and Craftwork, by F. J. Glass (Batsford, 12/-).

Studies of birds from nature, teacher following method in The Art of Drawing, Album 6 (Philip & Tacey 1/3). Illustrations of scenes from Literature. Memory drawing. Study, describe (and draw from memory details of) six reproductions* of pictures by Leonardo da Vinci (P.N.E.U. Office, 2/- the set): see the special notes in the Parents’ Review, for January, 1924. Paintbox with specially chosen paints and brush (P.N.E.U. Office, 5/-).

As in Form III, there are several subjects listed in the programme that do not have a place in the morning lesson timetable. Therefore, these would be completed as afternoon occupations. Specifically, these are: nature notebook (daily notes, lists, and special study out-door work), drawing (studies of birds from nature), and general science readings.


In this article, I have broken up the journey of nature notebooks into multiple phases and parts. Hopefully by now you can see that the goal is not to end up with another Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. Rather, the goal is to develop a relationship with nature by having eyes that see and ears that hear. After a few years, your journal may end up with paintings as beautiful as Edith Holden’s. But the real treasure will be the change and growth that has taken place in the hearts of you and of your children.

Nicole is the director of the In a Large Room Retreat, editor of Charlotte Mason and the Great Recognition book and art print, and co-founder of the In a Large Room Community. She and her husband Kent are raising four boisterous kids (including one with complex special needs) near Washington, DC. Nicole credits her nature notebook for her intervals of lucidity. You can follow her amateur nature notebook adventures at #keeperofglory and #insidemynaturenotebook.

©2018 Nicole Handfield

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