Homeschool Corner

The Eye of a Naturalist ~ Teaching Your Child to Observe

By Jill Novak

A few years ago, I was awakened by the gentle flapping of the shade on my bedroom window. After a particularly cold and rainy spring, a warm summer breeze beckoned me to go exploring—first thing, while the children were still asleep. Slinging my digital camera over one shoulder and tucking the video camera and tripod under my arm, I tiptoed to the back door and quietly let myself out. My mission? To photograph and videotape the wildflowers on the hill by our house.


As a nature journalist and homeschooling mom, I’ve learned to take advantage of “divine appointments” with God’s creation. Even though I’m accustomed to the landscape of my own backyard, I try not to let a season pass without capturing some of the same specimens anew in the pages of my journal and sharing my observations with my children. Little did I know that this morning was to be especially rewarding.


As I stepped into the sunlight, I was greeted by a cherished, seasonal event—the sight and sound of barn swallows performing aerial acrobatics above the long stretch of grass between the house and the silo. As in years past, I stood in awe, marveling at their agility as they swooped and flew at an alarming rate of speed, just inches above the ground. After watching their maneuvers for a few minutes, I continued walking up the hill to where the wildflowers grow. As I followed a trail through the tall grass and past the entrance of the silo, I heard a loud, insistent chirping coming from inside. Peering into the dim interior, to my utter astonishment, I saw six baby barn swallows on the floor, flapping their wings excitedly as their mother circled low and flew back up to the top of the silo. Every time she circled, they opened their mouths to be fed.


I quickly set up the digital camera and began recording this unusual happening. Suddenly, I remembered our four cats and how they’re prone to follow me on my jaunts into the field. Right then and there, I decided to rescue the baby barn swallows before they were found out. I ran down to the house and woke up the kids. They were excited about my discovery, and after rounding up the birds, they carried them down to the kitchen table, where they held them in their hands and drew from life. I even set up the video camera in the living room and sketched one little fellow from different angles. The baby birds were all very docile and obliging.

Remembering how the babies opened their mouths when their mother flew by, we took them outside and set them on the lawn to be fed (after locking the cats in the garage, of course). To our surprise, not only did their mother swoop down to feed them, but other barn swallows did as well. Later that day, we tossed them gently into the air, hoping they would take off. When it became evident that they weren’t quite getting the hang of flying, we placed them in an aquarium with a lid for safekeeping. The next day we repeated the process.

Over the next few days, the kids and I seemed to inhale information about barn swallows. From books on backyard birds to Midwest field guides and the encyclopedia, we learned all we could about our new feathered friends. What did barn swallows eat? Did they build a new nest every year, or would they return to the one in the rafters of the grain barn? How many times a year did they reproduce? Where did they migrate to and when would they return? As we found the answers to our questions, we began to understand God’s design for these highly social creatures.

Finally, on the third day, the baby birds’ wings grew strong enough to carry them to the roof of the garage. At last, the confident youngsters flew into the branches of the buckthorn tree next to the garage, and eventually we witnessed them join the rest of the community on the roof of the grain barn where the older, more experienced barn swallows took turns pushing them off, encouraging them to fly. We all rejoiced when at last our dear little clown-faced friends graduated from “junior aviation school” and took to the sky.

Intentional Observation

Making the most of spontaneous encounters with nature requires the skill of observation. The Modern Oxford English Dictionary describes the word observation as “the action or process of observing something or someone carefully or in order to gain information.” Observing nature close up and firsthand should be a goal for any student who is passionate about drawing. Whether making a quick sketch or a more sustained drawing in great detail, observing a specimen involves more than giving it a brief glance and letting it go. To observe with the intention of getting the most out of the experience that you possibly can, time is required.

One of most intentionally observant naturalists I have come to adore is children’s author-illustrator Beatrix Potter. How I wish I could have tagged along behind Beatrix and her brother Bertram as they explored the Lake District of England during their family’s holidays there. No stone was left unturned in the path of these child naturalists. A friend of Beatrix’s father, the English painter and illustrator Sir John Millais, told Beatrix, “Plenty of people can draw, but you and my son John have observation.”


From an early age, Beatrix was deliberate in her quest to gain knowledge of the subject matter she chose to draw. She was gifted with an intense curiosity and need to understand. She didn’t just “appreciate” nature; she “re-created” it as well. And the originality with which she expressed her observations set Beatrix Potter far above the crowd of aspiring artists of her time. “It is all the same,” she said, “drawing, painting, modeling, the irresistible desire to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye. Why cannot one be content to look at it? I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result.”

When it comes to drawing and recording observations, some artists like to work slowly. Watercolorist Patsy McNamara says, “I produce more of a sustained sketch. I’m uncomfortable trying to work quickly. . . . My sketchbook is made up of slow, steady pages where I focus completely on my subject and lose myself in the process. My pages are about intense observation and gradual understanding, not about speed or an end product. It is a recorded form of active meditation, meant more to give me understanding than anything else.”

There is no method for nature journaling other than gaining understanding through one’s personal observations. The way I approach a subject depends on how it catches my eye, whether I will sketch it or draw it, what tools I will use, and even what effect I am trying to achieve. What nature journaling looks like for each of your children will be as unique and individual as their fingerprints.

We should never rush a child who wants to spend hours drawing in his or her journal. On the other hand, we should never demand a prolonged journaling session from a child who is not wired to be an artist. Not all children will gain understanding in the same manner—namely, recording it in the pages of a journal. Auditory or kinesthetic children may need different avenues for “recording” their experiences, ones that will heighten their sense of understanding and be just as memorable.


More Than One Way to Observe

Because of differing learning styles, not all children possess the gift of visual observation, but it is a skill that can be strengthened by giving them different avenues of exploration. Using our experience with the barn swallows as an example, the auditory child might want to imitate the sound of the chirping babies and practice his “bird call” for Dad when he comes home from work. He could take the video camera out into the field and make a short documentary about the habits and habitat of barn swallows. The kinesthetic child could gain understanding about the anatomy of a barn swallow by modeling it out of clay or running around the yard waving her arms, swooping and diving and imitating the social behavior of barn swallows. All of these observations could be preserved through writing, drawing, and taking photographs of your child’s experiences, and these photographs could be included in their nature journals.

Start Young; Observe for a Lifetime

We don’t have to limit a child’s nature experience by setting a coloring page in front of him or having him copy someone else’s lines—not when there is so much to gain by letting him handle and draw a specimen from life. As in the case of Beatrix Potter, English children traditionally begin nature study around the age of 5 or 6. We, too, can give our children the eye of a naturalist from an early age. When it comes to understanding the design of God’s creation, a bird in the hand will always be better than two in the bush.


Jill Novak and her husband Robert have been married for thirty years. They are the parents of five children, ages 23 to10. Together their family has produced
The Gift of Family Writing, Becoming God’s Naturalist, The Sketch with Me DVD Series, Drawing is Life: Two Artists Discuss Nature Journaling, and The Girlhood Home Companion Magazine. Visit Jill’s online “Sketch with Me” nature journal and blog at www.remembrancepress.com. Also stop by the Novaks’ new ministry for families impacted by special needs at www.hopefulfarmfoundation.org. You may contact Jill at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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Copyright 2009. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Summer 2009.

Used with permission. Visit them at
www.TheHomeschoolMagazine.com.


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