We have developed 31 activities that engage learners of all ages in nature journaling and outdoor learning. Some activities offer opportunities for learners to build a specific set of journaling skills, while others focus their observations on a specific part of the natural world.  The activities have been designed offer structure and support to guide students’ observations and journaling, along with opportunities for student choice and autonomy. Discussion questions included in activity offer a range of ways to deepen learning and reflection.

Check out Introducing  Journaling Activities and Supporting Student Engagement During Journaling Activities for strategies to successfully facilitate journaling activities. See our Teaching Support page for ideas on integrating journaling activities into longer lessons and learning experiences.

Getting Started: Introductory Journaling Techniques and Activities

Activities in this chapter will build foundational journaling skills and get students excited to keep at it. We recommend beginning with I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of. It is always the first activity we do when we take a group of students outside for the first time because it sets a tone of inquiry, curiosity, and excitement, and offers observation tools that can translate directly to the journal page. The other activities in this section are similarly accessible and approachable. They also introduce techniques students can include in future journal entries.

In this foundational “observation routine,” students use three prompts to engage with natural objects and build inquiry skills in the process.
Students observe two objects in the outdoors (e.g. flowers, trees, rocks) and sketch them side by side, noting differences and similarities.
Students record observations of a plant using words, pictures, and numbers, then challenge a partner to find the plant using their notes.
Students draw and describe a natural object, then play a matching game in which they pair the objects to their peers’ journal entries.
Students sketch an object at three scales (magnified, life size, and distant) and reflect on the kinds of observations made at each level.

Observation and Natural History

Each place holds unique mysteries and little wonders. The activities in this chapter guide students to slow down and deepen their relationship with place through studying species, narrowing their focus, and focusing on patterns and processes. As students look through different lenses, from studying what falls within a circle of string to observing flowers as they bloom, they will tune in to the processes at work around them and notice biologically significant details that can deepen their understanding of how the natural world works. Ideal for teaching life science or building students’ sense of place, these activities focus on observing organisms and attuning to details of the landscape.

Students explore plant development by sketching buds, flowers, and fruit. Then they discuss possible functions of plant parts.
Students make a field guide or “collection” of things within a focused category, such as leaf types, rocks in a stream, things that are red, or tracks.
Students observe a world of wonders within the boundaries of a loop of string, then use maps, drawings, and notes to describe what they found.
This activity offers a routine for translating brief encounters with animals into rich journal entries.
Students choose one species that they can readily observe, and document as many details as they can about it through direct observation.
Students describe bird songs in their journals using writing, drawing, diagramming, and numbers.
Students listen to the soundscape around them, then diagram and map it using symbols, shapes, and colors to graphically describe sounds.

Inquiry, Investigation, and Scientific Thinking

Intentional curiosity and tools to pursue questions are some of the building blocks of inquiry. Scientific investigation activities build students’ skills in asking varied questions, and offer some approaches for dancing with the questions they ask. This chapter offers a deeper dive into scientific thinking. Activities offer inquiry skills and questioning scaffolds, reveal natural patterns and processes, and guide students to create visual explanations. These practices translate directly to the journal page and will deepen the investigations students make and the understandings they come to.

Students look for nature mysteries and pose possible explanations for what they find.
Students observe a natural phenomenon and use scaffolds to ask varied and interesting questions.
Students study patterns in the outdoors by creating maps of vegetation patterns, wildlife evidence, or landscape features.
Students map shifts in the location of plants or animals across an area, such as the slope of a hill or a transition from shore to pond.
Students observe a natural phenomenon, describe it with a diagram, then make explanations for the mechanism at work.
In small groups, students work collaboratively to observe and journal about one subject, then share what they learn.

Words: Articulated Thought and Storytelling

Writing is a powerful way to capture our observations. It also pushes our thinking and helps us articulate our ideas. Activities in this chapter offer support for how students’ writing can appear on the page, for building visual and written communication skills, and considering how to integrate writing with pictures and other forms of communication. Writing is also a way to reflect, connect, and find the stories that emerge from our lives. This chapter also includes activities that focus on storytelling—guiding students to build narratives from nature observations, call on their life experiences, and invite themselves onto the page.

Students use words and pictures to create a true-life “nature comic” and tell the story of an event they have witnessed in the outdoors.
Students draw a treasure map as they move through an outdoor area, highlighting the cool or interesting things they notice along the way.
Students have the opportunity to write poems that record the details of their surroundings and their personal experiences and reflections.
“Find your sit spot and see what comes.” This activity offers students the opportunity to engage with the outdoors on their own terms.
Students focus on a subject in nature and practice using different writing approaches to capture their observations and thinking.

Pictures: Drawing and Visual Thinking

Anyone can learn to draw. Practice and learning illustration techniques help students improve more quickly and help them draw what they see and imagine. This chapter includes drawing exercises, practice skills, and techniques for breaking down and diagramming complex objects. Combining drawings, diagrams, maps, cross sections, and other visual elements with structured page layouts builds students’ visual communication skills. Activities in this chapter also guide students to think about page layout and structure and how to best show their thinking on the page.
Students use drawings to show the internal and external shape of a fruit or a mushroom, then reflect on using diagrams to communicate
Students observe a complex natural object, break it down into component parts, and create a labeled diagram to reveal its structure.
Students use words, pictures, and numbers to create a nature infographic, then do further research and add to their entries.
Students make a collage using words, drawings, and a photo, then reflect on approaches for recording data.

Numbers: Mathematical and Quantitative Thinking

Numbers reveal patterns and significant details. Students can learn to find the numbers behind their observations through participating in the activities in this chapter. Quantifying distances, numbers of species, or processes of change will add another layer of understanding and intrigue to students’ journal pages. Activities in this chapter offer structures for gathering and representing quantitative data in journaling. Some activities focus on how to find the numbers behind any observation; others offer structures for gathering quantitative data on natural processes or using numbers to construct explanations and gather evidence. 

Students record the diversity of species in two study areas and use graphs and diversity indices to describe and analyze the data.
Students count, measure, time, and estimate different subjects in nature, practicing practical quantification skills in their journals.
Students observe the behavior of a group of animals and use a sample protocol to quantify the frequency of different behaviors.
Students describe a growing plant, a decomposing object, or a landscape feature as it changes over multiple observation sessions.