Finding Phenomena for Activities

One of the wonderful aspects of nature journaling is that each combination of activity and natural phenomenon is a unique experience and can lead students to different types of observations. Making a collection or field guide of leaves leads to very different questions than making a collection of things that are red. Doing a comparison of two different kinds of seed pods focuses students on different observations and ideas than comparing two plants grown in differing environmental conditions. The observations and ideas students gather while journaling can become the foundation of longer lessons, units, and further learning.

When our learning goals for students are flexible, we head out in search of what is interesting and exciting, and pick an activity based on that. The curriculum is whatever is going on and whatever students are excited about. Wherever you are, you do not need to look far to discover something intriguing that can become the subject of students’ journal entries. You might notice a busy network of ant trails that seems perfect for Mapping, a group of lizards that students want to focus on for Species Account, or a rush of birdsong that students could capture through Forest Karaoke. Using journaling activities to meet specific learning goals or to connect to specific standards requires more advance planning. To choose journaling activities, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are my learning goals?
  • What activities will lead students to make observations or think about ideas relevant to those learning goals?
  • What natural phenomena are in my area, or will be when I want to do this activity?
  • What combination of phenomena and journaling activity will build toward my learning goals?



The table below offers some examples of learning goals, and the journaling activities and phenomena that could focus students on making observations relevant to those learning goals. On this page, we offer some ideas on how to build on students’ journaling and integrate activities into longer lessons or units.

Examples of Learning Goals Possible Phenomena Activity
- Learn how organisms’ structures help them survive
- Understand how rock type and composition affect erosion
- Learn how environmental factors can affect organisms’ growth
- Any two species of plants or animals
- Sedimentary and igneous rocks in a stream
- Plants of the same species grown in different areas under different conditions
Students notice differences and similarities between two subjects.
- Slow down and look at nature from different perspectives and points of view
- Consider how pollutants impact water sources
- A plant; geographic feature; small, slow-moving organism
- An pond, stream, lake, or other body of water impacted by human activity
Zoom In, Zoom Out
Students “zoom in” and “zoom out” to sketch a subject from close up, recording observations, then far away, focusing on surroundings and context.
- Understand how environmental factors affect organisms’ distribution
- Consider access to green space across communities
- Distribution of spider webs in the schoolyard; distribution of plants on an unmowed ball field
- Mature trees or public parks in different neighborhoods
Students observe and record distribution of a subject or a part of nature across a specific area.

Scouting for Phenomena Before Activities

We’ve had the uncomfortable experience of planning to journal about fungi, only to realize as we walked outside with students that there weren’t any mushrooms where we expected them to be! We try to regularly visit the outdoor areas where we plan to take our students journaling. We also have an expansive view of what “nature” and “the outdoors” means. Nature and the outdoors are all around us– not only in pristine wilderness areas. Community gardens, local parks, and schoolyards are all public spaces with interesting and dynamic phenomena to explore. Even a short weekly excursion into these areas can help us as instructors pay deeper attention and notice phenomena for students to study. With consistent observation, we see the seasons change and notice a sudden influx of ants or intriguing snow formations. Knowing what is around at any given time gives us flexibility and insight into what to focus students on in their journaling. Working toward specific learning goals (such as a lesson on geology) requires more advance planning and familiarity with the local natural phenomena than does a one-off field activity. When we’re planning longer-term learning with nature journaling, we shift back and forth between looking at journaling activities and the natural phenomena in our chosen place, considering the students to make.

Bringing the Outdoors Indoors

When we are not able to journal in the outdoors, we bring small natural objects such as leaves, acorns, or pinecones inside. Growing classroom plants, seedlings or studying houseplants is a great opportunity to observe change over time. Students can also make quick trips outside to gather materials or make observations, then return indoors to journal. Over time, you can build a classroom nature museum, filled with shed snake skins, pinecones, abandoned wasp nests, bones, and other treasures. This cabinet of curiosities adds life to the classroom and is readily available any time you need natural objects on a rainy day. Online nature videos, livestreams, or nature photographs can also be valuable journaling subjects, and can offer valuable opportunities to observe organisms and phenomena that may be hard to encounter in person. For more on this approach, check out our blog.