Tips on Learning and Teaching
Create a Foundation for Learning
A learning mindset is essential to developing your skills. If you do not believe that you can learn how to do something, your brain believes you. Remind yourself these are not talents or abilities, but skills that you can learn.
Reflective practice is important to making progress. As you practise, think about what you have done, how you have done it, what you want to keep doing, and how you will do it differently the next time.
Successful practice relies on your persistence, patience and compassion for yourself.
Make a Plan
Identify the skills you want to develop. If there is more than one skill, make a list. Focus on developing one skill at a time.
If it is a complex skill like mapping, choose basic parts of the skill as your foundation. If you want to develop your drawing, writing or use of numbers, start with simple parts of the skill are involved in something more complex.
For example, if you want to improve your drawing speed in the field, try exercises with gesture drawing.
Practise exercises that use that skill for at least a week, a month is even better. Or do it ten or more times.
Have a starting point (remember to put a date on every page) as a point of comparison. This helps you to see your progress, and where you are getting stuck.
Get to know subjects at home before you observe them in the field. A popular, and fun, subject is birds. It works just as well with any subject: animal, plant, fungi, habitat, sky, space, etc. This practice at home trains your brain to record these subjects more quickly and accurately and to observe more deeply when you are outdoors.
Check out John Muir Laws blog for excellent guidance:
Quantity, not Quality blog post and video
Pencil Miles blog post
Journal More, Journal Better blog post
Kung Fu Naturalist blog post
Nature Journaling Skills
Start with deep observation
“We assume that if we can see, then we know how to observe.
But true observation is a skill that we must practice & learn.”
“Observation does not happen with your senses;
it happens in your brain!”
John Muir Laws
Our eyes, ears, nose and skin collect information that is sent to our brains. Our brains process these inputs into perceptions from which we create an understanding of our experiences.
Sometimes, the way our brain processes sensory information can lead to misunderstandings and mistakes. However, we can train our brains with experiences! The same way we have learned to communicate, read, write, and speak.
There is much more happening around you than your brain take in. To deal with this information overload it:
Tunes out inputs not needed for immediate tasks
Has mental gaps and blind spots
Is wired for survival, so prioritises hearing sounds, seeing movement and jumping to conclusions
Attempts to make meaning of sensory input. Meaning is made from our experiences, the languages we speak, etc.
How can we become better observers?
Learn the difference between observation and identification, opinions, feelings, and possible explanations of an observation.
Deep observation needs a focus and a strategy for externalising observations
Softly talking aloud, recording on paper, or on a voice recorder are ways to process your observations. Your brain works differently when you think to yourself than it does when you speak or record thoughts and feelings on paper with numbers, musical notation, or other symbols.
A powerful tool is to use “I notice ...” as you begin to describe your observations. It is a prompt to observe and to pay attention.
Next Deliberate Attention
Choose a specific part of nature that you love or that interests you. If you have a wide range of interests, choose the one for which you have subject matter close to hand.
Here are some exercises that are fun to play with. They are helpful in developing your naturalist skills and can contribute to you being a better birder, botanist, writer, artist, environmental activist and nature journaler.
Create Individual- or Species-level accounts
Label parts of habitats, animals, plants, fungi, water, weather, landforms, the sky during day or night, to help you identify and make sense of what you notice.
Form and function – Label parts of things like different shapes of bird wings, animal arms and limbs, fungi, habitats, land and water forms. Imagine and explore possible functions.
Make Collections on your journal pages – draw, describe in words or make rubbings of leaf shapes, types of tree bark; create a page or list of birds seen and heard, of all species of flowers in bloom of one colour; findings in one spot like a tidal pool, on the beach or one square metre of ground, types of moss, lichen, fungi, findings on a beach, scat/poo, animal prints or spoor, cloud types.
Make comparisons and contrasts – similar species of plants, or of similar-looking but different types of plants, animals, fungi etc. For example, aloes with knifophia, cycads with ferns and palms, insects with spiders, dragonflies with damselflies, or different habitats.
Make your own field guide for one or more places. In addition to plants, animals and fungi you can create a field guide on:
Habitats, spaces/places, paths
Soil, rocks, land formations
Timelines of flowers from buds to seed or fruit, geological and human history of a place, behaviour and interactions of wildlife, shadows at different times of day.
Notice change and causation - shoreline shape and movement, temperatures, light and shadow, effects of humans and our behaviours on habitat and wildlife. What is different before and during pandemic lockdowns?
Practice these at home, and you will be better able to use them as tools in the field.
You can also develop these exercises into projects that connect your experiences in the field with your activities at home.
Next explore Intentional Curiosity
”Curiosity is not a trait you are born with.
It is a skill that you can develop and refine with practice.
It is more essential than any drawing trick or tool
and can make a nature journal burst to life.”
John Muir Laws
You notice when something is different than you expected. The small differences are easy to ignore. But when you pause to focus on these small surprises, wonders reveal themselves. You can train your brain to notice these moments.
Pause and ask yourself a question. A useful way to start is with “What is this is different than I expected?”
Then ask another question. Start the question with “I wonder…”. Then explore who, what, when, where, how and why. Ask questions about your question. How many levels of questions can you find?
You can develop Creativity as a skill
Creativity thrives on curiosity, playfulness, and joy. It arises from making unexpected associations and connections. Creativity is developed when you use different approaches, processes, and perspectives in relation to the same subject. It grows when you ask multiple questions. Use brainstorming and mind maps to come up with diverse ideas and possibilities.
To develop your creativity, try new things, experiment, question your assumptions, embrace being wrong, enjoy seeing life from different perspectives, and connect with diverse communities.
Examples of changing your point of view
Zoom in: Zoom out
Different types of cross-sections
Landscape - From Above – From Below
Look Up – Look Down – Look All Around
If I were a (fill in the blank), I might notice or feel…
Nature journal from the perspective of a lawyer, gardener, cook, architect. Explore ideas here.
Link up with nature journalers with different perspectives, approaches and experiences.
Nature journal with people who speak different languages and come from cultures, socio-economic realities different than your own.
How to Teach Nature Journaling
Teaching takes many forms both formal and informal. Informally, individuals in a group may learn from each other, sharing skills, information and perspectives. In this situation, everyone is both teacher and learner. Many professional teachers say that they learn more from teaching than they knew by studying.
If you teach or want to teach others how to nature journal, you can start learning with a buddy, friends, family or in an interest-based group (like birding or plants). This approach requires the practices and attitudes described in the section above. You will need more experience and structure, if you are facilitating the formal learning of others, whether in workshops, environmental education programmes, homeschooling, at university or in field guide training such as FGASA (Field Guide Association of South Africa).
Nature journaling is a powerful professional tool. It is part of science and field guides curriculum. Field journaling is a professional practice used in many fields:
Geological, biological, ecological and environmental sciences, naturalists, conservation, visual arts and communication, natural history illustration, science and creative writing, musical and creative expression
However, while it is introduced, it is rarely integrated into the ongoing learning practice.
These resources include activities that can be used in teaching others, and for developing your own practice.
This area has gotten a big boost with the 2020 publication of "How to Teach Nature Journaling" by John Muir (aka Jack) Laws and Emilie Lygren May 2020. The book is available for purchase, or as a free download. If you can afford to support the authors, please purchase the book.
Most recently the authors launched a website of the same name, "How to Teach Nature Journaling: A website for educators and families". They describe it as "Activities and tools to engage children in outdoor learning, curated by John Muir Laws and Emilie Lygren."
The website has 31 individual activities from the book. Each activity is available as a download.
An earlier version of the material in the book can be found in
Opening the World Through Nature Journaling: Integrating art, science, and language arts second edition, written by John Muir Laws, Emily Breunig, Emilie Lygren and Celeste Lopez. A curriculum to help children and adults connect with nature. Available as an electronic document from California Native Plant Society.
Another excellent source of information about learning and teaching in outdoor programmes is
Field Journaling With Students session. It is available from BEETLES Project. BEETLES stands for Better Environmental Education, Teaching, Learning & Expertise Sharing.
All of their work is based on the currently available best research. It is extensively field tested, and frequently updated.
For advice on selecting appropriate activities check out this helpful guide here.
On the BEETLES website you can also find:
BEETLES also has readings on equity, inclusion and cultural relevance.
Racial Equity in Outdoor Science and Environmental Education: Re-Establishing the Field With Intention" by Jedda Foreman, Rena Payan, Laura Rodriguez, and Craig Strang
The article opens with this quote from Sonya Renee Taylor
“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”
The authors present seven ideas for white-led organisations '"...to transform in a way that is is rooted in racial equity and has justice embedded at every inflection point" In summary these are:
Talk about racism - "We have a responsibility to read, discuss, and to educate ourselves and each other about the harm embedded in our history"
Rebuild partnerships "Establish authentic and mutually beneficial relationships with a broad range of environment-rich organizations across sectors including environmental justice, youth development, health and wellness, food justice, nutrition, transportation, clean water, clean air, and more."
Redefine the field
Rethink goals, priorities and measures of "success"
Redesign hiring practices
Reimagine the workplace
Reinvigorate professional learning
"Partnering to Develop Equitable, Inclusive, and Culturally Relevant Student Activities" by Emilie Lygren and Jedda Foreman
Their recommended readings are on a Listly board here
All of the these resources include activities and ideas that can be used:
in teaching others,
as nature journal club activities,
and for developing your own practice.