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Nature Journaling for Environmental Awareness and a Balanced Life

img_7268The natural world is filled with seasons and cycles that provide predictability to life. Plants and animals depend on it. However, sometimes humans forget we are a part of nature too. We believe that the law of the land doesn’t apply to us. That somehow we can outsmart Mother Nature, creating a man-made place apart from the natural world rather than a part of it … Cutting down trees and clearing fields to make way for houses and businesses with little to no regard for how it affects other species. Damming rivers and using more than our share of fresh water. Creating products that take hundreds of years to biodegrade, if they do at all … while we dump the same products in to landfills and buy more … products that are produced in factories that pollute the air, the water and the land in a different kind of cycle…a man-made cycle of destruction. All the while we have become more and more disconnected from nature at a time when we need it the most.

We make excuses for why we don’t take time for nature study. Our family schedule is too busy. It’s too dirty or too dangerous. Studying nature isn’t going to get our children into the right schools or on to the best teams and takes valuable time away from homework and practice. However, taking time to get outside and experience the lessons that nature teaches, doesn’t need to take the place of these other activities and it may even enhance them. Connecting with nature allows us to connect with ourselves – to access the quiet place within us that gives us wisdom and strength – and keeps us happy, healthy and feeling secure … all important aspects of a balanced life. img_6845

What is a Nature Journal?

Keeping a nature journal helps us to translate what we experience in nature into how it makes us feel, resulting in a deeper and more sensitive awareness of the world around us … which can help us in so many different ways. Writing or drawing in a nature journal is much like keeping a diary, only where a diary or records your feelings about yourself and others, a nature journal primarily records your responses to and reflections about the world of nature. But actually, it can be whatever you want it to be and serves a wide variety of purposes. With a subject as vast as all of nature, the sky is the limit!


Here are a few examples of different types of nature journals to get you started:

Simple (Personal) Record: A personal journal is a general account of sensory experiences in nature. This type of journal helps the observer to learn about the natural world while also discovering important elements of their own nature. Keeping a personal nature journal can be a story, a poem or an observational record … or a combination of all of the above. One of the most notable journalists in this genre was Henry David Thoreau who wrote about his experiences in in the natural world starting on October 22, 1837, just a few days after his graduation from Harvard. He wrote in it nearly everyday until November 3, 1861, seven months before his death on May 6, 1862. His journaling progressed and evolved until it became the main focus of his life. He grew into an expert naturalist and learned to live well on the land. He used his journal to record his observations of the life cycle of plants, the sequence of plant growth, animal behavior, the weather and more. He made very simple sketches and maps to illustrate an observation or an event. Thoreau’s journals are filled with simple nature essays, character sketches, news events, stories, quotations and snatches of conversations along with his social commentary on human society. Thoreau’s journals are still used as inspiration for nature journal keepers worldwide.

A Travel Journal: Travel journals are used to chronicle a trip. This is a great way to capture your feelings and impressions of a place. Such first hand accounts are fun to share with others upon your return and also can be used for inspiration for future creative projects. Many notable artists and writers have used their experiences in a particular place as the focus or topic of great works. John Muir is well known for his travel journals written between 1867 and 1913. They include his thousand mile walk through Yosemite in 1867-68, his travels to Alaska, and his voyage to South America and Africa in 1911-1912 . The journals offer his personal perspective on a wide variety of topics including native populations of people, their culture and their relationship to their surroundings in his own words and drawings.

A Phenology Journal: Phenology is a segment of ecology focusing on the study of plant and animal life-cycle events that are influenced by climate and seasonal change in the environment. A phenology journal keeps a regular account of daily changes to a particular place. Observations of the timing of seasonal life events in plants and animals has been utilized by farmers, gardeners, scientists, and people who care for nature for centuries. An excellent example of a phenology journal is A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. The Aldo Leopold Foundation is an excellent resource for keeping a nature journal: http://www.aldoleopold.org/Programs/phenology.shtml

A Grinnell Journal: The Grinnell method of nature journaling is designed to aid scientific investigation. It is the method most often used by professional biologists and field naturalists and was developed by Joseph Grinnell (1877-1939), a field naturalist, teacher and the first director of the University of California’s Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. His method included detailed observations on specific species, species counts and keeping a record of where and when specimens were collected.

Materials Needed for Keeping a Nature Journalimg_6833

Materials you may want to bring along on your next nature hike:

  1. A Sketch Book: The perfect size is 5 x 7 with 50-90 lb paper so it will hold up to watercolors, but any notebook will work just fine.
  2. Pencils (of varying hardness and color), a sharpener and white eraser
  3. Watercolors and paint brush
  4. Bottle of water
  5. Paper towels
  6. Ziploc bags for collecting treasures such as pine cones, leaves, shells or seeds to keep or sketch later
  7. Field bag or backpack to hold supplies

Optional Items:

  1. Binoculars
  2. Camera
  3. Compass
  4. Measuring tape
  5. Field guides
  6. Map

img_6836So once you’re packed up and ready to go, just get outside and enjoy. You don’t have to be an artist or a writer. You don’t have to be a scientist. And you don’t have to have all the items on the list. Nature journaling is more about capturing what you see and how you feel rather than what you create. Feelings are an important part part of learning … not just about nature, but learning about ourselves as well. Plus, you’ll have a keepsake to treasure for years to come.

Interest in nature helps us to understand it and also teaches us to appreciate it. Not just kids, but adults too. Once people are outdoors and engaged, they are more likely to develop a feeling of connection to the plants, animals and natural spaces surrounding them. Maybe it starts with experiences in backyards or community parks. Or maybe it’s a vacation to the beach or the mountains. Whatever the case may be, once positive associations are attached to a particular place, you’ll be more likely to care about it and preserve it for future generations to experience and enjoy.

Thanks for reading and happy journaling!


“The forcible writer stands bodily behind his words with his experience. He does not make books out of books, but be has been there in person”

  • Henry David Thoreau (Journal, vol.3, February 3, 1852)


School’s Out. Now What? Teach Green Summer Reading List for Kids

I am the mother of four children, three boys and a girl. I will always remember the sound of the school bus as it came to a stop outside our front door on the last day of class. I still associate its screeching brakes with the energy that was unleashed in my household the minute my exuberant kids raced through the back door, shedding book bags and uniforms as they ran. I learned early on that the best way to channel an over abundance of youthful enthusiasm (and preserve the sane existence I had come to appreciate during the school year) was to get them interested and involved in stimulating activities as quickly as possible.
The Farm House
So, it became a family tradition that as soon as everyone was finished with school, we would load up the Suburban and head to my parents farm in Southwestern Pennsylvania.  Here, they had 200 acres to explore, enjoy and… most importantly…expend all the excess energy that had accumulated over the past school year.  However, before we left, we always stopped at our local library and picked out books for summer reading. Often their choices involved interesting animals, far away places and the adventures of kids in nature. I can still see them sitting on the front porch of the farm, reading and then running to the woods or the creek in the pasture behind the barn to see what they could discover for themselves.

Sadly, my kids are all grown now, but they still go back to visit the farm whenever they can. Hopefully, one day when they have kids of their own, they will continue the family tradition. Until then, they have fond memories of the first week of summer break.

Just the other day, I heard the school bus drive by (no, I didn’t flinch), but it got me thinking … I stopped by the library that day and headed to the children’s section out of curiosity (and a bit of nostalgia), this time without my boisterous crew. I was pleased to discover many new titles along with some old favorites that I would like to pass along to those who still brace themselves for the summer surge of activity and are looking for inspiration to get their kids outside and active.

Here is what I found…

Can We Save the Tiger? by Martin Jenkins and illustrated by Vicky White (Candlewick Press, 2011) Age Range: 5-8 years
Written by conservationist Martin Jenkins, this non-fiction account of the challenges we face trying to protect endangered species is an excellent introduction to the subject. Beautifully illustrated and complete with interesting facts from the field, readers begin to understand the interconnections between species, habitats and the actions of humans.

City Green by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan (Morrow Junior Books, 1994) Age Range: 4-8 years
Marcy has big plans to clean up the empty lot across the street and grow a garden. Everyone in the community is pitching in … all except Old Man Hammer. But wait, why is he digging in the garden at night? Learn how green spaces in the middle of the city can bring hope and happiness to the people who live there.

EcoMazes: 12 Earth Adventures by Roxie Munro (Sterling Publishing Co. Inc., 2010) Age Range: 7 years and up
Did you know that we are all a part of an ecosystem? From polar ice caps to tropical rain forests and everywhere in between, EcoMazes is a fun and interesting way to explore Earth’s ecosystems and learn about the animals that live within them. Take a journey through twelve intricately crafted habitats and find over 350 animals hiding within the mazes. An answer key at the back of the book is loaded with interesting facts about each area.

Farewell to Shady Glade by Bill Peet (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1966) Age Range: 5-8 years
A half dozen rabbits, a pair of possums, a single skunk, five green frogs, one bullfrog, and an old raccoon leave town on the train to avoid the bulldozers that threaten their home. Beloved author, Bill Peet teaches an important lesson about the animals that live in and around our cities.

North: The Amazing Story of Arctic Migration by Nick Bowson and illustrated by Patrick Benson (Candlewick Press, 2011) Age Range: 7 years and up
Join millions of animals as they travel hundreds – even thousands – of miles to their summer breeding grounds in the arctic. Wildlife author Nick Bowson and award-winning illustrator Patrick Benson tell the story of the greatest journey on earth in a way that is easy to understand and visually compelling.

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and illustrated by John Shoenherr (Philomel Books, 1987) Age Range: 3-8 years
As a father and daughter embark on an owling expedition into the woods at night, readers are reminded that the bonds between humans and nature often transcend words and can inspire great wonder – a timeless favorite of parents and teachers alike.

Secrets of the Garden by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld and illustrated by Priscilla LaMont (Random House Children’s Books, 2012) Age Range: 5-9 years
Alice’s family plants a vegetable garden each spring, and this budding naturalist reports all she sees about how the plants grow, what insects come to eat the plants, and what birds and animals come to eat the insects.  It’s the food chain, right in her backyard!  A fun way to learn about science – and perhaps inspire kids to eat their vegetables!

The Tree by Dana Lyons and illustrated by David Danioth (Illumination Arts Publishing Company, Inc., 2002) Age Range: 4 years and up
A powerful admonition about the fragile connections between all living things and the importance preserving nature. While camping in the Olympic Rain Forest, author Dana Lyons emerged from the woods with a fully formed song, The Tree, a message he believes came to him from an ancient Douglas fir tree.

Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter (Harcourt, Inc., 2008) Age Range: 4-8 years
A true story about Wangari Maathi of Kenya, who returns from school in America to find the trees in her village are gone and the land is barren. Learn how Wangari motivates an army of women to bring peace, prosperity and millions of green trees back to her homeland.

The Water Hole by Graeme Base (Puffin Books, 2004) Age Range: 5-8 years
The water hole is a gathering place for animals of all shapes and sizes. But wait! As more and more animals come to drink, the hole is getting smaller and smaller. Graeme Base has created a beautiful (and fun) depiction of wild animals from around the world in a clever counting story with a life-affirming theme.

Happy summer reading!

A final word of caution…Creating eco-friendly kids has a downside. After one year-end trip to the farm, I was unpacking suitcases and heard snickering from the front of the house. Fully aware of all the mischief that four fun-loving children can create, I wisely stopped what I was doing and went to investigate. Sure enough, there was an open glass jar on my pink marble floor. The lid was nowhere to be found (more snickering). And then, much to my dismay, something jumped out at me! I uttered words no mother ever wants to hear herself say…

“You kids get in here right now and get these grasshoppers out of the foyer!”

ElizabethSarah & Bailey on a recent visit to the fa


Note – All of the above-mentioned titles were available at our local library and are also sold online at amazon.com.

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A Primer for Environmental Education

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2005)

In researching the benefits of grade school environmental education for the new children’s entertainment series we are working on, I ran across an excellent resource entitled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. This is an important book and I’d like to give you a brief overview of Louv’s innovative thinking on how humanity’s relationship with nature can be improved by helping our kids to build meaningful relationships with the outdoors.

Nature Deficit Disorder Defined

Last Child in the Woods contends that children need exposure to nature to ensure the healthy development of body and mind. Trends in society such as the loss of easy access to natural areas, fear of perceived dangers in unstructured play, and community restrictions, combined with increased attachment to indoor activities such as television, computers and video games, have led to a separation of children from nature that is having detrimental effects on kids’ physical, emotional and cognitive development.

Richard Louv coined the phrase, Nature Deficit Disorder, to describe the phenomenon. Although he admits that it is not a medical diagnosis, Louv defines the disorder as “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” Louv offers plenty of studies and anecdotal evidence collected over a 10-year period to support his theory. He writes,

“Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the other unseen side of that confusion.”

Louv divides the book into seven sections and walks us through the evolution of the problem, why it matters and how we can get kids back to nature in order to ensure their physical and mental health. All the while, he weaves in personal recollections from his own childhood, which had me reminiscing about my own.

How Did We Get Here?

Humans are a curious lot. We are always pushing the boundaries of what is known, to discover what is possible. Attachment to the land has historically held special appeal for Americans, starting with what Louv calls the “first frontier”, where the availability of free land encouraged the advancement of citizenry westward that not only created our country and the boundaries of the land that it encompasses, but also defined the venturesome spirit of the people who claimed it as their own.

Once the boundaries were set, a “second frontier” emerged that was more a movement of priorities and values, than physical motion. In rural areas, the farm defined our connection to the land and created family legacies that have lasted for generations. In urban areas, land was set aside for public parks to ensure easy access for city residents. This era also romanticized nature and saw the creation of national parks that preserved the most unique and beautiful natural areas of the country for all people to explore and enjoy.

Currently, a “third frontier” is emerging in American culture. Unfortunately, our cultural values are shifting away from a personal connection with natural places to a more intellectualized relationship. Louv defines the events that are shaping the current trends as follows:

“Not yet fully formed or explored, this new frontier is characterized by at least five trends: a severance of the public and private mind from our food’s origins; a disappearing line between machines, humans, and other animals; an increasingly intellectual understanding of our relationship with other animals; the invasion of our cities by wild animals (even as urban-suburban designers replace wildness with synthetic nature); and the rise of a new kind of suburban form.”

This new era is also typified by the reduction of primary experiences…that which we can perceive through our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Unstructured play in the natural world is being replaced by passive experiences delivered through an ever-increasing selection of media. This shift matters more than we realize. Louv quotes Robin Moore, a professor at North Carolina State University who directs a research and design program that advocates nature play in the daily lives of children. She states,

“Children live through their senses. Sensory experiences link the child’s exterior world with their interior, hidden, affective world. Since the natural environment is the principal source of sensory stimulation, freedom to explore and play with the outdoor environment through the senses in their own space and time is essential for healthy development of an interior life… This type of self-activated, autonomous interaction is what we call free play. Individual children test themselves by interacting with their environment, activating their potential and reconstructing human culture. The content of the environment is a critical factor in this process. A rich, open environment will continuously present alternative choices for creative engagement. A rigid, bland environment will limit healthy growth and development of the individual or the group.”

Louv adds that our children are being contained in smaller and smaller spaces and live tightly structured lives. Car seats, strollers, even the interior of the family SUV is becoming one of the standard “containers” in which children are exposed to nature. And yet, they need to explore nature and utilize all of their senses…not just sight…to make sense of the world around them and eventually their place in it. They need to stretch their legs (and their minds) or risk becoming depersonalized and detached from real life. Even school recess has been reduced or eliminated due to time constraints, curricular demands and liability concerns. Louv writes, “the detachment of education from the physical world not only coincided with the dramatic rise in life-threatening childhood obesity, but also with a growing body of evidence that links physical exercise and experience in nature to mental acuity and concentration.”

Why Don’t Kids Play Outside Anymore?

I find it paradoxical that parents who experienced such freedom in their own childhood would keep their own children so tightly controlled. However, closer examination reveals structural, cultural and societal changes that have significantly altered how children spend their free time. These changes play a direct role in separating them from nature and limiting the time and space available for them to engage in unstructured play. Louv explains these changes as follows:

Structural Changes to the Family Unit

Today, more families have both parents working outside the home than in any other time in the history of our nation. Daycare and after school care have become a necessity for many families. With so much time spent away from their children each day, parents feel compelled to make the most of the remaining hours by filling it with what they believe to be meaningful and results-driven activities. While music lessons, team practices and service obligations are all valuable childhood experiences, they leave little time for much else.

Cultural Changes

In addition, families are surrounded by a culture of media. Many times, when children do have time between the classroom, after school activities and bedtime, they often fill it with television, computer activities and video games. Parents aren’t immune to the lure of media either. Passive activities in front of a video screen take away from time spent outside experiencing nature. Also, modern networks of communication connect parents with other parents, enabling them to compare parenting styles, thus raising expectations of their own children’s achievement and involvement in extracurricular activities.

Societal Changes

Increased communication has also led parents to believe the world is a more dangerous place than it once was. This contagion of fearfulness has been a significant factor in an increase in parents’ control of their children’s outdoor activities. Twenty-four hour news cycles and TV crime shows have created a phobia of “stranger danger,” and also a fear of crime, traffic hazards and peer-related phenomena such as bullying and drugs. The obvious consequence for parents of young children obsessed with stranger danger is to either keep kids safe at home or make sure they’re in highly structured situations.

Institutional Changes

The boundaries of childhood are shrinking. Rural living has lost its appeal and in urban settings people have inevitably become more and more removed from the natural world. Even in the suburbs, over the past few decades, populations have trended toward highly planned developments. Consequently, the natural world can be off-limits or hard to reach. Planned neighborhoods with manicured green spaces have strict rules of conduct to reduce liability and the destruction of property. Playgrounds, parks and wild spaces can be miles away and parents are much more willing to drive kids to a soccer game or a music lesson than to an unstructured and unsupervised romp in a park. If we can’t send them out the backdoor to play, how can we restore this vital connection?

“The Nature-Child Reunion”

What Louv suggests is not only the evolution of the nature-child relationship, but also the parent-child relationship as well. Louv suggests that parents simply spend time with their kids in nature. Though they may not be able to recreate their own childhood memories of nature play, they should come to understand that their children can indeed readily connect with nature in a meaningful way. And, most parents will benefit from this connection too. He recommends allowing kids to explore wild places with controlled risk, “almost out of earshot, but never out of sight.” While this may not be the dawn to dusk adventures of past generations, it will provide kids with firsthand experiences, partial solitude and valuable exposure to the natural world.

Today’s parents are becoming better educated and informed through a wide variety of media sources. Louv believes that if the back-to-nature movement is marketed as an integral part of a child’s education and a valuable resource for mental health, appreciation of nature will make a comeback. However, Louv cautions that it won’t happen automatically, but will require the help of environmentalists, teachers and community organizers to make it happen.

Environmental Education

Nature-based environments are not only known to facilitate psychological healing, but also have been found to aid learning across a wide range of curricula. Louv cites many studies that outdoor learning experiences increase mastery in science, social studies, language arts and math. Gains were also realized on standardized tests and overall grade point averages. He adds that students in nature-based programs also had better attendance and behavior than in traditional classrooms. One such study submitted to the California Department of Education found a “27 percent increase in measured mastery of science concepts; enhanced cooperation and conflict resolution skills; gains in self-esteem, problem solving, motivation to learn, and classroom behavior.”

Slowly, some innovative teachers with the support of eco friendly parents and open-minded school systems are realizing the benefits of hands-on education that makes learning “immediate and personal”. Schools are beginning to utilize the school grounds as an extension of their classrooms. Two studies conducted in Canada, “Gaining Ground” and “Grounds for Action”, found:

“Children who experience school grounds with diverse natural settings are more physically active, more aware of nutrition, more civil to one another, and more creative. The greening of school grounds resulted in increased involvement by adults and members of the nearby community.”

In order to minimize the financial impact of these new programs, schools are also partnering with environmental organizations and local wildlife preserves. Louv believes that this is a win-win proposition for both the local schools and also the preservation efforts of affiliated associations.

The “Fourth Frontier”

Richard Louv’s “fourth frontier” calls for us to reexamine our values and priorities of urban planning to make room for the restorative cycles of nature within our communities. He also calls for changes to the laws that govern landowners, parks and other public lands to decriminalize natural play in these areas. He writes:

“As long as cities continue to overdevelop housing tracts and underdeveloped parks and other sites for natural play, our regional parks and beaches will be crushed by demand, necessitating ever more stringent enforcement.”

He offers many suggestions for humans and animals to coexist in urban areas and ways to restore nature not only for our children’s sake, but for nature’s sake as well. He envisions entire cities transformed into natural habitats in order to satisfy our need for biophilia, a human’s innate desire to connect with other forms of life. Louv cites many examples of green urbanism that have been adopted in European cities and imagines American cites similarly transformed through thoughtful planning, innovative design and the ecological education of its citizens. He writes:

“Preserving islands of wild land – parks and preserves – in urban areas is not enough, according to current ecological theory. Instead, a healthy urban environment requires natural corridors for movement and genetic diversity. One can imagine such theory applied to entire urban regions, with natural corridors for wildlife extending deep into urban territory and the urban psyche, creating an entirely different environment in which children would grow up and adults could grow old – where the nature deficit is replaced by natural abundance.”

A Personal Connection

Ultimately, Richard Louv believes that nature is a “spiritual necessity” for healthy childhood development. He makes a convincing argument for “faith-based environmentalism”, citing a strong connection between nature and religion that spans the doctrines that divide us. He quotes Paul Gorman, founder and director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, who believes that:

“The purpose of creation really is to bring us – children and all of us – closer to the creator. As a parent, you don’t encourage children to experience nature because it’s pretty, but because your children are exposed to something larger and longer standing than their immediate human existence.”

Louv looks to a future where appreciation of nature is firmly rooted in our daily lives, our education programs and our value system as a society. He advocates that we encourage our children to develop a connection with nature that is active, personal and ongoing. He believes that this will produce greater appreciation, even reverence, for the natural world that transcends current environmentalism, and will create future generations that are healthier, happier and have an increased sense of commitment to preserving and sustaining our awe-inspiring planet.

I highly recommend Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. It is the bible of the back-to-nature movement and validation of my personal beliefs about the importance of nature in childhood, both from my own personal adventures as a child, and also my experiences raising four children in a completely new era.