How to Make Family Nature Study Part of Your Homeschool

Nature study reduces stress, improves focus and concentration, and helps your family get a little exercise—but you knew that already. What you may not know is how easy it is to integrate nature study into your homeschool routine, even if you don’t know a robin from a wren when you get started. With these simple activities, you can start a nature study program that’s fun to do and easy to keep up.

Give your kids the camera. You’ll be amazed by how focused they are and by what captures their attention in your backyard or the park. (My kids use the cameras on their iPods or my daughter’s Polaroid-esque Fujifilm Instax Mini to snap photos, but if I were buying something specifically for nature photo sessions, I’d look at something like the Kidizoom Action Cam—I think they’d love the bike mount option, and it’s designed to be durable and waterproof, two qualities I frequently wish more of my belongings had.)

Take a color hike. Celebrate the beauty of the changing leaves this fall with a color hike. Hit the hardware store to put together a collection of autumnal paint chips, then match them to leaves, flowers, bark, moss, and more on your next nature walk. (If you are in the northeastern United States or Canada, download the Leafsnap app to help you identify the leaves you find as you go. The developers—which include the Smithsonian and Columbia University—are adding info from other parts of the United States, too, and there’s a UK version, so you can test whether it works well for tree ID in your area.)

Make it a scavenger hunt. Whether you’re in the yard or on the trail, kids will delight in searching for something smooth, something rough, something shiny, something slimy, and objects that fit the other descriptions on your scavenger hunt lists. Shelli has some great ideas for outdoor scavenger hunts if you want a more specific plan. (If your kids get excited about nature scavenger hunts, they may be inspired to start a nature collection. If so, you should definitely check out Cabinet of Curiosities: Collecting and Understanding the Wonders of the Natural World—it’s written by a nature collector who started his first cabinet of nature curiosities when he was 6 years old and grew up to become a nature writer. It’s such a fun book, packed with interesting information for nature collectors.)

Keep a journal. Okay, you’re a terrible artists and you couldn’t draw a pine tree to save your life. Who cares? If your kids see you sweating the details in your nature journal, they’ll want to follow suit. (And do we really have to tell you that your pine tree is probably better than you think?) I found Clare Walker Leslie’s Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You incredibly helpful when we were getting started with our backyard nature journals because it had lots of specific advice for what to look for and how to set up a page, plus I appreciated the drawing advice for things like leaves and pinecones, even though my sketches will never be as pretty as hers.

Count your blessings. Sharpen your observation and your counting skills by choosing a natural object (like rabbits, yellow flowers, trees, or ferns) and counting how many times you spot it on your walk. 

Stock up on identification books. Your photos and journal entries beg for identification, so make it easy on yourself by investing in a few good identification guides. Sure, you can look them up online, but flipping through pages lets the whole family work together to figure out the name of that cool butterfly you just saw. (The best tip a naturalist ever gave me was to pick just one or two things to focus on at a time for nature walks—it makes you observe those things more closely, which means you can identify them more easily.) For young kids, the Take-Along Guides (including Trees, Leaves, and Bark and Frogs, Toads, and Turtles) or Peterson’s Field Guides for Young Naturalists are excellent—with lots of information in an accessible, easily digestible format. Older kids might appreciate guides that focus on specific slices of nature: The Tree Book for Kids and Their Grown-Ups, Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets of the United States, and the Sibley Guides are among our family’s favorites.

Keep a nature table. Set aside a designated space, and let your kids collect one or two items on every nature walk. Whether it’s a cool rock, a pretty flower, or a bird feather, they can add it to your nature table for the whole family to admire. (My kids enjoyed taking this further and making whole nature scenes—they got inspiration from Waldorf-inspired books like Making Flower Children and Making Peg Dolls.)