The Art of Observation

Playful Learning: The Art of Observation

Today we have Monique Barker with us, who is graciously sharing some tips on developing the art of observation—a topic that is near and dear to my heart…

I just had the privilege of conducting a nature journaling workshop for children at our local public library. We discussed the benefits of keeping a nature journal, the things that could be included, and some tips for drawing what they see. Our most important conversation, however, was about how to see. About taking the time to really notice details before putting pencil to paper. About the art of observation. The dictionary (I know…my husband teases me too) tells us that to observe means “to see, watch, perceive, or notice; to regard with attention so as to learn something.” The important words in that definition, in my opinion, are “perceive” and “attention.”

When we are outside with our children, nature journals in hand, how can we encourage our children to explore the natural world and make meaningful observations?

  • First, something must grab their attention and draw them in. Engage them. For those new to nature journaling or on the younger side, it may be less intimidating to start in a familiar setting like your own backyard or a favorite outdoor spot. It may also help to start small. You’ll be amazed what you can find by turning over a rock or looking more carefully at one particular plant. You can also mark off a 1-foot square patch of grass and notice all the living things and activities that take place in such a small area.

Playful Learning: The Art of Observation

  • If your child is ready to sit right down once something has caught her attention and begin her observations, that’s great. But not every child will find that it makes for a meaningful interaction with nature and her attention will be lost. So consider your child’s strengths and learning style. Does she always seem to be on the move and love gross-motor activities? Allow her to roll in the grass while noticing how it feels on her skin; jump in a leaf pile while paying attention to the sensations of the dry, crunchy leaves; imitate the movements of an animal she sees. Does your child seem to be always touching and getting into things? Let him add some leaf rubbings or flower pounding to his journal; make a leaf mandala; collect and sort found items. If your child enjoys learning how things work, let him balance rocks to make a tower; construct a driftwood sculpture; build his own miniature beaver damn. My oldest daughter seems to see differently through a camera lens so may walk around taking photos before settling. My music-loving son enjoys recording and playing back the sounds of nature. You get the idea.
  • Now it’s time to take a closer look. Get out your magnifying glass and notice the details. Observe up close and from different angles. Use your various senses. Talk about what you see and encourage your child to be a “nature detective” by asking probing what, where, why, when and how questions. Make comparisons to other things in nature. Wonder aloud. Here are some examples:

“Did you notice…?
I wonder why that is?”
“Look at this… I wonder if there are other things in nature with a similar…?”
“Let’s look at the underside. Are there any similarities/differences?”
“This part feels… I wonder how this part feels?”

When you model with enthusiasm, your child will follow your lead and begin doing more and more on his own.

  • Now you and your child can put pencil to paper. Encourage him to draw what he sees to the best of his abilities. No one needs to have the skills of an artist to do this.  Allow your child independent time to record his observations. You will be amazed at the connections children make. At the feelings that they communicate. They will give you a heart-warming glimpse into how they perceive the world around them! If you would like to read about what I learned from children about the art of observation, I wrote about it here.

Playful Learning: The Art of ObservationTo make sure you are ready to journal when the mood strikes, keep a supply box or small backpack stocked with these suggested materials:

  • a spiral-bound sketch pad
  • a selection of sketching and colored pencils (you can use markers, pens, pastels and paints but they are usually best added at a later time)
  • sharpener and eraser
  • collection containers
  • magnifying glass, binoculars
  • field guides

Some helpful links:

Books to get you started: