Nature Journals as Educational Tools

Open to a blank page in your journal, pull out a pen, and welcome a world of possibilities. Settle in on a boulder along a tumbling creek, pull a chair up to your kitchen window, or sit completely camouflaged among a field of tall grasses. Creative nature journals, also known as field journals, are a popular tool among environmental educators and experiential educators for increasing interactions with a place, providing space for creative drawing and writing, and for encouraging personal reflection before, during, or after an intense experience.

History of the journal

Just about as long as paper and ink have been available, humans have been using these tools to record both external observations and internal reflections. Dyment and O’Connell explain in their article Journal Writing in Experiential Education: Possibilities, Problems, and Recommendations, that early journal writers “included the Greeks and Romans, women of 10th-century Japan, and ‘enlightened’ individuals during the Renaissance” (2003, p.3). Notable journals include those of explorers and scientists, such as Lewis and Clark, John Wesley
Powell, and Charles Darwin. Nature writers have long used the journal as a way to record observations, drawings, and emotions while in the field, such as the works of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Margaret Mead, Aldo Leopold, and Terry Tempest Williams. Personal journals have often become important documents that offer a look into the more human side of a historical event, such as the diary of Anne Frank. However, as Dyment and O’Connell note, “it was not until the early 1960s that researchers recognized the value of journal writing in educational settings” (p.3). Now, you can find student journals in a variety of K-12 classroom settings, especially in science, math, and language arts. Ernst writes that “journals provide students—as well as artists, writers, and scientists—with a tool for observation and a place to practice writing, respond to literature, take notes, solve problems, express themselves, and think in words and pictures” (1997, p.26).


Journals in Environmental and Experiential Education

Journals have become a standard educational tool in the fields of environmental and experiential education. Journals are used within these fields for three main purposes: to provide opportunities for reflection; to enhance skills; and to enhance students’ connection to the natural world (Dyment, p.3). Journals are often used as a safe place for students to reflect on an experience, be it an intense outdoor education adventure, an interpersonal interaction, or a service-learning or internship experience. Journal writing is recognized by many educators as a way to enhance observation skills, encourage critical-thinking and problem solving-skills, as well as providing writing and drawing practice. Field journals are often employed as a way to provide students with quiet time within a natural setting, where they can collect data, sketch, create a poem, make leaf rubbings, or make a sound map, while deepening their connections to place. Journals are also used to integrate across disciplines, to encourage various styles of learning, “to increase self-esteem, to strengthen the attention span, to enrich academic skills, and to find strength and wisdom within” (Capacchione, 1989).

Field journals can take on many forms. A natural history journal focuses on data collection, such as charting weather, animal and plant species, and geography. A reflection journal is used in conjunction with service-learning projects, internship experiences, or intensive outdoor education adventures. A response journal provides a space to respond to prompts or to literature. While individual journals are more prevalent, some educators use group journals in order to collect responses to a group experience, or as a way for individuals to address the group following an intense experience.

Dyment and O’Connell offers nine recommendations, based on a literature review, for environmental and experiential educators who want to implement the use of journals. However, I believe these nine points are applicable to any subject-area teacher who uses journals with students. A summary of these recommendations follows:

1.  Offer thorough and detailed feedback.

2.  Improve students’ journal writing skills by offering workshops.

3.  Recognize that students will have varying interests in journal writing.

4.  Recognize the different ways that males and females perceive journal writing.

5.  Set aside semi-structured time for journal writing.

6.  Model good journal writing behavior.

7.  Consider alternative models for evaluating journals.

8.  Establish a trusting community between journal writers and journal readers.

9.  Avoid journal writing students “to death”.

(Dyment, p.4).


A strength of field journals is that they often integrate across disciplines, creating opportunities for students to use many skills including data collection, observation, drawing, writing, creativity, and reflection. Journals can be used to meet some of the North American Association for Environmental Education’s (NAAEE) Excellence in Environmental Education—Guidelines for Learning (Pre K–12). Journal writing is aligned with many of these guidelines, including: Questioning, Collecting Information, Individuals and Groups, Change and Conflict, Human/Environment Interactions, Places, and Evaluating the Results of Citizen Action (NAAEE 2004).

Journal writing is also aligned with the principles of experiential education, as outlined by the Association for Experiential Education (AEE). Journal writing can support the following AEE principles:

  • Experiential learning occurs when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis, and synthesis.
  • Throughout the experiential learning process, the learner is actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative, and constructing meaning.
  • Learners are engaged intellectually, emotionally, socially, soulfully, and/or physically. This involvement produces a perception that the learning task is authentic.
  • Relationships are developed and nurtured: learner to self, learner to others, and learner to the world at large.
  • Opportunities are nurtured for learners and educators to explore and examine their own values.

(Association for Experiential Education).


Theory and Practice

Dyment and O’Connell found that while journals are popular, there is little research published about the “theory and practice” of journal use in the fields of environmental and experiential education (p.3). Most of the published literature on field journals tends to be more anecdotal. The majority of research related to student journals focuses on the improvement of students’ writing skills. In their literature review, Dyment and O’Connell identified several potential problems with student journals. These concerns include:

  • The overuse of journals, which leads students to identify journaling as “a pointless ritual.”
  • Students may fall into writing what they think will please the instructor, especially if journals are graded.
  • Journals may be misused, such as students using them to “attack other students or make inappropriate comments.”
  • Students may not receive adequate training in improving their journal writing skills.
  • Putting too much emphasis on journals as a reflection tool, instead of balancing the use of journals with other opportunities for reflection.
  • Evaluating journals can be  difficult, especially if it is being assessed for a grade.

(Dyment, p.3).


As environmental and experiential educators, it is important that we understand the context of what we teach with what is taught in the school curriculum. The student journal is one example of a tool that is popular among environmental and experiential educators, but also integrated into the school curriculum. One concern may be that students are getting journaled to death, between journal exercises in their science, math and language arts classes. Are field journals going to put students over the edge, or will they become a meaningless ritual? I believe that journals are an important tool both inside and outside the classroom. We can use some of the same techniques as classroom teachers in using field journals to record observations, collect data, track learning processes, and provide opportunities for reflection,  scaffolding on techniques that students may already know. Field journals provide a unique opportunity to engage students in new ways to use their journal. Through sensory games, observation and awareness activities, and opportunities for authentic, deep reflection, field journals can inspire students with these fresh ways to see and record the natural and inner worlds.



Association for Experiential Education. What is experiential education? Retrieved December 6, 2004, from

Capacchione, L. (1989). The creative journal for children: a guide for parents, teachers and counselors. Abstract retrieved November 30, 2004, from the ERIC database.

Dyment, J.E. & O’Connell, T.S. (2003). Journal writing in experiential education: possibilities, problems, and recommendations. Retrieved November 30, 2004, from the ERIC database.

Ernst, K. (1997). Student sketch journals: art in your curriculum. Teaching Pre K-8, 27, 26-27. Retrieved December 6, 2004, from the ERIC database.

North American Association for Environmental Education. (2004). Excellence in environmental education—guidelines for learning (Pre K–12). Retrieved December 6, 2004, from

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