Making Observations About Nature

One of the very first things I taught in my high school biology classroom was how to make observations about nature. I took my ninth and tenth grade students outside to three trees next to the parking lot and I asked them to make as many observations as they could in twenty minutes. It took a little while (and sometimes some teacherly prodding) to get everyone started, but once they got sucked into looking at the intricacies of nature around them, it was much, much harder to get them to stop!

Though I’m trying not to be overbearingly nerdy towards my son, he instinctively started doing the same thing as soon as he could sit up in our front yard. Rocks, sticks, leaves, mulch, puddles, bugs, birds; he wanted to examine it all as much as he could. Everything is fascinating to a toddler.

A very dirty toddler sits on a porch, playing with potting soil
Making observations about nature can happen on your porch.

Making observations is an important science skill and can be a great way to introduce kids to learning about the natural world. However, the practice of making observations about nature is so much more than a science teaching tool. We can all engage in the practice of making observations as a way to modulate our relationship with nature.

Making observations can help us slow down, feel more calm and grounded, and become more present and mindful. Making observations can also help us be more engaged and excited about what we can find around us! No matter what, making observations helps us feel more connected to the natural world around us, which generates higher levels of stewardship towards our environment and emotions like wonder, awe, and joy.

What Counts as an Observation?

Definitions and Examples

An observation is any information we can gather about the world around us through our five senses or through measurement (like temperature). Observations about nature are based very concretely in something we physically experience.

It’s very easy to make inferences based on our observations without even realizing it. For example, think about walking out your front door and saying to yourself, “Oh, it rained last night.” This is actually an inference based on a couple of possible observations. Maybe you see that your sidewalk or porch is wet, or maybe it smells like petrichor – that wonderful dusty rain smell. Maybe the air feels humid and damp.

The human brain is awesome at taking a bunch of observations and summing them into an inference; it’s one of our superpowers! But it’s really helpful to be able to slow down and pick apart our inferences to uncover the observations we’re always making. If you’re not sure if you’re making an observation or an inference, ask yourself which sense you used to gather the information. If you can’t name just one, it’s probably an inference.

Useful Tools

One of the wonderful things about making observations about nature is that you and your kids can do it anywhere and there’s no required equipment! All you really need is a little time and some curiosity.

However, there are some tools that can help kids get excited about making observations. As an Amazon Associate and member of other affiliate programs, we earn from qualifying purchases. A hand lens or a magnifying glass can help kids see small things close up, giving them a glimpse into a new perspective on something familiar. In my classroom, I used these Private Eye loupes because I liked their simplicity and durability. Similarly, binoculars can help bring something far away closer to you.

If your child likes to write or draw, they might like somewhere to record their observations. When I know water’s going to be involved, from creeks to snow, I love these Rite In The Rain field books. I prefer the stapled version because they fit in bags better, but some people also like the spiral bound options. Alternatively, you can put a notebook (and your hand) inside a gallon plastic bag to keep precipitation off while you’re writing or drawing.

For older kids, simple measurement tools like rulers, timers, and thermometers can give kids a new window into the world around them. Let them be creative about what kinds of information they want to seek out!

A group of kids and an adult measure snow depth with a probe

Prompting Kids to Make Observations About Nature

There are a huge number of ways to encourage kids to make observations about nature, and many kids engage in it without any prompting. You can help your kids make observations while on the go or while sitting still in a single spot. Making observations can help kids explore a new place or make a familiar place exciting again. After a while, you and your kids can get into an observation mindset and you’ll find yourself making observations every time you step outside!

Engaging the Senses

Helping kids engage their senses is one of the fastest ways to help them get into an observation mindset. Vision is usually the go-to observation sense, but our other senses can give us lots of information as well. We can feel temperature, wind, and textures of rocks, mud, bark, or leaves. (It’s ok to get dirty!) We can smell water, dirt, evergreen trees, and flowers. We can hear the sound our feet make on different surfaces, birds, or how different leaves move against each other in a breeze.

Taste is the one sense we need to monitor a little more closely as parents. Most water sources like creeks can give kids stomach bugs unless we filter the water first, and some small objects can be choking hazards. However, licking rocks and chewing on sticks generally doesn’t hurt! (Fun fact: licking rocks is one way paleontologists identify fossils; the fossils “taste” drier than rock.) Another way to engage taste is to look up edible plants and berries together and then try to find them.

A baby sits in grass, about to put a small stick in his mouth
All the teething toys in that basket? Nope! Let’s chew on this stick!

Check out this beautiful post on Engaging the Senses for more ideas and descriptions of kids using their senses to make observations about nature.

Changing Perspectives

Changing perspectives is a great way to see something in a new way, especially if you’re in a familiar place or making observations of a familiar object. There are lots of observation games you can play with your kids to help them change their perspective. Try things like:

  • Stand far away from (or close to) an object (like a tree) and then moving closer (or farther away) a few steps at a time, making observations each time you stop.
  • Look at the same object from different positions like standing, sitting, and laying down.
  • Make observations of the same object or place at different times of day. How is it different in the morning? In the evening? If you’re in a place you can go back to regularly, how does it change throughout seasons?

Looking for Patterns

Patterns abound in nature, and seeking them out is very satisfying. Physical patterns can be based on colors, shapes, and textures; think about the stripes on a caterpillar, rings of ripples in a pond, or the semi-regular texture repeats on a piece of bark.

Patterns can also be based on cause and effect, which is very engaging for kids. Ask your kids “if you do ______________, what happens? Is it the same every time?”

Last summer, my son realized he could make a splash when he threw a rock into a creek. It happened every time; that’s a pattern! He also tried throwing some of the fall leaves in the creek, and (much to his dismay) there was no splash. They did, however, float down the creek.

A toddler and his mom playing an observation game by a creek
What happens if I throw this in the creek? What happens if I fall in?

He spent the next twenty minutes throwing different things in the creek, trying to figure out why some splashed and some didn’t.

Quantitative and Qualitative Observations

“Quantitative” and “Qualitative ” sound like big science-y words, but they’re actually pretty simple ideas. Quantitative observations are about the quantity of something; it means you’re counting. Qualitative observations are about the qualities something has; these are descriptions. Let’s take an example.

Practicing making observations about nature: there are three red paintbrush flowers in front of a clump of yellow mules ears flowers.

In this photo, we can make some quantitative observations: there are three red paintbrush flowers and approximately twenty yellow mules ears flowers in the background. We can also make qualitative observations: two of the paintbrush are much taller, have more petals, and have a more vibrant color than the third smaller paintbrush.

Making quantitative observations is a great way to help kids of all ages practice counting and basic number skills such as estimating and comparing quantities. This is also a great moment to break out any measurement tools you have; saying a paintbrush flower is eight inches tall is quantitative!

Making qualitative observations can help kids practice colors, patterns, and descriptions. Ask kids to include as many specific details as they can while they describe something. Drawing or writing about an object in a nature journal is one way to encourage kids to make qualitative observations.

Observation Games and Practices

Any type of observation can be turned into fun games! You can set up a scavenger hunt or a bingo card (but remind kids to leave the objects there and take a photo, draw a picture, or check it off their list). Playing a game of I-Spy can be a fun way to engage everyone in observing the same area. Ask kids to come with a list of -est words (coldest, highest, reddest, smallest, squishy-est) and then find things to match their list.

A child is crouched down, making observations about a snail
This snail would be a good contender for “smallest” or “slimiest”!

Making observations about nature can also be a very grounding practice. One of my biology teacher friends (who lives in a warm, snow-free climate) asked her students to find a sit-spot at the beginning of the school year. Every two or three weeks, students returned to their sit-spots to make observations about nature.

While her students learned a lot about the local ecology, many of them also found their sit-spots to be the calmest place they had on the high school campus. Some students returned to their sit-spots on breaks or at lunch on hard days in order to find a quiet moment.

We can help our kids create a similar space, whether that’s in our backyard, at a local park, or on a nearby trail. The practice of making observations about nature helps ground us in the present moment and our physical senses, both of which can be very calming.

What to Do with Nature Observations

Making observations about nature is fun and engaging all by itself, but it can also be just the beginning! Once you have a handful of observations, there are a few things you and your kids can do with them to make them feel even more engaging.

Encourage your kids to come up with their own names for the things they’re observing. It doesn’t matter that it’s not the “official name”; in fact, it can be even more meaningful if your child came up with the name. Once something is named, your kids can communicate more easily about it and will have an easier time recognizing it the next time they see it.

Names can be based on a description (red and black bug), the location (river bush), or a behavior (hoppy bird). For toddlers who don’t have many words yet, you can try helping them with the sounds the object makes. My son has been excellent at spotting crows ever since his grandma taught him to caw at them!

You can also encourage your kids to record their observations by either writing about them or drawing them (or both!) Check out this post about Nature Journaling for Kids for more ideas and tips for engaging kids in nature journaling.

A boy sits in the grass, surrounded by colored pencils, drawing a small skull
Any natural object can be a starting point for making observations

Another natural progression from making observations about nature is to wondering. Once you’ve noticed something, it’s easy to ask questions like “Why?” “Is it always like that?” or “How did it get that way?” Observations fuel curiosity and kids’ desire to learn about their environment. It’s a wonderful feedback loop; the more kids learn, the more observations they can make and the more they want to learn! You can encourage kids to use their observations about nature and their learnings to tell a story about what they’re observing and how the world around them works.

Why Make Observations

I taught my high school students to make observations as a science practice, and it is an important scientific skill! But there is so much more to the practice of making observations about nature. This practice inspires learning, creativity, and stewardship towards our natural world.

Making observations is a versatile tool that makes being outdoors a richer experience for everyone. In the form of a game, making observations can lift everyone’s energy and help motivate them to keep exploring their surroundings. Alternatively, helping kids develop a sit-spot, even for a couple of days, creates an opportunity to slow down and learn a single space more deeply.

Making observations about nature helps us all feel more connected to the world around us. Recognizing the species, types of rocks, and patterns makes us feel like we’re a part of this larger world. And the more we look closely at nature, the more likely we are to find wonder, awe, and joy.

A List of Nature Observations Practices From This Post

There are a lot of ways to make observations about nature! Here’s a quick list you can reference of all the practices mentioned in this post.

  • Engaging all five senses
  • Zooming in and out
  • Changing height
  • Changing time of day
  • Looking for patterns
  • Exploring cause and effect
  • Counting (quantitative) and describing (qualitative)
  • Taking measurements
  • Scavenger hunts
  • Bingo cards
  • Matching to -est words
  • Playing I-Spy
  • Having a sit-spot
  • Naming observations
  • Nature journaling
  • Coming up with wonderings based on observations

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Making Observations About Nature

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