Use A Phenology Journal for Homeschool Lessons
Reading Time: 4 minutes
By Wren Everett I remember the first time I suggested to a friend that a phenology journal would be a great homeschool endeavor. She looked alarmed and exclaimed, “Isn’t that some weird fortune-telling fascination with head lumps?”
I laughed and shook my head. “No, no, that’s PHREnology, and I’m talking about PHEnology, the observation of cyclical phenomena in nature.”
Sometimes, I wonder if this easy word-switcheroo is why phenology isn’t more widely known or commonly practiced. Once upon a time, seasonal observations of plant and animal appearances and behavior were crucially important to indigenous nations, farmers, and seafarers. In a world before the internet, people were sharply attuned to the ebb and flow of their native flora and fauna, and they used observed patterns to inform themselves about how the world worked. For example, certain first appearances of a flower or a returning migratory bird often indicated a true shift of the seasons. Or animals acting uncharacteristically — such as the muskrats that built double-thickness lodges in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s, The Long Winter — can sometimes give a hint that the winter will be worse than usual.
Rekindling this wide-eyed view of the outside world is an important skill to kindle in the minds of young (and old!) learners. It’s an excellent way to get your own homeschool students interested in seasons, weather patterns, animal migration, and the inexplicable dance of natural beauty that is easy to miss when screens dominate learning time.
So, let’s discuss creating a phenology journal as an easy and exciting way to weave nature into everyday learning.
How to Keep a Phenology Journal
First, you’ll need a place to record your natural observations. It can be a simple blank book, a three-ring binder, or a professional bound record that you collect material for and print every year.
Next, you’ll need to decide how you’ll fill it. Since a phenology journal is versatile and adaptable, you can tailor it to be simple enough for preschool kids or richly illustrated and data-filled enough for high school students. As you introduce the project, decide what data you’ll be looking for so that the goals are clear. The next section features ideas on what information to hunt for.
Third, you’ll need to get outside and take in the world around you. Take a weekly walk with your kiddos, have them help with the chores, and have them play outside as much as possible. You can’t plan to have animals and plants conveniently parade in front of you — you’ll need to be out there already, ready and waiting for when something interesting might happen.
You’ll need to document your daily, weekly, or monthly observations. You may do this at an appointed time every day — such as during dinner when the day has run most of its course, and you’ve been able to see everything you were able to see outside. Or, you may add to the journal every time you notice something important (this is more appropriate for older students, as young children can think that every appearance of every ant, leaf, and dandelion is worth noting. Adorable, but potentially annoying!). This is the fun part, as it can range from scientific measurements of temperature, wind direction, and species identification to artistic explorations in poetry, drawing, or photographic form. I prefer a mixture of both sides of the brain, as they complement each other beautifully in journal form.
Finally, to build up a knowledge bank of your land, you should attempt to keep some records over multiple years. You’ll start picking up the subtle little patterns and cause-effect relationships by comparing one year’s season to the next.
Types of Information to Collect
- Dates of the first animal, flower, or insect appearances
- Weather trends and measurements
- Unusual animal or plant behavior
- Wild plant yields
- Pressed leaves, flowers, or rubbings
- Photographs, sketches taken “in the field,” or illustrations of observations
How I Practically Use Phenology
I keep a rather simple journal where I record monthly observations. After nearly six years of documenting and observing animal and plant appearances on my land, I’ve started anticipating the movements and changes in my small, hilltop world. Like the homesteaders of old, this knowledge has begun informing me when it’s a good time to plant certain plants or when wild plants are available.
For example, I’ve learned that wild strawberries are always ripe when the ox-eye daisy is in bloom. (When competing for berries with tireless chipmunks, that tip-off can mean the difference between fresh berry preserves and empty-basket disappointment!)
In another instance, I’ve noticed that common nighthawks appear in migratory flocks in the mornings, swooping and winging over a particular hill on my land at the exact point in the year it’s time to get my fall planting in.
Or unusually, this past year, very few dandelions flowered in the spring, which was soon followed by a crippling summer drought. I am curious to know if the two events are related, but I’ve noted it down so I can watch more closely in the years that follow.
There are a dozen more examples, but it’s more important for you to start discovering the hidden patterns on your own land. It may take years, but stay alert and teachable, and you’ll start uncovering the hidden scaffolding weaving life together. Something inexplicable happens inside you when you feel connected enough to your local plants and animals to start making informed decisions based on their behavior. You’re not just living on the land, you’re a part of it as well. And that’s a lesson that can’t be taught on a screen.
- Sand County Almanac by naturalist Aldo Leopold. This book of well-written essays uses phenology in engaging and thoughtful explorations of Leopold’s home county.
- The Living Forest, by Rien Poortvliet. Gorgeously and lushly illustrated, this book of animal observation is a brilliant example of a true nature-watcher. The text is high school level, but any age can enjoy Poortvliet’s exquisitely detailed portraits of animals.
- Nature Journaling, by John Muir Laws: This drawing and thinking book is not about phenology specifically but gives excellent tips and guidance for how to approach viewing nature with an attentive and curious eye.
- A good set of plant and animal identification guides for your specific state. You can often contact your local department of conservation for local information or recommendations.
Originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.