Three prompts for deeper nature observation

Imagine you are seeing a bird for the first time. The novelty of the experience helps us concentrate and focus more carefully than the familiar House Sparrows that are always in your garden. Now imagine how hard you might look if you knew you were seeing something for the last time. How can you bring that focus to every observation that can be employed in your own nature observations or with students? Telling yourself or your students to “look carefully” or “look hard” is not very helpful. The human brain quickly clears itself of any details that are not necessary for survival. This is useful because it frees up working memory for new things. You will find that you can observe a bird with a group of students until it flies away, and then if you ask them what they saw, you will only get a few superficial responses. We want students to really see what is happening in front of them and we assume it is just a matter of looking harder, but deep observation is a skill which must be learned. Developing this skill will change the way you and your students experience the world. These techniques will enhance the experience of field sketching but also can stand alone. There are three prompts you can use in any nature observation to help you or your students get more out of any observation session. These are: I notice, I wonder, and it reminds me of. Here is how to use the prompts and why they work.

I notice…

When making a nature observation, ask students to say all of their observations out loud. Do not filter. Anything that you observe (structure, behavior, color, interactions with other species) you should say out loud. If you are gathered in a group of classmates or nature explorers, you can also listen to the observations that are said by other students and embellish or modify what you hear. This makes nature observation a social activity. By describing what you see, your brain also processes each observation more deeply. This is reinforced by the auditory feedback loop of hearing your own voice describing what you see. You will find that the things that you say remain in your working memory much longer than what you think quietly to yourself. By the time the bird flies away you will have access to a rich and detailed set of observations. Give it a try. You will be surprised how much more you see and remember.

I Wonder…

As you say your observations out loud, be aware of any questions that occur to you. Ask these out loud to the group (or yourself if you are alone). Do not be afraid of asking questions. The point is not to answer them now but just to get them out there. Saying the question aloud will help you remember it later. A good scientist should be able to ask many more questions than they have answers. Some of the questions you can answer with further observation. Some questions you will be able to research, or explore how one might go about answering the question with research or observation. There are other questions that can not be answered because they are outside of the realm of science. All questions should be asked. If no questions come to you, try saying “I wonder…” and see what fills the silence afterward. A question may come when prompted. If you make this a regular practice, questions will flow more easily. You can make yourself a more curious person!

It reminds me of…

In addition to questions, ask yourself what this set of observations reminds you of. Try to come up with as many connections as you can. Go into your own network of memories and see how this new set of observations fits in. Is this like something you studied before, observed in another context, or saw on a nature special? Have you seen this bird before or similar behavior? Can you make an analogy or metaphor that ties to a new observation? Why does this new observation reminds you of that? Connecting this new observation to those already in memory will help you remember what you are seeing. Connecting with existing memories can also help you develop more interesting and deeper questions. Say your “it reminds me of’s” out loud as well.

This process keeps observations in conscious working memory long enough for your brain to convert them to long term memories. Memories are formed by the connections of neurons in your brain. The more of these connections you make, the stronger and richer your memories will be. Now, when the bird flies away, you can ask your students: ”What were some of the most interesting observations that you made or heard one of your classmates say?” ”What were some of the most interesting questions that came up? ”What things did this remind you of?” Responses will come flooding back. The trick is to make a habit of exploring these three aspects of observation and to share what comes up out loud (even if you are alone). In fact, try it right now. Pick up an object near you and give it a try. Talking to yourself will feel strange at first but overcome this self-consciousness and see how much more you can take in.

Here is a fun visual way to remember and teach “I notice, I wonder, it reminds me of.”


To further investigate this approach and integrate it into your classroom activities, explore The Private Eye. This outstanding curriculum uses 5x jewelers loupes to focus observation and inspires open-ended questioning and analogies.

8 thoughts on “Three prompts for deeper nature observation

  1. Adrianus Samuel says:

    Dear John,
    I have some question about your observation technick, especially for “say all of their observations out loud”. I don’t understand, and this was diffrent from I always used for my self, that I ussually used “why” just in mind. Can you explained more deeply for this technick? because in my opinion, If you say out loud, “the memory would be gone”.

    • Hi Anrianus, I find that if I say my observations, questions, or anything else out loud, it helps me focus and remember. There is some research to back this up. If you meet someone new and they say their name, it is likely that you will forget it. But if you say their name out loud “Bob, it is nice to meet you Bob.” it is 40% more likely that you will remember the name. Police officers are also often taught to say what they see to help in recall and writing reports. Give it a try.

  2. Megan says:

    I’ve had great success using these prompts. I facilitate an inquiry- based after school program for middle school students in which we focus on environmental science topics and in turn create media projects (mostly movies and photographs) inspired by what we learn. We were experimenting with the principles of design in a natural setting and used these prompts as the foundation for our artist’s statements. The results were spectacular. The prompts encouraged the students to interact with their work on a much deeper level. Thank you for the excellent guidance.

  3. Margaret Hart says:

    Thses are great reading comprehensn strategies whether we’re reading a book or reading nature. I appreciate your expanding my understanding and use of these ideas in my teaching to include the voice and the social aspect of learning. Now I have to go outside to practice ‘reading’ my yard and to wonder out loud. Thanks for teaching through your blog.

  4. Helen Fisher says:

    This is an interesting post (although the “life bird” rather than “live bird” in the second sentence threw me!).
    Using those verbal prompts are useful – but why not also include asking students to try to listen to sounds, or perhaps to sketch too? Even if they can’t draw very well, observing something with intent to reproduce some form of the idea really focuses what you notice. I imagine you have found this when you’ve sketched yourself?
    Something also worth noting is revisiting the same place; the change from one week to the next, even 3-4 days, can be enough to see differences in how much leaves have filled out, or how the green of new growth on fir trees becomes slightly more muted.
    Great job for getting people thinking though – including me!

    • Thank you Helen. I guess life bird is a bit of birder jargon. It refers to seeing a species for the first time. This would have been more clear if I had just said that. I agree with you 100%. Drawing, using all your senses, and being aware of change over time are important ways of opening yourself to the world. This blog post is and excerpt from a curriculum I am revising about using journaling (writing and drawing) to enhance your experience of exploring nature.

      • Helen Fisher says:

        Ah! Thanks – I didn’t have a clue 🙂
        I am interested in the curriculum though – is it something that could be accessed online too? This is a great initiative and something I’d like to explore in the context with others to see and understand their views too rather than being so insular. I really appreciate your reply to my comment.

        • At your suggestion I changed the blog post a little so that removed the confusion with the life bird. This curriculum, made in cooperation with the California Native Plant Society will be available on line as a free download. It ties to the state standards and is kid and teacher tested and approved. The first edition is already out and can be downloaded at . The second edition has really exciting updates and improvements and should be out in about a month. If you join my mailing list you will be notified when it comes out.

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