• The trails are wet and Big Creek is "up."

Speed Sketching With Sunrise

Last week was a whirlwind of activity here at Crossroads. We hosted field trips for Sunrise Elementary School. Over three days, students from the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classes ventured out onto our trails. They looked and listened for wildlife before enjoying snacks and a story around the campfire. They participated in a late 1800s school day, and even attempted to record everything they could about pinecones in a nature journal.

But what could be so special about a pinecone?

To find out, these pinecones became the focus of our nature journaling activity. Pinecones don’t have to be the focus of this activity, but a single object is best. I find that focusing on something small or singular helps us direct our curiosity to ask questions leading to much larger topics.

Now, when I’m leading a class like this, I am almost always met with at least one individual who groans at the thought of drawing or claims they are a terrible artist, it’s so common, I can almost set my programming clock by it. Before we explore the pinecones, I want to make a distinct point that nature journaling does not need to include art and a person does not need to be an artist to create a wonderful observational journal about the world around them.

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is, in part, a series of essays written from the observational notes he collected from his “shack”, a weekend getaway spot in Sauk County, Wisconsin. While sketches and art were part of his process, words were what conveyed the importance of his observations to the greater world.

Making Observations

To help make this point, I start with verbal or written observations (a practice detailed extensively here) about our pinecones. I encourage students to pick the pinecone that speaks to them most. Find the one that draws your attention and holds it! Look for the things that make it unique to your eye.

Pick it up, feel its texture, look at its color and how those colors change. Hold it to your nose and describe its smell. Drop it onto the table and watch how it falls, listen to the sounds it makes. These are observations. Take a moment to write these observations down. Our sunrise students came up with the following observations:

“I notice my pinecone always seems to land on one side.”
“I notice one of the scales on it is broken.”
“I notice that the core of the pinecone is nearly black while the outer scales are brown or gray.”
“I notice my pinecone is really sharp when I hold it tight.”

From there, I encourage students to turn those observations into questions to wonder about the reasons behind their observations. Ask yourself, why the pinecone might land upright when dropped? Why might one pinecone smell like cinnamon? I encourage them to write these questions down. We aren’t looking for answers just yet, but we don’t want to forget the questions we have.

“I wonder how much pinecones weigh?”
“I wonder why pinecones are brown and not green?”
“I wonder how old this pinecone is?”

Now that we have plenty of observations and questions, we can begin tying them to our own existing experiences and understanding of the world with statements of connection. It reminds me of walking with my dog each fall. It reminds me of this video I saw about trees last year. These statements can connect most anything so long as they connect to you and your own experiences in some way. Students connected to their pinecones in various ways.

“It reminds me of a tiny Christmas Tree! Or from this angle, sunflower seeds in a sunflower!”
“It reminds me of playing pinecone wars with my siblings.”
“It reminds me of a saw (because of the sharp points).”

Warming Up to Drawing

There are more questions we can go into with this activity, such as making possible explanations for our questions, but for kids, these questions are usually more than enough. We’ve already almost filled out our nature journal entry and we haven’t even started drawing yet!

At this point it’s always good to remind ourselves that drawing is a learned skill, something that takes practice and just like playing a sport, it often requires warming up. The following activities are warmups, we aren’t trying make something photo realistic, we are trying to get ourselves used to translating what we see to paper.

We start with a single line, blind sketch of our pinecone. Holding our pinecones in our off hand, we look away from the paper and focus on the pinecone, trying to draw its shape on the paper without looking at the paper or lift our pen off the page. These sketches are quick, dirty, and in my case, always seem to wind up “inside out” with the pinecone scales outside the outline of the pinecone itself.

Next, we do the same sketch but allow ourselves to look at the page. We still can’t lift our pen or pencil off the paper which forces us to backtrack on our lines and make connections where we might not usually make them. These sketches often turn out surprisingly good. The details usually aren’t perfect, but they rarely need to be in a sketch like this.

Ready, Set, Sketch!

Finally, now that we are warmed up, we can begin the speed sketches. It’s a goofy challenge, but I find kids get invested quickly and are eager to participate. We start with the speediest sketch first. 5 seconds. Draw your whole pinecone. This frantic scribble generates many giggles and laughs as we can usually only get key details on the page.

Then we attempt 15 seconds. It’s often a satisfying sketch, still messy, but recognizable and cleaner than the 5 second one. When we jump to 45 seconds, I’m always surprised when the students finish early. I direct them them to use the last few seconds to add more detail. 

With our sketches done, we all take a few minutes to reflect on our drawings. In under 10 minutes we created 5 sketches. They aren’t perfect representations of our pinecones, but they represent what we notice and are drawn to for our pinecone. Details found in those messy sketches help remind us of what we saw in our pinecone. Those details can influence a 6th and final drawing we might do even if the original pinecone is no longer available.

In nature, we rarely have time to create an elaborate drawing of a bird or mammal. We might have 5-45 seconds to sketch what we see, however. We can quickly capture rough shapes, identifying markings, body orientation, and other visual details of note. These details help remind us of observations, identify the species, and recreate the scene at a later point through words or images.

Creating a Curious Hobby

While I imagine most students last week were excited about snacks around the campfire or hikes through our trails, I certainly hope a few of them may start a journal. If you and your class or group would like to try nature journaling with Crossroads, reach out to us on our Field Trips page, and we can work to get something scheduled!

Whether we journal through sketches or script, taking the time to slow down, to notice, to wonder, to connect, and to record what we find can become a great hobby and worthwhile practice to hone our curiosity well into our adult lives.

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