Urban Nature Walks: No Meadow Required! By Tracy Born


Nature walks and nature journaling have been an enjoyable part of our homeschool for years. My homeschooled sons are adults now, and have memories of neighborhood nature walks, and now, my ten year old daughter and I are carrying on the tradition.The key to keeping it enjoyable, and not stressful, for us, has been finding nature in our own backyard.
While we have enjoyed an occasional visit to a nature reserve, our nature walks are usually in the Brookline neighborhood of the City of Pittsburgh. No meadow, but a sidewalk. No field guide, but Google. Perhaps not quite as romantic, but practical, and fun! And, for us, more likely to happen than a weekly walk in a meadow.
The goal of our nature walks is pretty simple. To appreciate nature, to enhance our powers of observation, and to enjoy some fresh air together, out of doors. Not too lofty, but attainable, and definitely doable. Field guides can be wonderful, and we have owned a few, but with the leaf identification apps available today, and Google at my fingertips, honestly, the guides have taken a back seat. (As has my large telephone directory…Ha!)
On a recent walk around our neighborhood of Brookline, we found different types of Maple leaves, and upon returning home looked up maple leaf identification on Google. We did a few leaf rubbings in our nature notebooks (very basic sketchbooks we use only for nature journaling) and labeled them, and that was it. No fancy dry brushing techniques necessary, or Latin names for the trees…although I do enjoy adding the latter to mine! (Must be the science geek in me!)
We have learned to identify some native plants right here on our “not so country” street. There is an abundant amount of Pokeberry just two doors down, which, my daughter was interested to know, was used as fabric dye by Native Americans, and early settlers. We took time another day sketching lichen that adorned a tree near our home, and were pleased to learn that the more lichen a tree has, the better the air quality in that area. Our tree had a decent amount, not bad two blocks away from a busy city street!

Another plant we like to look for is Purslane, an edible succulent that can be found pretty easily around our neighborhood. We did take it for a “taste drive” one day, (in a spot we knew for sure had no pesticides and was not likely to have been tainted with car exhaust) and decided it was pretty good, but would taste better stir fried! (Did you know it’s quite high in Omega-3 fatty acids and probably lives in the sidewalk crack near your home?) All of this lovely nature, just four miles from Downtown Pittsburgh!
Although there is plenty of nature to be appreciated right out our back door, it is fun to venture out a bit, now and then, to a park, trail or nature reserve. Our favorites near the City of Pittsburgh include: Armstrong Park in Baldwin Township, Gillfillan Trail in Upper St. Clair, Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve in Fox Chapel, and surprisingly, Washington Cemetery! As a child, my mother would take my sister and I there, to collect pinecones for crafts, so my daughter and I thought we would give it a go as well! We had such an enjoyable day, discovering natural beauty in such an unlikely place, and made a memory to boot! (And brought home two grocery store bags FULL of pinecones!)
Nature study can take place ANYWHERE you are outdoors! Meadow or city street! Wether you bring a sketchbook, or just take home a memory, make it a point to get outside for a bit of your homeschool week. Go out with no agenda, but to observe and appreciate what you find. If the mood strikes you, draw something you encounter in your notebook, but if not…look, listen, breathe deeply, and enjoy the outdoors with your children. On that note, I think we’ll go outside now! Tracy Born

*****For more on nature journaling, I recommend “A Charlotte Mason Companion: Personal Reflections on the Gentle Art of Learning”, by Karen Andreola. Also very enjoyable and inspiring, “A Pocket Full of Pinecones”, by the same author. Very cozy Fall read!


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