One September Elizabeth caught a praying mantis in the goldenrod east of our house. We decided to keep her as a pet. We read that you could feed them bits of liver on the end of a toothpick. Well, we only had canned cat food. So for 3½ months we fed her Little Friskies and gave her water to drink from a teaspoon. She ate crickets if offered, but preferred to dine on painted lady butterflies. She was affectionately named Prayline, and if bugs can steal your heart, she certainly did.

Enlarging the Eye of the Beholder

When it comes to nature journaling, the bigger the bug the better! Digital cameras are invaluable when it comes to "capturing" an insect in its natural habitat and making it larger than life. Let your child run around the backyard and take pictures of insects while the weather is warm and bugs are in large supply. Encourage your photographer to snap and observe. Insect pictures can be downloaded onto the computer or burned onto CDs for future reference. In the dead of winter you will have an abundant supply of drawing material if you plan ahead. Your child can sit in front of the computer and draw from his own photographs. If he needs to see the bug up close, he can click and enlarge it, enabling him to distinguish the detail that is otherwise hard to see on a moving or tiny specimen.

An Artist's Insect Collection

For an artist, the primary purpose of keeping an insect collection is for drawing and painting reference. This simplifies the whole process, because you don't have to pin and label your specimens (unless you want to). If a bug is "unattached," your child is free to turn it over or draw it from different angles. The finished drawing is a record of the specimen, including either its common or scientific name.

The supplies you need to make a bug collection are readily available: a butterfly net, a ball jar with lid, cotton balls, fingernail polish remover, and a place to store the preserved specimens. Our bug collection is stored in an antique jewelry display case with slatted drawers and velvet-lined bottoms. Over the years, the jewelry has given way to an ever-increasing supply of cherished bugs. You can use any kind of divided box or printer's drawer--even a plastic tackle box will do. And if your kids run in the house with a new specimen, don't scream, "Take that thing outside!" Instead seize the opportunity to study and draw that bug.

Two years ago, we experienced a shortage of monarch butterflies in the Midwest. A combination of a cold snap in Mexico and a very wet and cool summer season in the north caused fewer monarchs to migrate. Later that summer as we looked out over the motionless fields we realized how much we had taken their presence for granted. We were thankful for the specimens we had preserved the year before.

Drawing from Life

Nature journaling is a valuable way to teach your child to see the way an artist sees. An artist feels the line and form of an object as he puts it on paper. Once the outline is to his satisfaction, he then fills in the details. Encourage your child to take his time and enjoy the process of nature journaling and not worry about the end product.

Be sure to provide good quality art supplies. Our basic supply list contains clipboards, 110-pound white cardstock, plastic sleeves, three-ring binders, Mirado black warrior pencils (no. 2 available in packs from Wal-Mart), Staedtler plastic erasers (also available at Wal-Mart), Prang 12-count watercolors, and the Portfolio drawing pencil series (available at Office Max). Also purchase a few fine-quality paintbrushes of different sizes. Good paintbrushes will give your child control of the paint.

Writing from Life

One of the most enjoyable parts of journaling is recording the life story behind the experience. This aspect of nature journaling brings the heart into view as you include your child's personal notes. How did your child find the bug, or did the bug find your child? Encourage him to write about his experience. If your child is little, he can narrate his story to you. If he's older, let him journal about it himself. Maybe your child will want to compose a poem about a beloved insect friend. Don't miss the opportunity to write from life!