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For the Love of Bugs

  • Jill Novak Contributing Writer
  • Published Jun 28, 2006
For the Love of Bugs

Bugs--kids either love them or hate them! You may be blessed to have a budding entomologist on your hands--a child who is part human and part insect. He's fascinated by compound eyes, metallic exoskeletons, and gossamer wings. Nothing can stop him from sneaking his latest "catch" into the house. Then again, you might have a child who is genuinely repulsed by anything that creeps around on eight legs (or less). Just the mention of the word "bug," and his skin begins to crawl. In fact, you may be scratching your head right now. Well, scratch no further, because you are about to learn about the many valuable lessons insects can teach your children!

Nature Journaling

If there is one method of study that is tailor-made for bugs and children, its nature journaling! Nature journaling enables a child to see beyond the ordinary into God's extraordinary creation. The connection between observing a bug firsthand and drawing it is a skill that surpasses the momentary glance that most humans give an insect. The definition of the word observation is "The act of observing or taking notice; the act of seeing or fixing the mind on anything." There is a vast difference between looking at something and really seeing it. Seeing takes time.

When I was a little girl, I spent many hours catching dragonflies in the fields that surrounded our home in northern Illinois. Enthralled as I was with their delicate forms, I never thought of drawing them from life. It wasn't until my daughter Elizabeth (age 5 at the time) found delight in the wildflowers and dragonflies on our hill that a childlike curiosity was born again in me. As we identified wildflowers and chased after dragonflies, a new appreciation for God's creation filled our hearts and minds. That summer we discovered what it meant to become God's naturalists.

For Younger Children

If your children are young, you can model the life of a naturalist long before they can record their own observations. Butterfly nets, magnifying glasses, field guides, and sketching equipment are all part and parcel when it comes to observing bugs. If you have time, don't hesitate to draw an insect yourself. Whether you're a beginning, intermediate, or advanced artist, you want to make the all-important connection that nature is worth recording. A mother who draws, no matter what the result, is engaging her children in the creative process. If you lack confidence in this area, trust God and put your pencil to paper by faith. I promise that over time your drawing will improve. Besides, your children won't criticize you; they'll think you're great!

If you're short on time or energy, find a picture of your specimen on the Internet and print it onto a piece of cardstock. Write the date that you sighted it, include a few important facts, and have your toddler narrate his observations to you. Slip your page into a plastic sleeve and store it in a three-ring binder. Keep it somewhere accessible so he can flip through the pages and admire "his" bugs.

Your whole family will go "buggy" once they realize how fun it is to study insects. Discuss your most recent specimen with Dad at the dinner table. My husband has become one of our biggest bug catchers. One summer he collected an Imperial moth, a green darner dragonfly, a katydid, a praying mantis, and a virgin tiger moth. Claire found a dead hummingbird moth lying on the driveway (we've never seen one since). Elizabeth found grasshopper moltings dangling off the tall grass in our field. You never know where or when you will find a bug or its remnants, so be on the lookout and be flexible--that teachable moment may not come again!

For Older Children

Do you have a child who's frightened of bugs or feels artistically challenged? Well, there are lots of ways to broaden your child's nature journaling experience, making even the most timid onlooker a keen observer of the natural world. Spring, summer, and fall are the best seasons to stock up on "live" insect specimens, so take advantage of photographing, preserving, and drawing any insect that scurries or flies across your path.

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!

Read Living "Insect" Books

Last of all, read living books about insects. Living "insect" books present dry scientific facts in such appealing ways that your child doesn't even know he's learning. One of my favorite living insect books is Agnes McClelland Daulton's Wings and Stings. We have reprinted this 1902 nature narrative with the author's original illustrations. You can find it on our website.

I hope you're inspired to include nature journaling in your homeschool routine. It's more than just making pretty pictures. It's a learning lifestyle that will plant a love in your children's hearts for the wonder of God's creation--including bugs!


Jill Novak and her husband Robert have been blessed with five children. Together their family has produced The Pebbly Brook Farm Series; The Girlhood Home Companion, The Gift of Family Writing; and The Art of Nature Journaling: Spring and Summer (on DVD). Jill is an inspiring workshop teacher and conference speaker who loves teaching families how to write and draw from life. You can contact her at or visit her website at or her blog at

Copyright 2006. Originally appeared in Spring 2006. Used with permission. The Old Schoolhouse Magazine. Right now, 19 free gifts when you subscribe.