What Is Natural History?

Get out your nature notebooks – Its time for a lesson on natural history and nature study. Today we will learn all about what natural history is, who a naturalist is and how you can start your own nature study adventure.

Here are your quick links:

What is natural history?

Natural history, is unfortunately not a word we come across very often these days. It is a word that conjures up images of old men with giant beards in Victorian houses, packed from ceiling to floor with musty smelling journals, stuffed animals and exotic memorabilia. Or else, it recalls grand museums with dinosaur skeletons, antique clothes and beady-eyed animals in glass boxes.

But in reality, natural history is so much more than this. It is a living, breathing, exciting and ever-changing field of study!

Imagine shaggy yak on ice-capped mountains; lions prowling through the African Savannah; herds of buffalo grazing on the prairie; shoals of fish darting through the depths of the ocean; or colourful parrots in a lush, green forest. 

Because, natural history is the study of life in its natural environment. So, plants, trees, birds, butterflies, animals, spiders, lichens, mosses; the earth itself, with its rocks and soils; the water flowing through the ocean depths, or bubbling and laughing in mountain streams. The wind and the rain;  sunshine and rainbows; commets and asteroids; moon and stars…

What is nature study?

Natural history in action is called nature study, and nature study encompasses many different elements. 

For example, 

  • Botany – the study of plants
  • Mycology – the study of fungi
  • Zoology – the study of animals
  • Ornithology – the study of birds
  • Entomology – the study of insects
  • Oceanography – the study of ocean life
  • Astronomy – the study of stars
  • Geology – the study of rocks
  • Herbalism – the study of medicinal plants

The list could go on and on! But, in general, nature study looks at how life lives and grows and breathes and changes; how it interacts with its own and other species; and how it changes and adapts and moves in its environment.

Consider a tiny ant.

  • What is the role of that ant in its ant hill?
  • Does it communicate with the other ants?
  • How does it communicate?
  • What does it do if an enemy approaches?
  • How does it find food and let the others know about it?
  • Does it use any tools to help carry that food home?
  • What if there is no food? What does it do then? What do all the ants do?
  • Do they change their diet? Do they move their hill?
  • How do they feed and rear and care for all their little baby ants?

Now imagine these questions applied to every form of life you can imagine!

What is a naturalist?

The name given to someone who studies natural history, is a naturalist. A naturalist could be anyone with an interest in nature and in life itself – a scientist, a poet, an artist or a philosopher. 

For example, a poet looking for inspiration in nature, will want to accurately depict all the sights and sounds and feels and smells. She will write about the heart-stopping thrill of a predator’s chase;  perhaps the swoop and soar of a bird in flight; the way the sunlight moves and dapples through the trees on a windy day; or the way leaves or snowflakes fall to the ground.

An artist painting an ocean scene, would study the waves upon the sea – how they rise and fall; how they ripple and foam, and spray and splash; the way the colour changes to reflect the sun and the clouds, or the swell of the storm.

Even a family on a nature walk are being naturalists – you might look up at the sky and study the weather – is it going to rain? What is that bird you can hear singing? Has that spider caught any flies in its web? How many types of leaves can you find? If it is autumn, are they changing colour yet?

The naturalist's toolkit

So, what does a naturalist need in order to study natural history?

The answer, is little more than a keen eye, keen ears, a nose for opportunities and an open, imaginative mind. 

Of course, there are things that can help a naturalist along, but these can play a supportive role, rather than being essentials. 

For example,

  • A notebook or nature journal
  • Pencils and colours
  • Field identification guides

Other items in the naturalist’s toolkit might include:

  • Magnifying glass, binoculars or microscope
  • Compass, butterfly net or fishing net
  • Camouflage
  • Bucket
  • Camera

But, these are extras and required more by the serious and academic naturalists than by families wanting to explore and enjoy a nature adventure. Though, I know, kids big and small enjoy waving butterfly nets through a meadow of flowers or splashing with a bucket through rock pools by the sea!

Studying natural history

I hope what you have read so far has inspired you to go out into nature and have your own naturalist’s adventure?

Where will you go?

  • To a woodland or forest
  • A lake, mountain or sea
  • To a river or stream
  • Some meadows or grasslands
  • By a canal, hedgerow or country lane
  • In your own back garden…

There are events and activities taking place all year round and all across the country. Wildlife Trusts , The RSPB  and the Woodland Trust, are just a few of the places you can look for nature walk locations and activities near you. 

For more links and nature walk destinations, check out our page on nature walks.

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Hello, I’m Leila! Welcome to My Nature Nook. I help families learn about and connect with Nature. Learn more

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2 thoughts on “What Is Natural History?”

  1. Hi, I came across your blog while searching for the difference between cowslips and primroses. When I saw your mention of naturalists and see your focus on home schooling I thought you might find this relevant; for my latest pick for our bookclub I chose “the Girl Who Drew Butterflies”. It’s a kids’ book about Maria Sybilla Merian who had an amazing life as naturalist and artist in Germany and Holland late 17th early 18th century. By age 13 she had figured out metamorphosis. My research found three great kids’ books at different levels suited to my three grandkids. Absolutely fascinating. I do some botanical art etc so enjoyed that & the history was illuminating as well.

    1. Hi Cathy,

      Thank you so much for the book recommendation. We have seen that book and my daughter really loved the pictures and we tried drawing some of them. It is amazing how much someone can learn when we take the time to pay attention to the world around us.

      I am glad my cowslip versus primrose post came in handy for you too 😊

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