Family STEM: Take a Fresh Look at Nature

By Cait Goodwin, Oregon Sea Grant

It can be easy to look around at our familiar surroundings and think “I’ve seen this all before!” But how close are we really looking?


Nature observation is a great activity for families to engage in together because everyone has an opportunity to learn something new. Despite living close to natural areas, we often don’t stop and take time to really notice our surroundings. Many of us cannot name — or even describe — the various plants and animals we walk by every day. Here are some ideas to help you and your family look at nature together, with new attention to detail.


What kind of plant is that, really? How do I know?

Trees and plants are everywhere, and this is especially true in Oregon. So much grows here! But what do you know about the vegetation growing nearby? For example, you may look out the window at a tree across the street and call it, simply, “tree”. But perhaps you know a little more, and call it an “evergreen tree” because you notice it has needles and stays green all year. But is it a shore pine? Douglas fir? Hemlock? Spruce? You might need to go look a little more closely to gather more evidence.

TRY IT – Observation

Once you take time to stop and notice, it’s obvious that there is more than one kind of tree in the neighborhood, more than one kind of “grass” on most lawns, and more than one kind of bird at the feeder. It’s time to explore! Don’t worry about assigning names to organisms you see at this point; you can think about that later.

Here are some ideas to help you and your family make scientific observations together:

  • Start a nature journal for recording your notes, drawings, and questions. All you really need is a blank notebook and a pencil. Here’s a nice description of keeping a journal focused on bird-watching.
  • Create an Observation Circle to help focus your attention. Learn more with this lesson and video from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI).
  • Make observations in different locations, and then compare and contrast what you find.

Check out the Oregon Outdoor School website, which provides families with excellent resources that focus on nature observation and nature journaling. Each week they publish a new Nature Observation Activity set in English and Spanish.

A Deeper Dive for Parents and Teachers
* Making Observations from the Lawrence Hall of Science BEETLES Project
* Fostering Outdoor Observation Skills  – from the Pacific Education Institute
* How to Teach Nature Journaling – by John Muir Laws and Emilie Lygren

Observing animals can be a little bit trickier than observing plants because animals might be able to walk or fly away from your area of observation. But the more you practice, the more quickly you can record your observations. Tips for getting started:

  • Focus on slow-moving animals.
  • Take a photo that you can reference or share later.
  • Use an animal webcam to observe animals living far from your home. List of webcams

TRY IT – Identification

Scientists know that categorizing and naming organisms is very useful for understanding species characteristics and how organisms are related to one another. Practically speaking, it’s also helpful to assign names to plants and animals just so everyone knows they are talking about the same organism. There are big differences between the Dungeness crab and the European green crab. While they are both “crabs”, one is a tasty, native species that supports a thriving Oregon fishery, and the other is a smaller, invasive species that causes problems for Oregon’s ecosystems.

Pick one organism that you observed in the first section and focus on finding out its scientific and common name. The careful observations you made earlier will help you make an accurate identification. You may also learn that you need additional information and will need to return to the organism to check something you didn’t think to look at before.

Here are some resources that can help you identify and learn about organisms you might observe near your home:


What can we learn by closely observing nature?

Observing nature can help children and adults develop meaningful connections to the environment, and lead to feelings of stewardship towards local places.

wooden footbridge

The process of taking detailed notes or making an identification requires you to look closely at nature. 

Once you’ve gone through the process of noticing and identifying an organism, you may suddenly start noticing it everywhere!

Identifying organisms models an important practice of science*. Scientists must use evidence to support their conclusions.

Nature observation and journaling are practices enjoyed by people of all ages, and there’s always more to learn. Your journal observations may be kept private, but nature explorers can also work with others to identify species and make new discoveries. 


Connect your observations to a larger network by contributing to an online community science project! iNaturalist is one of the best apps available for sharing your nature observations, and you can download and start using it immediately. You can find additional locally-relevant projects on the Oregon Coast STEM Hub Families page, or search for a project through the large citizen science website SciStart.

What are you waiting for? Turn off your computer and go outside! Tap into your inner naturalist, “see” all the things you were previously missing, and have fun watching your world come alive.

Cait Goodwin is a Special Projects Coordinator at Oregon Sea Grant, and is also the Communications Coordinator for the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

The 2020 Family STEM series is brought to you by the Oregon Coast STEM Hub and its partners as part of its Let’s Keep Learning! Initiative. You can find more resources, live events, and lesson on our website:

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