Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Field Book Activity: Making and Recording Observations


Field books are original records of scientific discovery. They are scientific tools to make and record observations. Anyone can use field books, not just scientists!  

This field book activity provides a field book template to use or copy, an overview of what a field book is, and guidance for facilitating the use of field books for your learners.  

This activity will help your learners: 

  • Focus on a plant, animal, or object in nature to make observations 
  • Practice the skill of recording observations 
  • Discuss observations 
  • Illustrate and label observations 
  • Develop a sense of competence in using an important scientific tool for discovery 

You can supplement this experience by using a digital tool to help identify your natural history observation, learn more about what you’re observing, and contribute your observation to a database used by researchers.    

  • Seek by iNaturalist is an excellent digital tool to help identify wildlife, plants, and fungi.  
  • iNaturalist is a tool to identify wildlife, plants, and fungi, and logs your entry into a research database. Use Seek for more common observations and identifications, and iNaturalist if you find something really special! You must be at least 13 years old to create an account in iNaturalist. 
  • Cicada Safari app helps scientists track the emergence and abundance of cicadas. 

Purpose of a Field Book  

Field books are a tool to make and record observations for future study and for sharing information with others. Each field book entry is like a piece of scientific data, recording an observation at a specific place and time.  

Field books are primary source material that describe a range of information, including: 

  • Date, location, time, observer 
  • The activities performed during the observation of wildlife, plants, fungi, or other natural history object,  
  • The native environment for those specimens, and  
  • Events surrounding or related to the field collection of specimens or observations during field research. 

Field books are significant sources of information related to scientific discovery. They provide rich data for researchers to understand how biodiversity has changed over time and space. They enhance information associated with specimens by providing details regarding dates, localities, and associated event data. For example, field diary entries may describe habitats, meteorological events, personal observations, and emotional declarations. These additional data allow other experts to assess the value of specimens, as well as use information in new ways: reconstructing historical ecologies, clarifying specimens' provenance, and re-discovering localities.

The traditionally handwritten field documentation in the 19th century began to include other forms as technology advanced. As photography equipment became easier to transport, for example, the documentary value of photography became a useful form of field documentation.  

Even with technological advances, many experts still use illustration since it provides a tool to illustrate details that may not be easily captured digitally and provides a tool to make close observations.

The Smithsonian’s Field Book Project is actively digitizing and cataloging field books to support scientific and scholarly pursuit and discovery and to promote awareness of and access to thousands of scientific field notes in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and holdings at the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Libraries. The Project has cataloged over 9,500 field books and digitized over 4,000.

You can learn more and explore these field books on The Field Book Project’s website.  

Doing the Field Book Activity 


Field Notes
  • Use the field notes worksheet as a way for your learner to record what they are observing. Information related to the setting and topic of their observation can go in the first box. 
  • Invite learners to make a drawing of their observation in the second box, adding in as many details to their drawing as possible. They can also add color and label parts of their drawing to help someone understand what they have observed.  
  • The last box is a place to write notes. Encourage your learner to include any details they cannot show in a drawing in their notes section as well as any questions they still have about their subject.  If your learner is not yet comfortable or able to write or draw, work together to complete the field note page, inviting the learner to share what they see while you take notes. 

Additional Guidance for Facilitating the Activity

Here, we’ve provided guidance for facilitating this activity. It can be used in practically any scenario! It can be an activity conducted individually, as a class, as a family, as a camp group, or any other kind of group!   

We've generalized this guidance for anyone overseeing the learning experience, an instructor, parent, caregiver, peer, or anyone else.

If the learner isn’t sure what they are looking at, ask them to take detailed observation notes. Later, you use primary sources like books and online resources to try to identify the object or specimen. If you do make an identification later, add a new note to your field book entry! 

Encourage your learner to use the notes section to include any details they cannot show in a drawing in their notes section, as well as any questions they still have about their subject. 

"See-think-wonder" can be a helpful tool for making and recording observations in your notes: 

  • "I see [ten cicadas on the trunk of a tree]"
  • "I think [they all like this tree]"
  • "I wonder [why they are all on this tree and not the one next to it]"
  • Work as a team to make an observation. Discuss what you are looking at and decide together what you want to record. 
  • Work together to illustrate what you see, taking turns to add details, labels, and color to your drawing.   
  • Designate someone to take a photo or log your observation in an app, like the Cicada Safari app, if you have a device handy. 
  • Have each member record a note on the field book entry.
  • What do you see/feel/hear?  
  • What does it look like ____ is doing?  
  • Where is ____?  
  • What else do you notice?  
  • Tell me more about ____.  
  • What questions to do you have about ____?
Resource Type
Hands-On Activities
Grade Level
K-2, 3-5, 6-8
Life Science