Armed Only With a Clipboard

Long ago, we declared freedom from workbooks. Homeschooling works best for us when we are relaxed. Lots of good books, conversation, time with friends and family, volunteer work and projects the kids do on their own. Unfortunately this method doesn’t leave much of that paper trail preferred by our state.

We’ve found that if we venture outdoors with our handy clipboards, we are more likely to develop material which fits into our portfolios without cramping our learning styles. Language, art, science and history are everywhere. Along the way, we find that our learning is as interconnected as the ecosystem around us.

Together with your children you can plan clipboard adventures. Your guiding principles should be whatever is intriguing and fun. Here are a few ideas before you start:

First, have enough clipboards for each child. Let them decorate their own with permanent markers or stickers. They will get dirty because they are also useful as hats, shovels and seats.

You may want to add a small zippered case for drawing implements, a tape measure, compass or whatever your child deems essential. We simply attach a sandwich bag under the clip along with the paper.

Second, don’t be daunted by the weather. A good stomp in the park is more memorable in muddy boots.

Third, you don’t have to travel far for a clipboard adventure. Let your older children go out on backyard clipboard adventures while you stay in the house with the baby.

The following is a list of clipboard adventures that your family may also enjoy, organized by educational subjects:


Nature is the inspiration for some of the world’s best writing. Since many children find extensive writing tiresome, emphasize time savers like scribbling down words or an outline to be fleshed out later. I often write as children dictate ideas and type it all out for them later. Consider making some nature walks a special event with only one child at a time. Your undivided attention encourages them to express a range of feelings and ideas they might not share otherwise.

  • Take poems along to read by a stream or in a tree.
  • Make up fantastic tales such as “Why the Bluebird is Blue” or “How the Water Sings.”
  • Make a word collage. Write a word in the middle of the page such as “clouds.” Then encourage your child to really look at clouds and write single words every which way on the page as they come to mind. As always, creative work should not be judged.
  • Walk in a forest or along a beach and tell each other stories about creatures who might live there, real or imagined. Start with a few characters: a raccoon family, elves or a just-landed space craft.
  • Compose letters inspired by your surroundings, perhaps a plea for conservation to a corporation or a message to future generations about what you value. A dirty hand print on the page simply adds impact.
  • Write in a private journal. A parent writing in his or her journal alongside the children demonstrates that the process has lifelong value.
  • Use writing prompts. It can be fun to give each other prompts, easiest when begun as incomplete sentences such as “I used to think . . . ,” “This reminds me of . . .” or “I dreamed that . . .”
  • Bring along markers and leave messages on rocks. We once walked along Lake Erie and left cryptic encouragement to those who might find the rocks another day. We left cheery little phrases like, “Stop worrying,” “Go ahead, smile” and “Rocks have feelings too!” We enjoyed imagining scenarios in which our words would have an impact.


Beauty and meaning are everywhere outside. Clipboards provide a sturdy base on which to draw. Try chalk, crayons, watercolor pencils, dark and light paper, different materials on different outings. Texture, form and color abound in nature.

  • DaVinci was fond of studies. He repeatedly sketched flowing water and wings in flight to capture the look of movement. Encourage such studies of whatever your children find interesting. They might draw from many angles, in different light or in a variety of styles.
  • Take rubbings with crayon or charcoal of stones, tree bark, or whatever your child finds interesting.
  • Collect flower petals and grasses. Lay them on paper and tap them with a stone until the pigment colors the paper with a lovely abstract design. This also works on cotton fabric. Bring along a handkerchief or scrap and encourage them to imprint lots of color. They can mount it on cardboard or sew with it at home. We’ve even successfully printed t-shirts with this method.
  • Bring along tacky glue and incorporate found materials such as sand, leaves and seeds into a collage.
  • Draw the scene as it might have looked thousands of years ago, or to a creature that sees only temperature, or from a worm’s eye view. Looking at life from many angles encourages creative thinking.


Understanding the patterns and systems in nature is the key to unlocking the mysteries of science. Every branch of the sciences has applications in the world around us.

  • Brainstorm signs of the season, indications of animal life or other areas of interest. Then have children set out with this list and check off what they’ve found.
  • Clip instructions or suggestions you might want to follow. I’ve copied information on how to measure a slope using a string and a jar of water, but never had it with me outdoors. Ditto the plans for making a sundial from a piece of paper and a stick, the introduction to orienteering skills and the methods of testing for rock hardness. I need to put them on my clipboard so I’m ready the next time someone is interested.
  • Take a hike with a pocket guide to trees, birds or insects and confirm your sightings. They might want to write down their finds, make a sketch or write a description.
  • Teach them the joys of sitting quietly in nature. Given enough time, they will see and hear the natural world with more complexity than from their usual quick observation. They may want to draw or write about their experience.
  • Pick a favorite place and visit it different times of the year. Notice the differences and similarities found in various seasons, the effect of human presence there, the aspects not noticed on other visits, etc.
  • Bring along information they find interesting. My son appreciates the weather predicting qualities of cloud formations, while my daughter likes charts of the constellations.
  • Discover the joys of drawing maps. Each child can draw a bird’s eye view of the yard or nature area. Then, one at a time, they can hide a treat for each other, even a sack lunch or cold drink, while marking the spot on their maps with an X.


History is all around us, but rarely do we notice its presence. On one memorable hike, we
encountered the ruins of an old house overgrown in the woods. Some steps, a crumbled chimney
and blocks from a foundation were all that remained. It caught my children’s interest as they
walked where a family must have slept, played and worked. Unfortunately, we didn’t have
clipboards with us to draw the house as it might have looked, to write clues to help us identify its
probable era or to map out its location for further visits.

  • Observing the environment around us can lead to discussions of how indigenous people around the world have used resources throughout human history. What could have been made to hold water, to cut or pound, to provide shelter and to heal? How might natural conditions have affected the stories, traditions and religions of different regions? Your child may try to imagine him or herself as a child from an earlier culture. Maybe write ideas for a creative scenario.
  • Evidence of many eras can be found in architecture. Notice details on doorways, windows  and rooftops. Listen to children’s comments on materials used and styles chosen.
  • Find evidence of local WPA projects those in national parks. Our area is rich with a history of transportation: abandoned railways, canals and docks. It is also filled with restored grandeur of theaters, marketplaces and big city commerce buildings.
  • Many times children’s favorite fictional characters are from a different period in history. Bring along a book to read in a setting which would be recognizable to that character. Or read aloud from a story which fits your natural area.
  • Prepare a scavenger hunt before visiting historical sites. Ask children in advance what they are curious about. Your children may ask, “What did people back then use for light, refrigeration, recreation or travel?” When their questions are answered, they can check off that item.
  • Graveyards yield a different view of history. Children can learn about the size of families long ago, write down the most unusual names they can find, notice the frequency with which the very young died in times past, observe time periods of war, and more. Rubbings can be made of headstones and interesting epitaphs copied down. Discuss in advance the necessity for showing respect for the gravesites and for acting with decorum, especially if mourners are present.

Your children will put their clipboards down to invent their own games, find glory in unexpected discoveries or simply lie in the grass and watch the sky until they swear they can feel the earth’s rotation. Then you can be sure they are guiding themselves on adventures more profound than any that can be captured on a clipboard.


Laura Grace Weldon lives on Bit of Earth Farm with her family. She’s the author of Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything. Connect with her at

This article has been edited from a previous version originally published at The Link.

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