Developing a sense of wonder in young children

23 06 2013

Developing a sense of wonder in young children

by Peter Ernest Haiman

Rachel Carson has written:*

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder   and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision,   that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even   lost before we reach adult­hood. If I had influence with the good fairy,   who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask   that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible   that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom   and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that   are artificial, the alienation from sources of our strength.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift   from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at east one adult who can share   it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live   in. Parents often have a sense of inadequacy when confronted on the one hand   with the eager, sensitive mind of a child and on the other with a world of complex   physical nature, inhabited by a life so various and unfamiliar that it seems   hopeless to reduce it to order and knowledge. In a mood of self-defeat, they   exclaim, “How can I possibly teach my child about nature—why, I   don’t even know one bird from another!”

I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide   him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds   that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions   of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of   early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been   aroused—a sense of the beautiful; the excitement of the new and the unknown;   a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration, or love—then we wish for knowledge   about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning.   It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put   him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.” (1965, pp. 42-45)

In recent years, the field of early childhood education, historically a field   fully committed to whole child development, has focused primarily on cognitive   and academic issues. From the point of view of the child, the most important   dynamics of life and learning are emotional and social.

Where are we today in our understanding about the sense of wonder in young   children? What thought and theory have been proposed, and what research has   been done on this centrally important aspect of being?

Is our problem that we have so lost within ourselves the sense of wonder that   we do not value—are even threatened by—its presence in children?   Have we bought the powerful societal messages about which the poet, William   Wordsworth, alluded to so perceptively many years ago when he wrote:

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” (1952, p. 260)


Are we not irritated by experiences outside the timed lockstep of daily living?   That lockstep does seem to offer surety and security to our lives. But does   it really? If so, what is the life that remains? Is it not a bargain with the   devil in which we ensure our survival by repressing our sense of wonder—the   core and meaning of life itself? No wonder then that many adults are so threatened   or annoyed by the spontaneity of young children. No wonder that “for most   of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring   is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood”. How can we, as parents   and teachers, most effectively become the companions that help each child discover   the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in? How do we make sure   that our curriculum fosters and strengthens the sense of wonder in young children?

The sense of wonder is an integral part of every newborn infant. It is possible   when children are free from threats and fears.

Here are some ideas which parents and teachers can use to provide an atmosphere   in which wonder can flourish in children. A sense of wonder is created, nourished,   and sustained when:

  • sensitive adults react in a prompt, responsible, and satisfying way to     the voiced and unvoiced needs of their children.
  • children are well-fed, rested, and allowed ample opportunity to run, jump,     ride, climb, and play.
  • parents have lovingly held and cuddled their child in ways and amounts     that addict not only the child but the parent to their mutual comfort and     joy.
  • the child feels secure in the child-satisfying love and attention of her     parents.
  • parents and other adults who are models for the child regularly show their     surprise, interest, and attraction to the natural world and its happenings—from     the movements of a worm, the wag of a dog’s tail, bubbles popping in     a bath, the shadow cast by the sun, and a spider’s web, to the mold     on an old slice of bread.
  • parents and other adults close to the daily life of the child interact with     the child and her world from evident interest, spontaneous humor, and joy.
  • parents and teachers encourage children freely to experiment, taste, feel,     hear, see, imagine, explore, and get into things that are interesting and     safe.
  • parents and teachers show their pleasure and delight and create novelty     in what otherwise would be life’s daily mundane chores and routines.
  • children see and hear their parents and teachers become engaged and responsively     enlivened when doing such things as reading a story and playing or listening     to music.
  • children safely and playfully enact the stories in their imaginations or     the imaginations of creative, empathetic parents and teachers.
  • children notice that their parents and teachers let themselves get lost     in the fun and creativity of play.
  • parents and teachers find something good about the mistakes children will     make as they grow and learn.
  • children in schools and preschools are influenced by educators who often     ask, rather than teachers who usually tell.
  • teachers and parents are flexible enough to postpone their planned activities     from time to time and let a child’s creative idea or direction lead     the way.
  • children are encouraged to voice their emotions and to talk about their     hurts and fears with attentive, responsive parents and teachers.
  • young children can choose play activities based on their own feelings of     interest and boredom and not the decisions of another person.
  • the efforts of young children are regularly encouraged and prized. Children’s     sense of wonder is damaged and grows weak if their efforts are often met by     adult corrections and criticism.
  • Wonder becomes possible when children can risk being themselves without     there being any risk at all.

* * *

Oh, how I hope and pray that members of NAEYC, in their daily work with young   children and through their local, state, and national organizations, deliberately   choose to become allies of the good fairy. If they do so, it might come to pass   that we may develop, preserve, and enrich a sense of wonder in children—of   all ages.


*Carson, R. (1965). The sense of wonder. New York; Harper & Row.

Wordsworth, W. (1952). The world is too much with us. In 0. Williams (Ed.),   Immortal poems of the English Language. New York; Washington Square Press.

Peter Ernest Haiman, Ph.D., holds graduate degrees in educational psychology   from Case Western Reserve University . Doctor Haiman counsels parents with child/adolescent-rearing   problems. He also works with adults in therapy,

Haiman, P.E. 1991. Viewpoint. Developing a Sense of Wonder in Young Children:   There is More to Early Childhood Education Than Cognitive Development. Young   Children 46 (6): 52-53.

“Reprinted with permission from the National Association for the Education   of Young Children.”

This article was published in Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior   Letter, 1999.




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