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Developing a Sense of Wonder in Young Children

by Dr. Peter 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."1

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 to which the poet William Wordsworth alluded 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!2

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, 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 we foster and strengthen the sense of wonder in young children?

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

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

  • Sensitive parents 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 encourage children to freely experiment, taste, feel, hear, see, explore, and get into things that are interesting and safe.
  • Parents 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 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.
  • Children notice that their parents let themselves get lost in the fun and creativity of play.
  • Parents find something good about the mistakes children will make as they grow and learn.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Carson, Rachel. The Sense of Wonder. New York: Harper & Row, 1956.
2 Wordsworth, William. "The World is Too Much with Us" in O. Williams (Ed.), Immortal Poems of the English Language. New York: Washington Square Press, 1952.

This article originally appeared in the September 1991 issue of Young Children, a publication of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Peter Haiman, Ph.D. has been a childrearing consultant for over 30 years. He developed and administered a nationally recognized parent and child center in Cleveland, Ohio, and also served as chairman of the Department of Child Development and Early Childhood Education at the University of South Carolina.