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The Sense of Wonder

You probably know Rachel Carson as the author of “Silent Spring”, the brave woman who was probably the first to raise the issues of environment pollution, a biologist and sincere admirer and explorer of nature. Some people say she was the finest nature writer of the 20th century. She also wrote about the sense of wonder that nature inspires and how we, adults, can help children develop it. Her book The Sense of Wonder shares some of her personal experience and some useful advice.

Why do we need to help children develop a sense of wonder?

As a nature lover, biologist and conservationist, Rachel Carson knew that if people were in touch with nature and contemplated it in awe, they would have less appetite for the activities that destroy the natural world. However, conservation is not the focus of this book. She believes that helping develop the sense of wonder is one of the most valuable gifts children can receive from adults. Once developed in childhood, this attitude has an amazingly lasting nature, and it helps its owner retain their interest and zest for life, no matter what their external circumstances. 

Rachel Carson also believed that the sense of wonder is inextricably linked to the motivation to learn, that the foundation of learning is in what we love. Here is why children first need to engage with nature in an emotional way first rather than be taught facts they may not be ready to assimilate. 

Other people have written about the need for direct experience of nature as indispensable for healthy childhood development, for the physical and emotional well-being of both children and adults. One of the seminal books on the subject is Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods.

Exposing their children to nature and sharing the joy of the experience with them, religious people will add a spiritual dimension – admiration, deep love, respect and gratitude to nature’s creator, etc.

So how could we, adults, help children develop a sense of wonder?

First, we should abstain from our urge to teach children. Rather, we better just express our emotional response to experiencing nature, our joy of discovery, our pleasure of contemplating beauty, etc. We better be like children rather than take the role of educators. Remember: it is easy to learn about what you love.

Second, we should take any opportunity, no matter how messy or inconvenient it could be. Rain, cold or darkness should not put us off. In fact, they will provide us with opportunities that warm sunny weather simply cannot offer. 

“We have let Roger share our enjoyment of things people ordinarily deny children because they are inconvenient, interfering with bedtime, or involving wet clothing that has to be changed or mud that has to be cleaned off the rug. We have let him join us in the dark living room before the big picture window to watch the full moon riding lower and lower toward the far shore of the bay, setting all the water ablaze with silver flames and finding a thousand diamonds in the rocks on the shore as the light strikes the flakes of mica embedded in them. I think we have felt that the memory of such a scene, photographed year after year by his child’s mind, would mean more to him in manhood than the sleep he was losing. He told me it would, in his own way, when we had a full moon the night after his arrival last summer. He sat quietly on my lap for some time, watching the moon and the water and all the night sky, and then he whispered, “I’m glad we came.””

The Sense of Wonder, by Rachel Carson

Third, we should not be worried about our own ignorance of nature. Remember: we are not going out to teach but to feel the joy and wonder. 

“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.”

The Sense of Wonder, by Rachel Carson

“If you are a parent who feels he has little nature lore at his disposal, there is still much you can do for your child. With him, wherever you are and whatever your resources, you can still look up at the sky—its dawn and twilight beauties, its moving clouds, its stars by night. You can listen to the wind, whether it blows with majestic voice through a forest or sings a many-voiced chorus around the eaves of your house or the corners of your apartment building, and in the listening, you can gain magical release for your thoughts. You can still feel the rain on your face and think of its long journey, its many transmutations, from sea to air to earth. Even if you are a city dweller, you can find some place, perhaps a park or a golf course, where you can observe the mysterious migrations of the birds and the changing seasons. And with your child you can ponder the mystery of a growing seed, even if it be only one planted in a pot of earth in the kitchen window.”

The Sense of Wonder, by Rachel Carson

Fourth, “exploring nature with your child is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies all around you.”

A good way to start paying attention is to ask yourself “What if I had never seen this before? What if I never see it again?”.

“It occurred to me that if this were a sight that could be seen only once in a century or even once in a human generation, this little headland would be thronged with spectators. But it can be seen many scores of nights in any year, and so the lights burned in the cottages and the inhabitants probably gave not a thought to the beauty overhead; and because they could see it almost any night perhaps they will never see it.”

The Sense of Wonder, by Rachel Carson

Fifth, discover the world of little things. Armed with a magnifying glass or a hand lens, take a look at objects you usually take for granted as commonplace or uninteresting. 

“A sprinkling of sand grains may appear as gleaming jewels of rose or crystal hue, or as glittering jet beads, or as a mélange of Lilliputian rocks, spines of sea urchins, and bits of snail shells.

A lens-aided view into a patch of moss reveals a dense tropical jungle, in which insects large as tigers prowl amid strangely formed, luxuriant trees. A bit of pond weed or seaweed put in a glass container and studied under a lens is found to be populated by hordes of strange beings, whose activities can entertain you for hours. Flowers (especially the composites), the early buds of leaf or flower from any tree, or any small creature reveal unexpected beauty and complexity when, aided by a lens, we can escape the limitations of the human size scale”

The Sense of Wonder, by Rachel Carson

Sixth, seeing with your eyes is not the only way to experience nature. Open up your ears and nostrils. Touch with your finger tips. Lie down on the ground. Jump in the air.