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Encounters: Rediscovering Nature with Children

January 29, 2019 by

The Sense Of Wonder book cover

Naturalist John Burroughs has written that the ability to fully appreciate the wonders of nature depends on the capacity to “take a hint.” In the early years of childhood this innate ability paves the way for innumerable discoveries, developing an expanding mind and nurturing emotional well-being.

Much depends on how this inborn capacity is fostered during elementary and middle school as a fascination with technology and the realities of peer pressure vie for space and attention within the growing child’s universe. But if this space is navigated with no serious detriment, the life of an alert and curious adult becomes a fascinating treasure hunt as one clue leads to another – from the telescopic to the microscopic, from the remotest galaxies to sub-atomic particles.

In her classic, The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson explores this subject with a lyrical prose second to none in its sweeping beauty and attention to detail. Published in 1964, shortly after Carson’s early death at age fifty-six, this little gem has been my constant companion. Indeed, I view it as an inspired “bible” for fostering the sense of wonder in children and young adults. Carson writes:

For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind. One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”

Why not view the year ahead through this same lens? Isn’t that how a child enters each new day, full of expectation and eagerness?

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 the sources of our strength.

The subtitle chosen for a 2017 paperback edition of the book can be misleading, for Carson’s work is far more than “a celebration of nature for parents and children.” Rather, it is a handbook for parents, educators, and mentors, inviting everyone who values the hearts and minds of children to explore the wonders of nature together with children. Doing this together is the key.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift of the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.

Here the operative word is rediscovery. With a knack for moving easily from the profound to the practical, Carson has some sound advice for anyone feeling ill-equipped for the task due to a lack of knowledge in the natural sciences. For those who may initially throw up their hands with, “How can I possibly teach my child about nature – why, I don’t even know one bird from another,” she writes:

I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the [adult] seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel.… 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.

Near the end of the book, Carson poses an important question; her own answer to this question goes to the very heart of the matter. “Is the exploration of the natural world just a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood, or is there something deeper?”

I am sure there is something much deeper, something lasting and significant. Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Whatever the vexations or concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night and spring after winter.

kid discovering a bird's nest

Thank God, spring does follow winter. And year follows year. So why not take The Sense of Wonder with you into 2019? Get yourself a copy and spend time with the book. Then rediscover life all over again in the company of a younger set of eyes and ears. You will find yourself renewed in the process!

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photograph of Bill and Grace Wiser

Bill Wiser

Bill Wiser lives at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in New South Wales. His daily activities include teaching and pastoral work...

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