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A Sense of Wonder

In the Rainforest at the Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

Much is said and written these days about how children, American children especially, need to be educated in the sciences. If we are to innovate our way out of global climate change, world hunger, species extinction, global epidemic etc. we need our children to be strong and innovative scientific thinkers.   No argument from me there.

However, I’d argue one of the very best ways to ensure that kids become and remain interested in the sciences is to cultivate a fundamental interest in the natural, biological world.  Steeping your child in the mystery, beauty, and sheer, expanding complexity of the natural world is one to cultivate a love of science. Sure, you can read them romantic poetry, or leave your National Geographics lying around in their rooms, or put a periodic table and make them memorize it….but at bottom, if they have a love for the physical world, and a curiosity about how it works, they are also on their way to becoming scientifically minded problem solvers and creative thinkers.

The great nature writer, Rachel Carson, for me one of the great writers of the 20th century, wrote as much in her extraordinary book aimed at children and parents, The Sense of Wonder. In it, she argues that cultivating a child’s sense of the natural world and its beauty is the first thing you can do to culitvate a budding scientific mind.  That sense of play, of curiosity, and of wonder that a child has at the ocean’s shore, for instance, are the self same qualities that help mature scientists innovate their way into and out of important new discoveries. For young children, its often not so much about what they know, but about how they think. For Carson herself admits:  “My first impressions of the ocean were sensory and emotional, and that the intellectual response came later.”  In fact, although her great life’s work was about the sea, she never even saw the ocean until she was in college.

Carson believed that science was not separate from life:  “The material of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience…The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction.”

And there is something life-sustaining in the truly science-minded individual too:  Carson also wrote “the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the les taste we shall have for the destruction of the race.  Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.”

What can you do for your children? Take them to great, interactive natural history and science museums and good zoos, sure.  But also just take them outside. Teach them to observe the world around them, the seasons, the particular wildlife that live in your region. Let them sketch, draw, take notes, get really muddy, turn over rocks, climb trees, find new kinds of birds…let them look at and wade in lakes, observe tides, take night walks. Attune them to what is happening in their enviroment, all the time, all the mystery and beauty and change that resides in the factness of the world.


3 Responses

  1. So true! Have you read the book “Last Child in the Woods”? It sounds like you might like it. It talks about some of the same things you mention, about allowing children to truly experience nature so they are familiar with it and learn to love it – associating it with good memories. It’s not enough to just educate them about the topic without allowing them to experience it freely. Great post!

  2. that was lovely to read… 🙂 it reminded me of one of my favorite books/authors – pligrim at tinker creek by annie dillard. i used to worry about the kids not getting a sense of nature, here in the big, concrete city… luckily for me, they’re very observant and curious… it’s usually the two of them who spy possums, raccoons, hummingbirds or owls where my eyes miss them… they have no problems picking up cicadas, centipedes and ladybugs and studying them at length… it’s me who’s often frustrated with all that wonder and often thinks of the germs that will accompany them home… and then, i take a deep breath and just let it all go… 🙂

    • Mamazilla–thank you! I think you’re absolutely right about kids & curiousity. It doesn’t matter so much where they observe as that they do….

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