A child's sense of wonder is an ineffable and precious commodity — celebrated in poetry and pedagogy alike. What is it exactly? One online dictionary defines 'wonder' as "a feeling of amazement and admiration, caused by something beautiful, remarkable, or unfamiliar". For preschool age children, with relatively little that is understood or familiar, that leaves a lot of scope for wonderment.
The rapt fascination of a toddler gazing at a snail's delicate antennae unfurling, or tendrils of food colour swirling like smoke in bathwater, the awe on Christmas morning when they see Santa Claus has come — wonder is a quality linked to innocence, intertwined with openness, that many of us would like to insulate forever against the hard edges of adult life.
But what if this sense of wonder could be harnessed to help children acquire the skills of literacy and numeracy? Wonder sparks curiosity, and associates discovery with pleasure. In fact, it not only contributes to children's literacy and numeracy skills, it is essential to learning and academic development.
Unfortunately, despite steady criticism by experts, the testing regimes and rigid standards that increasingly dominate primary schools have worked their way down into kindergarten in a phenomenon referred to as 'academic creep' – and have started to invade early childhood settings as well.
Politicians and anxious parents push for earlier measurable 'achievements', at the expense of optimal early childhood development — and of the ineffable quality of wonder, which requires freedom and uncluttered time.
But more and more early childhood educators are pushing back against the hothousing trend – championing the model of gently directed, child-lead, play based learning which has proven to have lasting benefits for all children.
One step at a time
Research has shown that some children aren't developmentally ready to learn to read in kindergarten, let alone early childhood. Efforts to force the issue through traditional methods can be fruitless – or worse, damaging to their self-esteem and engagement with education.
This backs up the fundaments of human development laid out by Dr Arnold Gessell way back in 1925, in his Maturational Theory of Child Development — which is still used as a basis for developmental norms today. Dr Gessell likened the development of literacy to a baby learning to walk, with each advance dependent on the successful mastery and incorporation of the one before.
How to shift the focus back to wonder
Play is of the essence, and particularly free play, which allows children to explore, experiment, collaborate, invent and use their imaginations to solve problems. The first steps to re-orienting your education practice back to exploration and wonder is simply making time, and making sure educators understand how to work with the program.
Curiouser and curiouser…
Children's questions are both a symptom and a driver of wonder — questions arise from what children experience while playing freely, as well as providing insights into the minds of individual children that educators can use as starting points for activities.
Here are some suggestions for how to maximise wonderment for the children in your service:
- Embrace nature
Children are hardwired and well positioned to observe tiny, natural wonders. Even the smallest outdoor area can provide opportunities, whether by planting your own seeds and watching them grow and flower or searching for insects and lizards. A ladybird traversing the leaf of a weed that's managed to force itself through a crack in the pavement contains several miracles already.
- Take journeys
Take time for regular nature walks, even as a daily part of the routine. This can be in your own playground — especially if it's blessed with trees, ponds and 'messy' landscaping – or in mini excursions to local parks. What can you find? How does that creature fit into its world? What new flowers are emerging at this time of year?
Contact with nature is a strong human need, look at the research backing up the benefits of the forest preschools proliferating in many countries around the world. Taking pleasure in natural beauty reinforces a child's instinct for wonder in their environment, and drives curiosity.
- Open yourself to wonder
Take time to experience your surroundings as the child might be doing, to remember what fascinated and thrilled you as a small child. Empathy gives educators more insight into how they might best guide or suggest experiences — and well know being in the moment is good for you.
- Stories from all angles
Reading books to children is wonderful and can definitely spark moments of revelation— but what about listening to the children's stories, or creating a collaborative story circle? Educators can share their own personal stories of marvellous things they remember from childhood, or tales told to them by their families.
Not only does communal storytelling resonate deeply with the human soul, taking us back to the campfires of nomadic life, reaching back to your own childhood will help bring you into a mindset to see the world as the children see it.
Maybe children will be inspired to make pictures after storytelling sessions, or to invent fantastical sequels. They'll have the pleasure of sharing their ideas and feelings with their peers, while hearing others' share their own will help them on their pathway to healthy empathy in later life.
- Slow down
You can't rush epiphanies, you can't schedule insight, and wonderment is a fragile thing. Scheduling that is too rigid or too tightly itemised, will not allow children’s' imaginations room to send out shoots.
Sometimes, the thought of loosening timetables can be scary — the fear of losing control, of not getting everything done, can understandably be stressful for those who are responsible for all the practical elements of an early childhood education service, as well as the philosophical ones. Something that can help is perspective – all the research says young children need play to learn and develop, and ‘productive’ play needs time.
- Sensory science
Slimes, squishes, fizzes, colour play – there are many resources available to teach you how to set up simple experiments, that pack a maximum punch of excitement. The old staples of baking soda and vinegar are cheap, safe and endlessly entertaining, whether you feel it's necessary to sprinkle in a bit of explanation or not.
Add some powder pigment, or dish soap, or build the time-honoured volcano for it all to erupt out of – it may be old news to you, but it will be joyously new to them. What happens when you freeze the reactive elements — or add sparkles?
And it's not just the fun of mess and creation that can create wonder with these types of activities – the textures, the colours, the magic of sudden reaction, teach children to observe closely. New sensations create neural pathways and enrich memories. It's a new way for the world to behave they don't see everyday.
- Think simple
A pile of dirt or mulch from a half-finished landscaping project can host hours of imaginative play, as can a new set of accessories in the dress-up corner, or an invitation to paint on something one doesn't usually paint on — small novelties can have big impacts.
Promoting awe in children
With their reassuring routines and qualified educators, early childhood education services have the potential to create an ideal safe space for children to find wonder.
Although routines, essential for any early childhood provider, can be stifling, within a mindful, play-based teaching strategy, routine also provides the secure 'scaffolding' for new and stimulating experiences.
You may need to implement some changes to your daily schedules to prioritise time for exploration, but the mindset of engaged teachers and supportive leaders is the most important factor.
Too much of a good thing
Of course, it would be impossible to keep children in a state of perpetual surprise and delight – and probably unhelpful as well. Young children need boundaries, rest and regularity as much as they need free play.
The trick is to incorporate opportunities for wonder into sensible, comfortable routines – and make sure educators have the time and training to draw upon them.