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The Role of Wonder in Early Childhood: Finding Children’s Natural Desires for Learning

By Muriel Vermelho, teacher in ECC 1 level at the International School of Curitiba

When children are born, a sense of wonder is born with them. Plato and Aristotle said that wonder is the beginning of philosophy. 

Children have an enormous capacity to think of impossible things, this is simply their way of admiring a reality that is, but could just as easily not have been. They are astonished by any reality, including the natural laws of our world, just by the simple fact that it exists.

How can we recognize this wonder, that so naturally should occur, in our students? How does it manifest in our daily routine?

Kids have an amazing ability to see things with new eyes, even when it is the tenth time they are looking at it. This movement allows them to marvel at the very existence of such objects. Their questions about our world should never be seen as a demand for explanation, but rather as the beginning of their philosophical thinking. For that reason, it is absolutely normal for children to ask impossible questions, and it is our role to let them think, analyze, research and discover on their own. Presenting an answer to every question is not allowing a child’s wonder to blossom.

The smallest, most ordinary things trigger wonder and motivate children to satisfy their curiosities. All we have to do is prepare an environment that is conducive to discovery. It does not mean that learning requires an enriched environment. Actually, we must be attentive not to overstimulate children with external stimuli in such a way that these supplant their natural sense of wonder; in fact, this could even lead to inattention, impulsivity, and even loss of interest in learning. 

Many scientific studies and intervention programs were initiated on the basis of necessary interventions for at-risk children and were later used as regular educational programs for mainstream children. It was (and still is by some educators) believed that success in learning was recognized by reaching numerous educational milestones and “The sooner these can be achieved the better”. So why do we keep finding ourselves struggling to deal with young children and teenagers that lack interest in learning?

To date, it has not been scientifically proven that these early learning programs lead to positive results. The same occurs for educational technology media: CDs, DVDs or apps that promise to develop childrens’ abilities to acquire new language skills or teach them valuable lessons of their daily lives. Some studies even go the opposite direction and point to a relationship between the consumption of DVD media and a decrease in the vocabulary and cognitive development of young kids. 

These so called educational shows present children with a bombardment of colors, movements and sounds, an average of 7.5 abrupt changes of scenes per minute, which is ordinarily impossible to be experienced in their day-to-day lives. It should not surprise us that children get bored, impatient and nervous when they return to the real world around them.

“Bright and flashy screens displaying loud and fast-paced content disturb the only true and sustainable learning that exists in a child: that of discovering and rediscovering the world for oneself and at one’s own pace, with a  sense of wonder that goes beyond mere curiosity for the unknown.” L’Eculyer, Catherine. The wonder approach: rescuing children’s innate desire to learn. First Edition. Kindle Edition, 2018.

Most of our children and teenagers are fascinated by the new technology offered to them, but this is not the same as wonder. The first one is passive and depends on the external stimuli. The second is active and remains open in the face of reality. In order to have calm, curious children in our schools, we must return to the slow-paced rhythm that harmonizes with a child’s inner workings. 

Wonder is, therefore, the instrument of curiosity, discovery, inventorship, capacity of questioning without being bothered by uncertainty, and the ability to formulate hypothesis and verify the validity by means of observation. Kids who wonder are able to spot and discover plants, flowers, snails and butterflies. They will play with their shadows; they will dig up treasures from the beach or their backyards and imagine cabins that can be built from the trees in the forests.  

This apparatus of wonder cannot be guaranteed in an ambiance of chaos. The necessary freedom to discover cannot be mistaken by permissiveness. To ensure a space is conducive to wonder, we must respect childrens’ sensitivities, rhythms, spontaneous movements, innate curiosity, and the natural phases of childhood. 

The early years teacher who recognizes oneself as a facilitator of the learning process carefully designs a space that allows young children to move, discover and wonder, carrying one’s work with discretion and humility. In more advanced years, after the age of six or seven, discipline and structure become naturally and logically more and more a part of the educational instruction. For a child who’s natural desire for learning has been successfully sustained throughout the first years, directed instruction will not restrict, but rather improve the conditions for wonder to operate.

Creating an environment with an appropriate range of materials is of utmost important to foster a sense of wonder. For that, the choice of materials and organization of time is essential. Being careful not to offer excessive options of items and thoroughly deciding which ones should be at a child’s disposal gives them autonomy of choice and freedom to work with them.

The structure of time is also important. Daily routines, when performed with meaning and with someone who not only directs the children but also loves them, become rituals. Rituals are nothing but routine with love. Daily ordinary tasks should not be underrated since they give children a sense of belonging and anticipation of their own activities. When it comes to the remaining use of time, which is not devoted to rituals, studies point out that less structure supports a child’s development of executive functions that are key to learning, such as problem solving, creativity, sustained attention and better control of impulsiveness. 

There are even some fundamentals that work invisibly on the backstage of wonder, such as silence, mystery, sensitivity, beauty and culture. It is in the silence that the mind will find no other occupation but wonder. If a child is engaged in a previous activity, the excess of noise coming from a turned on tv, or noisy radio songs, will only pollute their senses, overloading one’s brain, impeding it to find the questions or answers it searches for.

Children are able to accept mystery as part of their realities, which is why we must not hurry and shorten their childhood with unrestricted explanation of rational subjects. Kids are able to find joy in things they do not understand completely. Every adult explanation must be carefully thought out and given accordingly to each child’s level of understanding. There is no need to push a child out of their natural development.

The human brain evolved to learn through experiences. The five senses are at the disposal of the child, who curiously uses them without hesitation. Deprive children of such experiences and, instead, offer overstimulating content (those alleged children’s cartoons, DVDs, apps, etc.) could be harmful for their development. Sensory experiences not only collaborate for children to know the world around them, but also know themselves within it.

There is nothing without beauty. But if all things hold beauty within, is it fair to say that everything holds the same amount of beauty? If it was possible to measure the amount of beauty in each object, would it be correct to choose the least beautiful ones offer to our children, especially when knowing that beauty naturally increases interest of children towards such objects? It means that choosing what to expose our children to is a necessary exercise for adults. Being thoughtful when choosing which songs, images, and which toys to provide them is crucial when deciding what sort of adults we want them to be in the future. 

Of course, culture has an important weight in our definitions of beauty. One has to be consciously choosing to look for true beauty, true art, and to refine one’s senses in order to be able to create children with refined senses. It is the adult that should play the role of the filter of everything that is harmful or damaging for young children’s development.

Every child is born a learner, a discoverer, a questioner. It is our job as teachers in providing the opportune space for discovery to occur. One must dedicate yourself with care to rituals. Offer materials that enable the use of the five senses every day. Filter out what is not appropriate for the little ones. The school must be a safe place where the child can find personal and material support so that wonder blossoms without restraints, since it is through wonder that real learning happens.

Muriel Vermelho- Passionate about Early Childhood, Muriel believes in the innate desire to learn and discover that every child carries within. She graduated from Federal University of Paraná (UFPR) in Pedagogy, and also holds a degree in Neuro Pedagogy from Positivo University  (UP). Currently works as a teacher in ECC 1 level at the International School of Curitiba (ISC).

Muriel is a keen learner of human development, from early to elder years and has been recently inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach and believes that wonder is the natural treasure of humankind.


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