Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder portrays her experiences exploring the coast of Maine with her nephew. She notes, “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. With photos and text, the book examines that ways that spending time in nature can nurture children’s sense of wonder. Carson claims that, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder . . . 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.”
Plato refers to wonder as the origin of philosophy (Theaetetus 155d3). It involves a sense of the mysteries that pervade the human condition and a desire to question and reflect about the deeper meaning of ordinary concepts and experiences. All of us grow up with an awareness of the mysteriousness of our mortal lives and the questions raised by our existence: the meaning of being alive, the complexity of identity, the nature of friendship and love, how to live good lives, and whether we can know anything at all.
This kind of philosophical wondering begins in childhood. Aristotle, in the Metaphysics, maintained that “all human beings by nature reach out for understanding.” If we look back, many adults can remember that it was in childhood that we began (and, for too many of us, soon stopped) wondering about philosophical questions. During those early years, children are wide open to the philosophical mysteries that pervade human life, often lying awake at night thinking about such issues as whether God exists, why the world has the colors it does, the nature of time, whether dreams are real, why we die, and what the meaning of life consists in.
Almost as soon as they can formulate them, most children start asking what we call “big questions.” Brimming with curiosity about aspects of the world that most adults take for granted, children demonstrate a natural capacity to explore the most basic elements of life and society.
We can help children (and ourselves!) keep alive this sense of wonder by being willing to consider with them the seemingly endless questions raised by our experiences and the world. Instead of always trying to answer their questions, we can listen for questions that invite deeper inquiry and engage with children in mutual exploration.