Encouraging a sense of wonder

Dear Mr. Dad: I remember my own childhood as a time of wonder, but we always seem to be flying in different directions all the time, and the kids don’t get time to just stare into space and be amazed. How can parents in a typical, busy, overscheduled family encourage a sense of wonder in their kids?

A: There’s a reason that old TV show was called The Wonder Years. All sorts of developmental windows are open wide during childhood—for learning languages, for instilling values, for developing musical and verbal abilities, and more—but they don’t stay open forever.

Childhood is also the time when we form attitudes about the world around us. Whether you see your life as something to be “gotten on with” or as an infinite source of wonder and amazement has a lot to do with how you spent your first years in the world. Developing a sense of wonder requires three things: time, opportunity, and practice. Here are a few ways you can get the process started.

  • Scheduled is fine; overscheduled is not . If you want your kids to experience wonder as a regular part of childhood, they must have unstructured time. Ironically, you might have to schedule it to be sure they get it!
  • Minimize screen time . Time in front of a TV or computer screen is time spent seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Help your kids find hobbies and interests that will engage their own creativity and reflection.
  • Choose wonder-inducing family activities. Not every outing has to be an opportunity to ponder the meaning of life, but work in the occasional trip to the zoo, the aquarium, the science museum, the planetarium, or even a simple walk in the woods. It’s in places like these that kids begin to see the world in a different way.
  • Fewer toys means more imagination. Gadgets and toys (which includes playground equipment) are great—up to a point. The problem is that they’re also very limiting. A toy car is just a toy car. But with a bit of imagination, the box that car came in could be an airplane, a whale, a rocket ship, or anything else.
  • Point out the wonder in the everyday. You don’t have to stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon or go skydiving to experience wonder. Everyday things get more wonderfully strange the more you look and learn. Watch a hummingbird at a feeder. Stay up late for a meteor shower. Get yourself a Venus flytrap.
  • Ask for help. If you need some ideas on how to ferret out the magic that’s just beneath the everyday surface, consider subscribing to magazines like National Geographic Kids, watching (together) programs like Nova and the Discovery Channel, visiting science-related websites, or going to the zoo or the nearest science or natural history museum.
  • Think about theses. Here are a few concepts that always have me marveling.
      – If you take the history of the universe from the Big Bang to today and shrink it down to a single year, humans would appear on December 31st at 10:30 pm. – Every atom in your body has been around since the beginning of time and has passed through several stars, not to mention countless people, plants and animals, before becoming part of you. – Our planet is zipping along at around 900 miles an hour right beneath our feet. – Through the wonder of DNA, you are literally half your mom and half your dad, and a complete blueprint to build you exists in each and every cell of your body. – The faster you go, the slower time moves. – All life on Earth is directly related by descent. You are a cousin (a pretty distant one) of the sequoia and the amoeba, of mosses and blue whales and butterflies.

Once kids get a taste of the wonder that’s all around them, you won’t have to prompt them a bit—they’ll lead the way. But it’s up to you to get the ball rolling by giving them the three things they need—time, opportunity, and practice.