Core Principles Series: Cultivate a Sense of Wonder

Since starting this blog six years and six months ago, we’ve devoted several posts to the ways in which garden-based learning promotes children’s natural curiosity. For example, in From the Everyday to the Scientific: How Plants Inspire Kids to Figure Things Out, I detail a conversation I had with a friend’s son about seeds. It should come as no surprise then, that I saved the best and final Core Principle of Teaching in Nature’s Classroom ––”Cultivate a Sense of Wonder”––for last.

Why Cultivate a Sense of Wonder?

Animals are innately curious, but humans are unique in the ability to verbalize curiosity. We also have the benefit of cognition, the ability to think about curiosity. In my view, this is what science is at its core. When students learn in a garden setting and are given time to ‘figure things out’ they are capitalizing on science as “natural philosophy” (Buxton & Provezo, 2011). Observations prompt questions, which are the expression of curiosity. In turn, these questions propel further observation.

In Learning Gardens and Sustainability Education (2012) (Top Five Reads for Growing a Learning Garden), Williams and Brown assert that loss of curiosity and wonder is one of the most perilous “guiding metaphors” of modern education. Nathan Larson reminds us that gardens create space for wonder, which is related to our emotional connection to nature and the outdoors. He states, “Because it is a living and deeply beautiful natural environment, a garden is a rich place for young people to develop relationships with plants and animals” (p. 23). For me, this is the unifying idea that connects the other fourteen Core Principles of Teaching in Nature’s Classroom.

Photo by Tetyana Kovyrina on

Wonder awakens the senses. Many experts recognize the need to make sensory experience more prevalent in schools. As Adrienne Boudreaux describes in her post Engage the Senses, sensory exploration slows us down and provides much-needed opportunity to connect socially and emotionally. In my dissertation research, I found that cooking was particularly well-suited for multimodal, multi-sensory, and multicultural pedagogy, not unlike what Nancy Lim shares in her post Cultivate a Connection to Food.

Wonder erases discomfort with the unknown. If we want students to appreciate and respect (bio)diversity, we need to confront the fear associated with difference. As Christie Wolf and Sarah Brown write in Build a Diverse Community, “The garden reflects the diversity of the individual students planning, planting and tending the garden.” Williams and Brown (2012) use living soil as an extended metaphor for this concept, asserting, “Diversity strengthens ecosystems and social systems through building complex networks of interdependence” (p. 48). Welcoming diversity requires us to Make Connections to Home and Community.

Wonder fills us with awe. When was the last time you watched a really spectacular sunset or crouched down to witness a fungus growing from the base of a tree? For those of us fortunate enough to find time and space to enjoy nature in this way, we often stumble upon things that boggle our minds–and spur our curiosity. The beauty of the natural world is good for us, as I describe in the post Immerse Yourself in Nature.

Finally, wonder inspires the imagination. If science is the process of bringing the unknown into knowing, then that knowing can be used to imagine the yet unknown. This is how school gardens are perpetually useful: they are human-designed, but subject to the seasons and cyclic processes of the natural world.

Curiosity fuels learning, which can be a useful survival strategy. For example, in Being a Curious Birder, I share how learning more about birds was useful to me at the start of the pandemic. Curiosity awakens the senses, erases discomfort, fills us with awe, and inspires the imagination. Curiosity is not only an innate quality we share, but also the foundation of science.

Not only is this topic the last in the series, but it will be the last post for a while. I’m taking a sabbatical of my own making. We hope to resume in September. Thank you so much for your continued readership.

Stay curious!

I’d also like to thank the guest authors who kept us active over the last several months: Nancy Lim (The School Garden Doctor Board), Minna Nummelin (NVLA), Christie Wolf & Sarah Brown (New Tech), Adrienne Boudreaux (Alta Heights), and Chris Hattich (Bel Aire, Stone Bridge & Vichy). If you haven’t had a chance, check out the posts below.

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