By Deborah Farmer Kris, author of the All the Time series
On the last day of school this year, my son’s second-grade teacher gave a homemade certificate to every child, highlighting one of their strengths.
“Most Inquisitive!” I said, looking at the paper he proudly handed me. “Why do you think your teacher chose that word for you?”
“Well, I do love asking questions,” he responded.
I love that my son asks questions. I love that his teacher honors his questions. And I love how my children’s wonder for this world fuels my own. In fact, the questions that fill my new picture book, You Wonder All the Time, all came from my own kids—from my daughter wondering why flips were called “somersalts” (e.g. summer salts) instead of “winter peppers” to my son wondering “Where does color go at night?”
Wonder is a beautiful word. It corresponds with the emotion of awe. As I wrote in an article for The Washington Post:
“Awe is what we feel when we encounter something vast, wondrous, or beyond our ordinary frame of reference. It evokes a sense of mystery and wonder. And, given its documented benefits, awe might be our most overlooked, undervalued emotion.”
Awe strengthens curiosity, collaboration, and humility. Experiencing awe of nature, in particular, has been linked to improved mental well-being, including a decrease in PTSD and stress levels.
So how can we help our children experience a little more wonder this summer?
1. Embrace Downtime
I love the PDF acronym from Stanford University’s Challenge Success. Their research reveals that emotionally healthy kids need:
Wonder is often playful. It can strengthen family relationships as you get curious together. But wonder also requires downtime.
When my kids claim they are bored, I usually respond, “Brilliance is born of boredom.” It’s a gentle tease with a deeper meaning. As they wrestle through the lack of structured activities in downtime and the uncomfortable feelings of not knowing what to do in the moment, they (usually) eventually find their way. They become curious and creative out of necessity, pulling out a craft or making up a game, inventing a gizmo for the dog or concocting a “potion” out of ingredients from the spice cabinet.
One Saturday morning, my “bored” kid noticed a woodpecker carving a nest in a dead tree near our house. Three months later, he still checks that nest every day. Now it’s occupied by two noisy chicks. The wonder of this discovery has sparked an interest in other birds in the neighborhood. With a little help from a birding app and bird books from the library, he’s becoming an expert on the creatures who occupy our backyard.
Psychologist Dacher Keltner, the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley, told me, “How do you find awe? You allow unstructured time. How do you find awe? You wander. You drift through. You take a walk with no aim. How do you find awe? You slow things down.”
2. Let Kids Explore
Here’s another reason I don’t always rescue kids from boredom: sometimes the key to wonder is adults getting out of the way so kids can explore.
Did you know that giving kids explicit instructions about how to play makes them less likely to have their own discoveries? For example, when you show children exactly how to use a toy, they are more likely to play with it in one way: the way they were taught. When you let them figure it out on their own—particularly with open-ended toys such as building materials—they get curious and are more likely to find new, creative ways to play.
Some of the most wonder-full toys come from the recycle bin, such as paper towel tubes and cardboard boxes. Or as my daughter’s kindergarten teacher called these items, “beautiful junk.”
3. Enjoy Nature Together
Few experiences elicit more wonder than spending time in nature. And you don’t need a trip to the mountains or a visit to the beach to experience it. Go on a family walk and follow your kids’ pace as they stop to dig in the dirt, jump in leaves, or search for treasures. Explore a local farm, park, or Audubon center. Go to an open field to observe the night sky. Turn over stones to see what creatures live beneath. Identify the animals and trees that live in your neighborhood. Notice the changing light and shadows. Learn the stories behind the constellations. Plant something—anything—and watch it grow.
4. Model Wonder
Kids take their cues from us. When we get excited about learning a new skill, experimenting with a new recipe, or investigating the nest we find in a tree, we remind them that wonder is a life-long pursuit.
Take your children to the library this summer and fill a bag with books that spark your interest and theirs. You don’t need to read them all before you return them. Even flipping through books filled with pictures of dinosaurs, ocean life, pyramids, or cute baby animals can expand children’s knowledge and prompt new questions.
And of course, one of the best ways to support kids’ wonder is simply this: listen to their questions. It feels good when people pay attention to us. When we honor kids’ questions, it validates their curiosity and invites them to keep exploring.
Deborah Farmer Kris is a child development expert and parent educator. She serves as a columnist and consultant for PBS KIDS, and she writes for NPR’s MindShift and other national publications. Over the course of her career, Deborah has taught almost every grade K–12, served as a school administrator, directed leadership institutes, and presented to hundreds of parents and educators around the United States. Deborah and her husband live in Massachusetts with their two kids—who love to test every theory she’s ever had about child development. Mostly, she loves sharing nuggets of practical wisdom that can help kids and families thrive. Visit her at Parenthood365.com.
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