“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement”
Blog post written by: Kevin Long, Education Partnerships Executive and Author of An Outdoor Educator’s Guide to Awe.
The presence of nature can mystify and fill children’s hearts more that we can imagine. Whether thanks to an experience, such as watching the starry night sky or an encounter with a cheeky robin, let’s notice that glimmer of transformation in the eyes of our children– let’s make space for awe. Our children accustomed more to city lights than nature’s delights expect a forest school to be about doing… but in our enthusiasm for busyness we might tread on something called liminal space…that quiet gap of time where children sense and discover, where they find meanings and connect in wonder to their own little stories. In the beauty of quiet places, the water’s edge, the shady woods, the canopy of clouds and light we may find that the wonder will become part of us. In learning outdoors we find that the otherness of nature to children disappears when they begin to love their places. Children remain present in the now; they open all their senses to what they’re experiencing; and they engage their hearts — not just their minds — as they experience and reflect on the world around them.
I see awe and wonder as central to experience-based education—not just icing on the cake, but something to be baked into the cake. Elements of surprise, contemplation, and joy support children in developing develop their own feelings and emotion towards specific situations. The rising emotion allows for their expression of the depth of emotion – not just a binary of “happy or sad” – it allows for a lasting curiosity.
Much has been made for addressing the quantity of content in education in recent years, The Core Knowledge approach of Professor E.D. Hirsch seeks to address inequalities with an emphasis on the transmission of core facts to be memorised. If we are to accept E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge argument – that “Knowledge does not get in the way of reasoning, it is what we reason with” – then we should similarly argue for Core Experiences. Similarly to Hirsch, we ought not assume all children have such fundamental Core Experiences from which to reason with or grow from. Learning is an emotional and social experience as much as it is a cognitive one. Through play and exploration outside the classroom we may develop a child’s awareness, not only of the world around them, but of themselves from which academic and procedural skills can then be developed and nurtured. If we are expecting children to write emotive, detailed recounts and stories to write diary entries, newspaper reports an essay, then is it not essential that we provide them with the experiences to support their thinking to develop their own feelings and emotion towards specific situations? Is it possible for a child to write an adventure story based on a forest if they have never been to a forest, listened to the sounds, smelled the smells and witnessed the animals and the way they move?
Core experiences in Nature could be as simple as skimming stones, being barefoot on a beach, chasing waves, or feeling the wind’s power, or a view from a summit… consider the heightened state of consciousness and feeling brought about by something beautiful, rare, or unexpected. Core Experiences can come from exploring art galleries – the colours of a Matisse, the beauty of brushstrokes , the scale of sculpture. Seeing the marvellous in museums, standing under the bones of a dinosaur, the Locomotive Engine (at Think Tank in Birmingham), or the surprizing size of an emperor penguin (Liverpool’s World Museum).
There exists a special affinity and wonder for the natural environment. 
The child’s direct ways of knowing and their interaction with the physical living world (e.g. rocks, trees, rain) is a sheer sensory experience.
The child’s primary perception of a world which is fresh, unrepeatable and has a magic to it recedes over time.
As children grow older patterns of understanding develop, knowledge is provided that enables children to focus on some things rather than others. Yet, as our children go through schooling their understanding of the mysterious and uncertain world is refined; gradually teaching time forms to the pressures to streamline towards a specific goals of testing and performance targets. As schooling progresses they become students whose experience and knowledge begins to generate a narrower understanding – manageable heuristics. Eventually the students make such generalisations that their rules of thumb are converted to a fixed algorithmic formula reducing the world from its complexity to one of evident simplicity, right and wrong, black and white. The more we specialise in elements of learning– keeping only those things that are directly and immediately beneficial- the more we diminish their resilience.
Experiential learning is incredibly powerful for building connections and understanding in learning. So much can be gained in such a short space of time. In my writing An Outdoor Educator’s Guide to Awe I put everything we do in perspective of the grander scheme of things in life. It cheers the individual to find a greater meaning to one’s learning and relationships. If we invest time for wonder, protect the offer of Core Experiences against the pressures of austerity and test performance, then we can foster greater learning and support our young people on their journey into a life where they have high levels of well being, aspiration and motivation to succeed.
 Ruth Wilson (2010) Aesthetics and a Sense of Wonder, Exchange Magazine, https://www.ccie.com/library/5019324.pdf
Dr Ruth Wilson is Author of Fostering a Sense of Wonder During the Early Childhood Years and Nature and Young Children. See also-
Ruth Wilson (2008). Nature and young children — encouraging creative play and learning in natural environments. London: Routledge.
 Edith Cobb (1977) . The ecology of imagination in childhood. New York: Columbia University Press pp. 28-29
 Sebba, R. (1991). The landscapes of childhood — The reflection of childhood’s environment in adult memories and in children’s attitudes. Environment and Behavior, 23(4), 395-422. p. 398
About the Author
Kevin Long is an Education Partnerships Executive. He works with schools and educators across England in support of impactful outdoor adventurous learning interventions.
In 2018 Kevin completed ‘Awe in Action’ for school leaders in which he champions the use of emotions in character education and an ethic of service in school culture.
In 2015 he published ‘An Outdoor Educator’s Guide to Awe’ which helps outdoor instructors understand how moments of awe can be facilitated and connected back in the lives of students.
He is a school governor, former teacher, holds an MSc from London University and is a Fellow of the RSA. He is a former Senior Instructor at The Outward Bound Trust’s Ullswater Centre. He has climbed mountains on six continents and likes getting lost in nature, art and philosophy, sometimes all at the same time!
“Long’s spine tingling book on awe and education outdoors will inspire you and those you teach with its prose, exercises, stories and images. It is a bold, uplifting 21st century statement about the power of awe outdoors in activating our imaginations and sense of purpose.”
Dacher Keltner PhD, Professor of Psychology, UC Berkeley, Faculty Director, Greater Good Science Centre.
“… offers readers both information and inspiration in its discussion of awe – the very heart of environmental education.”
Ruth A. Wilson PhD, Emeritus Professor, Editor for the North American Association for Environmental Education