Cultivating Wonder


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…If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.

– Rachel Carson, American biologist

It was the perfect autumn morning for a forest stroll, with crisp leaves underfoot and an electric blue sky above our heads. While the walk itself was pleasurable, my grandchildren, their parents, and their grandfather and I were on a mission: to see the salmon spawning in our local stream.

The water was running high after several days of torrential rain, and the fish proved elusive at first. But one by one we began to spot them. They were an impressive sight, muscling their way against the current. I couldn’t help but feel a touch of awe as I watched them fighting their way upstream, wild creatures playing their part in a cycle that stretches back for millions of years.

If I pass on anything to my grandchildren, I hope it’s this: the ability to feel wonder in the face of life’s beauty. For wonder in turn brings all kinds of good things. It stimulates curiosity and creativity. It inspires gratitude, reverence, and a sense that we are part of something much vaster than ourselves.

And did my grandchildren—ages 3, 4 and 6—feel some measure of wonder as they stood beside me at the water’s edge? I don’t know; I didn’t ask. Wonder isn’t something that can be taught or measured like memorizing the alphabet. In fact to pressure a child to feel wonder would be the surest way to send it fleeing. Wonder is itself like a wild salmon. We know when and where we’re most likely to find it, but there’s no guarantee it will show up. We can only pay attention and be grateful when it does appear.

Children have a natural capacity for wonder. The world is still new after all, and so they see everything with fresh and inquisitive eyes. But given the screens and other distractions that increasingly compete for their attention, we as the adults who love them need to be intentional in the experiences we provide our youngest generation.

Here on Vancouver Island, we are spoiled for natural wonders: the salmon spawning in our rivers, the sea lions barking in our bays, the eagles soaring above our estuaries – even whales swimming off our coast. And if the wildlife doesn’t show up, there’s always the scenery to fall back on, from the hidden treasures of Horne Lake Caves, to the spectacular geological formations of Port Renfrew’s Botanical Beach, to the big waves of Tofino or the ancient trees of Avatar Grove.

While it’s still many months away, glowing phytoplankton on a moonless summer night is one Island wonder I will be actively pursuing. When tiny marine algae called dinoflagellates are present near the surface of the water, any agitation (a kayak paddle, swirling stick or thrown pebble) will make them sparkle and glow. It’s well worth staying up late for this magical experience, and finding a dark bay away from the light pollution of urban development. And if it happens to be mid-August and you’re already up, you might also want to position yourself and your grandchildren to watch the Perseid Meteor Shower.

In my experience, wonder shows up most reliably in moments of attention and stillness. While I challenge anyone not to fill at least a stirring of awe under a clear night sky filled with “falling stars,” or beside a 1,000 year-old Cedar tree with a circumference of 11 metres, size and scale aren’t essential when courting wonder. Small things can be just as effective, especially for young children: hermit crabs or anemones in a tidal pool; dragonflies skimming over the surface of a pond; toes dipped in a shallow stream; the first salmon, or thimble, or huckleberry of the season; the first snowflake caught on the tongue.

As much as I’m personally drawn to the natural world, it’s far from the only source of wonder, of course. Any beautiful or moving experience can inspire it, from a striking artwork, to a stirring piece of music, to the tug of a kite-string as a colourful kite dips and soars overhead. What matters most is that we are ready and receptive to experience the gift being offered, that fragile moment when the universe cracks open just wide enough to give us a glimpse of something shining.

Attitude is everything when it comes to cultivating wonder. We can help our grandchildren by modeling our own attentiveness and delight when we see or hear or feel something that moves us deeply. Our own awe serves as a signal that there’s something worth paying attention to. It gives our grandkids permission to feel and express deep emotion as well, as they discover and explore the world.

What moves our grandchildren may turn out to be very different from what moves us. And that’s a wonder in itself—how unique each one of us is. I for one can’t wait to learn each of my grandchildren’s “wonder” languages.

Rachel Dunstan Muller
Rachel Dunstan Muller
Rachel Dunstan Muller is the mother of five, and a children’s author. Her previous articles can be found at