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The Wonders of Nature: Honoring Children's Ways of Knowing
By Ruth A. Wilson, Ph.D.

"There was a time when the world was a song and the song was exciting."


These words, from the musical Les Miserables, haunt me. I find that they bring back rich memories from childhood, when the world to me was a marvelous place for adventure and exploration, for discovering beauty and mystery, and for stirring the imagination. Almost all of my favorite memories from childhood relate to experiences with the natural world-watching and catching minnows and tadpoles, making corn husk dolls with shiny corn silk hair, picking cherries and plums from the trees in our yard, watching daffodils unfold in early spring, and rejoicing in the sweet scent of the lilacs that grew near our house. Such experiences filled my world with song, and I remember being swept away in a joyful childhood dance.


Today, I miss the music, the dance, and the enchantment of childhood. "Earth song" has been replaced by the noise of traffic, and daily life feels more like a race than a dance. The enchantment of knowing the world as a song is a treasured memory – a memory that still adds joy to my life. This memory, however, also brings a touch of sadness, because I feel that over the years to adulthood, I've truly lost something special along the way. This "something special" is a way of knowing the natural world as a place of beauty and mystery. While I still maintain the belief that the world is full of mystery and wonder, my way of knowing it as such is not as direct and experiential.


The Child's Ways of Knowing

Researchers who have studied how children know and perceive the world suggest that my experience is shared by children across different cultures. Rachel Sebba (1991), a researcher from Israel, investigated children's relation to the environment from actual and retrospective points of view. In conducting her research, Sebba looked at the environmental preferences and the nature of the experiences of being outdoors as reflected in adults' recollections and in children's actual approaches to investigating the world. Her findings suggest that children experience the natural environment "in a deep and direct manner, not as a background for events, but, rather, as a factor and stimulator" (p. 395).


Sebba's findings are consistent with the work of Edith Cobb (1977), who concluded from her research that "experience in childhood is never formal or abstract. "Even the world of nature," she says, "is not a 'scene,' or even a landscape. Nature for the child is sheer sensory experience" (pp. 28-29).


Sebba’s findings are also consistent with other researchers. Joseph Clinton Pearce (1977), for example, in discussing the primary perceptions of a child, used the term magical thinking to describe the child's way of knowing the world. These primary perceptions, Pearce notes, "are developmental in that they tend to disappear" (p. 131). Pearce describes these primary perceptions as "bondings to the earth" (p. 136) and suggests that interaction with the physical substance of the living earth (e.g., rocks, trees, wind) is critical to the child's developing brain and intelligence.


It is clear that children have a special affinity for the natural environment-an affinity that is connected to the child's development and his or her ways of knowing. Sebba (1991) refers to this way of knowing as a "unique and unrepeatable ability . . . to grasp surroundings"-an ability, she says, that for most people "recedes over time" (p. 398). Sebba (1991) describes the interaction between the child and the natural environment as "an authentic childhood experience that carries with it the original stamp of childhood and that will disappear with its passing" (p. 410).


These findings and conclusions are in line with our current understanding of how young children learn. According to Piaget and other developmental theorists, learning early in life is dependent on concrete perceptual information. For the young child, learning is experienced as sensory absorption or sensorimotor stimulation. During the early stages of cognitive development, perception conducts thought. This is in contrast to the adult's ways of knowing and experiencing the world, where perception obeys thought (Sebba, 1991). Shifting from the child's to the adult's way of knowing the world involves a deflection from sensory absorption to cognitive reasoning. According to Sebba (1991), "this deflection is accompanied by a weakening of the direct link with the physical environment, by a lessening of the importance placed on information from the senses, and by an essential change in the child's conception of the world" (p. 413).


Imagination and Knowledge

Early experiences with the natural world have been positively linked with the development of imagination. The work of Edith Cobb (1977) is perhaps the most noteworthy in this regard. Her work, based in large part on a search for the creative principle in the human personality, involved a careful analysis of a wide variety of autobiographical recollections of highly creative adults. Many of these recollections reflected an "early awareness of some primary relatedness to earth and universe" (Cobb, 1977, p. 17-18). Based on these and similar findings over her 20 years of research, Cobb concluded that childhood represents a special phase in life "during which the most actively creative learning takes place" (Cobb, 1977, p. 17).


Early experiences with the natural world have also been positively linked with the sense of wonder. Wonder, as described by Cobb (1977), is not an abstract term or a lofty ideal. It is, instead, a phenomenon concretely rooted in the child's developing perceptual capabilities and his or her ways of knowing. This way of knowing, if recognized and honored, can serve as a life-long source of joy and enrichment, as well as an impetus, or motivation, for further learning (Carson, 1956).

Separation from Nature

Sadly, the ability to experience the world as a "song," or as a source of wonder, tends to diminish over time. This seems to be especially true in Western cultures, where for the sake of objective understandings, children are encouraged to focus their learning on cognitive models rather than on first-hand investigations of the natural environment. Cognitive models encourage children to make a transition from reliance on sensory criteria as a way of knowing the world to cognitive criteria, and in the process, construct a more objective or scientific understanding of the natural environment.


Such a transition carries with it a heavy price, including both a physical and psychological separation from the environment. "As a result, the child goes from an adaptive and sympathetic attitude to a critical and analytical one. . . . The child no longer creates a concept of the world from experience but rather receives it from others. The child's individual, multidimensional world becomes a scientific one-identical to that of his/her friends" (Sebba, 1991, pp. 414-415).


The physical and psychological separation from the environment that accompanies the transition from the child's ways of knowing the world deserves careful reflection and discussion by early childhood educators and child development specialists. The lens of cognition through which most adults view the world has serious limitations. Through this lens, we see no more than "a defective second edition" (Bialik, 1938) far removed from the child's way of seeing the world. As we move from childhood into adulthood, our receptivity diminishes. A child's way of knowing allows him or her to "linger in self-forgetfulness. . . she is all eyes and ears. Nor is she projecting anything, nor generalizing or classifying" (Hinchman, 1991, p. 10), as adults are inclined to do.


The richness of young children's way of perceiving the world is based, in part, on their gift of primal seeing. Rather than being incorrect or inferior, primal seeing allows children to experience the "embodiment of things, their very quintessence" (Bialik, 1938/1939, p. 43). Because, for most people, primal seeing is experienced only during childhood, it would be good and right and beautiful for parents and early childhood educators to honor and celebrate this way of knowing and experiencing the natural world.


Failing to recognize and support children's ways of knowing can have serious implications on how they will relate to the natural world over the span of their lifetime. "The way we think, the mental maps that we construct to make meaning of the world. affect the way we feel about it, and the way we behave toward it" (Shaw-Jones, 1992, p. 16). By validating and reinforcing the child's ways of knowing, we will be fostering a life-long love of the natural world. By failing to do so, we could be contributing to the increasingly more complex environmental crisis, which is considered to be due, in large part, to a growing psychological detachment from and prejudice against nature (Cohen, 1984; Devall, 1984/85; Raglon, 1993). By forcing the child to work prematurely with abstract thought, we "break up the vital unity of self and world" (Pearce, 1977, p. 188).

Biophilia and Biophobia
Ecologists, environmental psychologists, and others suggest that we all have a natural attraction, or affinity, for life (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Orr, 1994). This affinity for life has been referred to by E.O. Wilson (1984, 1992) as biophilia (i.e., a love of nature). If this natural attraction is not encouraged or given opportunities to flourish during the early years of life, the opposite, biophobia(i.e., an aversion to nature), may occur (Orr, 1994). "Biophobia ranges from discomfort in 'natural' places to active scorn for whatever is not manmade, managed, or air-conditioned" (Orr, 1994, p. 131).


Biophobia is also manifested in the tendency to "regard nature 'objectively' as nothing more than 'resources' to be used" (Orr, 1994, p. 131). Disregarding young children's ways of knowing and pushing them to early abstractions about the natural world (i.e., cognitive models) may lead to biophobia at the expense of biophilia. Biophobia tends to create havoc with both the natural environment and the spirit and soul of humankind. Physical manifestations of biophobia include strip mines, clear-cuts, blighted cities, polluted rivers, and toxic air (Orr, 1994). Psychological and spiritual results of biophobia include a shrinking of "the range of experiences and joys in life in the same way that the ability to achieve close and loving relationships limits a human life" (Orr, 1994, p. 135).


Experiences during the early childhood years give form to the values, attitudes, and basic orientation toward the world that individuals carry with them throughout their life (Wilson, 1994a). Thus, it is not surprising that early positive experiences with the natural environment have been identified repeatedly as one of the "significant life experiences" associated with responsible environmental behavior (Chawla & Hart, 1988; Peterson, 1982; Tanner, 1980) and the development of biophilia (Orr, 1994). "If by some fairly young age . . . nature has not been experienced as a friendly place of adventure and excitement, biophilia will not take hold as it might have" (Orr, 1994, p. 143).


One manifestation of biophilia is bonding with the earth. Because we tend to bond with what we know well, it is critical that young children be given many opportunities to learn about and become familiar with the natural world. It is also critical that their ways of knowing the world are recognized and validated. Children's ways of knowing reflect a "plasticity of perception and thought [and] are the gift of childhood to human personality" (Cobb, 1977, p. 35). Unfortunately, this truth is "sorely abused, in our attitudes . . . toward the child in society" (Cobb, 1977, p. 35) and can lead to early psychic injury and a great loneliness of spirit (Slade, 1991; Wilson, 1996).

Fostering a Love of Nature
Recognizing and honoring young children's ways of knowing can make an important contribution to the enhancement of the human experience and a healthier relationship with the natural environment. To honor young children's ways of knowing, early childhood professionals should:


  • provide frequent access to natural places,
  • foster "natural play" activities, and
  • encourage aesthetic representations of children's ways of knowing.

Provide Frequent Access to Natural Places
Natural places might be defined as outdoor areas featuring primarily materials that are produced by nature versus being manufactured by humans. Natural places feature native plants and often provide habitat for a variety of native animals. Nabhan and Trimble (1994), in The Geography of Childhood, present a compelling discussion as to why children need access to natural places and what we might do to assure children frequent opportunities for interacting with the world of nature. They suggest that a logical place to start is rethinking the concept of playgrounds. As Nabhan (1994) says: "To counter the historic trend toward the loss of wildness where children play, it is clear that we need to find ways to let children roam beyond the pavement, to gain access to vegetation and earth that allows them to tunnel, climb, or even fall. And because formal playgrounds are the only outdoors that many children experience anymore, should we be paying more attention to planting, and less to building on them?" (p. 9).


Natural places match children's ways of knowing in that they offer varied opportunities for adventure, construction, and re-invention. The "rough ground" aspects of natural places offer the "qualities of openness, diversity, manipulation, explorability, anonymity, and wildness . . .. The indeterminacy of rough ground allows it to become a play-partner, like other forms of creative partnership: actress-audience, potter-clay, photographer-subject, painter-canvas. The exploring/creating child is not making 'art' so much as using the landscape as a medium for understanding the world" (Moore, quoted in Trimble, 1994, p. 27).


While most playgrounds for young children in the United States still focus predominantly on equipment versus "a sense of place," ideas on how to transform a traditional playground into an environmental yard have been presented in the literature (Wilson, 1994b; Wilson, Kilmer, & Knauerhase, 1996). Such ideas include:


  • developing a variety of gardens (e.g., herb gardens, flower gardens, rock gardens, alphabet gardens);

  • providing places and materials that invite wildlife (e.g., rock piles, bird baths, bird feeders);

  • providing materials that draw attention to environmental features (e.g., wind sock, thermometers, rain gauge, sun dial); and

  • providing materials that encourage direct interaction with the natural environment (e.g., child-size shovels and rakes; water source accessible to the children; natural materials that the children can manipulate such as rocks, shells, pine cones, and other plant materials).

Foster "Natural Play" Activities
While the value of play to child development has long been recognized (Johnson, Christie, & Yawkey, 1987), the activity we call play has changed considerably over the years. Fifty years ago, play was much more "natural" than it is today. Children at play tended to be engaged with natural materials-stones, sticks, sand, dirt, shells, clay-and the play itself was much more open-ended and child-directed. Children used the natural materials to construct their own toys and games. Sticks and pieces of bark became boats to float down the stream; leaves stirred in a bucket of water became the "soup of the day"; and burrs from burr-reed plants were shaped into stick people or animal figures.


Cross-culturally, young children-if given the opportunity-tend to create nestlike structures during their play activity (Kirkby, 1989, Sobel, 1994). This phenomenon tends to occur without any prompting from adults. An important condition for this type of play to occur, however, is that children be provided with the necessary materials, space, and time. Unfortunately, play for many young children today revolves around commercially made toys and/or computer programs, and is often relegated to indoor activities. Play is thus no longer natural, in the sense of connecting children with the natural environment.


Because natural play is much more consistent with the child's ways of knowing and is more likely to foster the imagination of the child, it should be encouraged by both parents and teachers. Natural play can be encouraged, not only by providing a variety of natural materials for children to explore and manipulate, but also by suggesting that children take on the role of other creatures. With a little encouragement and a few simple props, young children delight in pretending to be something else. While many young children take on the roles of people they know or are familiar with (e.g., parent, teacher, fire fighter, police officer), they also enjoy "becoming" animals they know or have heard about (e.g., bears, rabbits, birds). While such dramatic play should usually be left child-initiated and open-ended, adults can add richness and excitement by providing appropriate costumes and related props (e.g., "dens" and/or nesting materials for the animals' homes). At times, adults may also suggest that children act out the experience of such natural phenomena as metamorphosis, migration, or hibernation. Such natural play experiences can help children gain a deep appreciation for the wonders of the world around them.

Encourage Aesthetic Representations of Children's Ways of Knowing

Aesthetics has been defined as being sensitive to beauty in nature and art (Wilson, 1995) and as "pertaining to the senses" (Adams, 1991). Children tend to find beauty without direct instruction, in that they are naturally inclined to hear the song of the earth and see the wonder of its workings. Encouraging children to express their ways of knowing the world through aesthetic, or artistic, representations is an excellent way of validating and enriching these experiences. Art-based experiences "encourage contemplative, reflective thought, which can extend environmental awareness, an essential basis for environmental understanding" (Adams, 1991, p. 21). Suggestions on how to foster aesthetic learning include the following:


·        involving children in classroom and school beautification and ecological projects.


·        increasing the amount of time children spend outdoors interacting with natural materials.


·        focusing children's attention on the beauty of the natural world versus "teaching" them facts about nature.


·        encouraging children to sing, dance, draw, and paint their feelings about the world around them.


Dighe (1993) suggests setting easels up outside to encourage children to paint trees or their feelings about trees. She also suggests that children be encouraged, through movement and dance, to capture the wiggle of a caterpillar or the story of birds. Nature sounds, such as the chirp of crickets or the hum of bees, can be imitated through voice or musical instruments. Nature-theme picture books and poetry can also be used to foster aesthetic learning and reinforce enchantment with the earth.


Ruth Wilson, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of Special Education at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Dr. Wilson has focused much of her research and program development efforts on early childhood environmental education.

Adams, E. (1991). Back to basics: Aesthetic experience. Children's Environments Quarterly, 8 (2), 19-29.


Bailik, H.N. (1938). Aftergrowth (I.M., Trans.) Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America.(Original work published 1938).


Carson, R. (1956). The sense of wonder. New York: Harper & Row.


Chawla, L. & Hart, R. (1988). The roots of environmental concern. Proceedings of the 19th Annual Conference of EDRA, Pomona, CA. Reprinted in The NAMTA Journal, 1995, 20 (1), 148-157.


Cobb, E. (1977). The ecology of imagination in childhood. New York: Columbia University Press.


Cohen, M.J. (1984). Prejudice against nature. Freeport, ME: Cobblesmith.


Devall, W. (1984/85). A sense of earth wisdom. Journal of Environmental Education, 16(2), 1-3.


Dighe, J. (1993). Children and the earth. Young Children, 48 (3), 58-63.


Hinchman, H. (1991). A life in hand: Creating the illuminated journal. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith Publishing.


Johnson, J.E., Christie, J.F., and Yawkey, T.D. (Eds.) (1987). Play and early childhood development. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.


Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Kirkby, M.A. (1989). Nature as refuge. Children’s Environments Quarterly, 6 (1), 7-12.


Moore, R. Childhood's Domain. Quoted in Trimble (1994), The scripture of maps, the names of trees: A child's landscape. In G.P. Nabhan and S. Trimble (1994). The geography of childhood. Boston: Beacon Press, pp. 15-32.


Nabhan, G.P. (1994). A child's sense of wildness. In G.P. Nabhan and S. Trimble (1994). The geography of childhood. Boston: Beacon Press, pp. 1-14.


Nabhan, G.P. and Trimble, S. (1994). The geography of childhood. Boston: Beacon Press. Orr, D. W. (1994). Earth in mind. Washington, DC: Island Press.


Pearce, J.C. (1971). Magical child-Rediscovering Nature's plan for our children. New York: E.P. Dutton.


Peterson, N.J. (1982). Developmental variables affecting environmental sensitivity in professional environmental educators. Unpublished masters thesis, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.


Raglan, R. (1993). Reading the world: Overt and covert learning in environmental writing for children. Journal of Environmental Education, 24 (4), 4-7.


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.


Shaw-Jones, M.A. (1992). Ecological worldviews: An exploratory study of the narratives of environmental studies students. Unpublished masters thesis. Keene, NH: Antioch University.


Slade, A. (1991). A developmental sequence for the ecological self. Unpublished masters thesis. University of Montana.


Sobel, D. (1994). Children's special places. Tucson, AZ: Zephyr Press.


Tanner, T. (1980). Significant life experience: A new research area in environmental education. Journal of Environmental Education, 11 (4), 20-24.


Wilson, E.O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Wilson, E.O. (1992). The diversity of life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Wilson, R.A. (1996). Earth-A "Vale of Soul-Making." Early Childhood Education Journal, 23 (3), 169-171.


Wilson, R.A. (1994a). Environmental education at the early childhood level. Washington, DC: North American Association for Environmental Edution.


Wilson, R.A. (1994b). Enhancing the outdoor learning environments of preschool programs. Environmental Education, 47, 11-12.


Wilson, R.A. (1995). Nature and young children: A natural connection. Young Children, 50 (6), 4-11.


Wilson, R. A., Kilmer, S., & Knauerhase, V. (1996). Developing an environmental outdoor play space for young children. Young Children, 51 (6), 56-61.



Young children's ways of knowing the world are characterized by a sense of wonder and joy. By providing opportunities and encouragement for children to enter fully into these ways of knowing, we can make important contributions to both their quality of life and long-term commitment to care for the earth.