I read an interesting article in Parade today. Its title “Feeling Awe May Be the Secret to Health and Happiness” caught my eye, as did the magazine’s cover photo promoting the article. In the article, psychologist Dacher Keltner, of the University of California, Berkeley’s Social Interaction Lab, defines awe as “…the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things.” Well, this is nothing new to me as I have spent many years reading about the transformative power of meditation, mindfulness, and prayer. Taoism and Buddhism have been teaching this for centuries. While reading the article, however, I experienced several realizations.
Nature Inspires Awe
Many examples of awe cited in the article relate to being in the presence of nature. From the grand formations of mountains and canyons to the redwoods and sequoias, from the intricate patterns of leaves and tree bark to the striations in rocks, from the gentle flow of a stream to the mighty waves of the ocean, something greater than the human being is the creator of all of this. However, to be in awe of these wonders, we must first become mindful of their presence. If we are unaware, not mindful, not fully in the presence of nature, we miss the opportunity to experience awe.
Basic Human Emotion
In the article, psychologist Michelle Shiota, of Arizona State University, believes that experiencing awe is a basic human necessity to thrive. Awe enables us to see beyond ourselves and feel connected to something greater, our higher power. Awe causes us to stop and pay attention to the present moment. Awe physically changes the human body and has the potential to heal it. Awe causes us to feel more connected to each other; it takes us off the frequency of WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) and places us on the frequency of WOCG (Way Of Generosity, Compassion).
Awe is transformative in that it changes how we perceive and experience life. Once experienced, some part of us changes permanently. The Parade article focuses on a war veteran and how his awe-inspiring journey through Utah’s Canyonlands National Park changed him. It is not surprising to me that he was awestruck by his natural surroundings and thus transformed.
Spiritual and Aesthetic Development
What hit me is the connection between awe, spiritual development, and aesthetic development. As Early Childhood professionals, we need to get a firm grip on the importance of these concepts. Providing intentional, experiential, and transformative learning opportunities that inspire wonder, awe, and discovery must be at the heart of our educational programs. The majority of studies cited in the Parade article reference awe’s effects on adults and how exposure to nature fosters the development of awe. My question is why we would wait until adulthood to encourage the development of this emotion?
Children naturally possess awe and wonder, yet when undeveloped and ignored, it withers away as they become more entrenched in the adult world. Awe, magic, and imagination give way to reality. But adults have it backward. What we see is not complete reality. We cannot perceive the forces that create our natural world. We cannot control, nor even predict with accuracy, how these energies affect us, much as we try. To deny their existence based on a lack of understanding is ignorance. There is much in this world that humans do not fully understand, partially understand, or even know that they do not yet understand. Quashing awe and wonder is dangerous.
Fostering spiritual development in ECE programs, not religion unless that is the crux of the program, must go hand in hand with the Big 5 domains of child development. For children, this begins with fostering awe. Hand in hand with spiritual development is aesthetic development. With aesthetic development, children learn to define beauty, interpret beauty, recognize beauty on their terms, and create beauty themselves. Add in imagination, magic, wonder, and discovery, and we now have the basis for transformative learning. Education with critical and creative thinking at its base.
Transformative experiences must lead the way to content discovery if learning is to be meaningful to children. Retention of content is improved when children can connect it to their unique lives and experiences. Fostering spiritual development and aesthetic development is foundational to transformative experiences. Awe, wonder, discovery, imagination, and magic are all components of spiritual and aesthetic development and necessary to truly foster the development of the whole child. If Early Childhood professionals are to absolutely support the development of the whole child, then we, as adults, must get a firm grip on the benefits of nature-inspired learning, and become comfortable with accepting what we cannot see as part of our reality.