Rediscovering Our Sense of Wonder
(Living With the Earth, Part III: The Logic of Action in Experiential and Environmental Education)
Donald F. Webb, Jr.

The planet you're standing on
looking out at the stars
Is the earth, the third planet from the sun

and the mildest
and softest
of the nine.

If you can stop, and let yourself look,
let your eyes do
what they do best,
and let yourself see and see
that everything is doing things
to you
as you do things to everything.

Then you know
that although it is only a little planet
it is hugely beautiful
and surely the finest place in the world
to be.

So watch it, look at it
see what it's like
to walk around on it.

It's small but it's beautiful
it's small but it's fine
like a rainbow,
like a bubble.

We need meaningful environmental education. Environmental education should help people of all ages build a sense of relationship in both feelings and understandings with the natural world. The senses that foster this are: a sense of wonder, a sense of place, a sense of touch, a sense of life, a sense of beauty, a sense of respect, and a sense of joy. And we need to get everyone out into the environment doing close fieldwork, using all these senses.

This sounds great. But how do we, as enthusiastic, environmental educators or as eager parents do this? Teachers or parents often have this reaction: I'd be glad to take a field trip: but what if we got out there and one kid asked me what that tree was over there, and I have to say I don't know, what would I do? I would say: Tell him you don't know-but let's find out. As a matter of fact, that's almost better than knowing the name of the tree, because if you can become a student of the environment with your students, you can get them much more excited much faster than just going outside and saying: Oh well, that's an oak tree, and that's a big-toothed aspen. Nothing is happening to the students then, but if you can sit down with a key or some books and say: Well, let's see if we can figure out what this tree really is, then you have a useful tool in facilitating student centered learning. If the teacher in a given situation is simultaneously and genuinely exploring the area(not just observing students acting upon it), then a bridge may be started to the students' involvement, involvement often being contagious. Another recent example of this comes from a comment of one of my startled senior environmental science students. We were outside doing some assigned field investigations, and I was also recording data in my journal. John commented to his partner: Look at that, a teacher is actually working. Perhaps a sad commentary on how students perceive most of their teachers, but it was a poignant statement , and it furthured John's interest in his investigation, because his teacher was taking a vested interest in the assignment. In field work, the most important thing we can do initially is to teach students to be good observers. Most of us are sloppy observers, we just don't look at what we are looking at. There are all kinds of devices to learn to do this, and there is no one best way to do it. In fact, if you go out all the time and never do anything twice, you are probably much better off, because diversity really keeps students (and yourself) more excited.

The second thing is to personalize the experience, so that the outside really becomes a part of them. I took students to a spot in the woods and sat them down and I just said, All right, go off, on your own, and spend 10 or 15 minutes looking at something that interests you, some biological thing. Don't take written notes, but make mental notes of the object you're observing, and then come back. And one student looked at me and said, What if I don't find anything I'm interested in? I said, „Well, go try. In ten minutes she came back, absolutely hysterical about this thing she had found that she didn't even know existed. She'd never seen it; she didn't know what it was; it was the most exciting thing she had ever seen. I could have turned her off quickly with the wrong kind of approach, by testing, evaluating, pressured kinds of approach-but this worked.

Then I had them come back after their 10 minutes and tell another person a list of observations, without telling what the thing was, and the other person would write the list down. Then they reversed roles. And then I told the person taking the notes to guess what the object was at the end of the description. After they had done this, I had them come back together in class, and I took one list of observations and I read it to the class, and had the class draw the thing on pieces of paper from the description, and show them to the class.

The first thing we did this with was a puffball. First, the list of observations were non-descriptive, and we came out with the most unbelievable pictures of things that were big, fat, round, and things that were tall and skinny with caps, and no caps and spots. So I had the student go back and get the puffball, look at it again, put it in her pocket, and come back to the group and give us a new list of observations, and have the class again draw the thing. And this time we came out with a beautiful set of pictures of puffballs.

This demonstrates the objectives of being good observers, and personalizing the experience. This is just one example, and there are all kinds of other ways to do these things. And if we will provide such authentic experiences to our charges, a better understanding of ecological dynamics will follow, because a caring, appreciative, and respectful attitude towards their environment has been created. In presenting such endless environmental education activities to people of all ages, the unfamiliar becomes the familiar, and interesting perspectives come along, like: Are the flowers blooming in field, or, is it perhaps more accurate to say the field is blooming the flowers. The constant discovering, renewing, and rediscovering our sense of wonder is life-fulfilling.

Collins, L. Only a little planet. In Van Matre, S., The Earth Speaks. Greenville, WV: Institute for Earth Education, Cedar Cove.