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How to Cultivate a Sense of Awe in Children

by

Amber Burden-Hill

Illustration of a child lying in a field looking up at the sky

Children are born with a sense of wonder. The smallest leaf or faintest rainbow can elicit a wide-eyed response from little ones. Their curiosity and fascination with the world around them remind us to pause, listen and watch the wonders of the universe unfold. The crash of a wave, a starry night sky, the perfect sunrise — all of these experiences have the power to evoke feelings of awe.

Rachel Carson once said in her award-winning classic, The Sense of 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.”

So, what is awe and how can we help children - and ourselves - hold on to these “wow” moments?

Further Reading

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5 Tips on Preparing Young People for Greatness

What is awe?

Researchers define awe as a feeling in response to something so vast that it’s almost impossible to comprehend. Vastness in this case can refer to something that is big in physical size, but it can also refer to big ideas – like grasping mathematical concepts or trying to comprehend the enormity of space and time.

In trying to understand these astonishing experiences, our minds expand and our ordinary perceptions of the world are challenged. These experiences allow us to step out of our ego to connect with the world around us, which has many psychological and health-related benefits.

How does awe improve our lives?

While poets and philosophers have explored awe for a millennium, researchers have only recently begun to study how awe impacts our wellbeing. As our society becomes more overworked and self-directed, awe can be used as an amazing tool to instil a deeper sense of purpose, enthusiasm and belonging in our children. In fact, recent research shows that awe can make us happier and healthier in many ways:

1. Connects us 

Awe can make us feel more connected to other people. Several studies have found that those who experience more awe are likely to describe themselves using universal categories, such as “a human being” or “inhabitant of the earth”. By shifting our attention away from ourselves and toward the collective, awe encourages us to engage with our community and feel more connected to humanity as a whole. 

2. Inspires curiosity 

Awe can facilitate learning, problem-solving and scientific thinking. It encourages us to challenge our own perspective and consider new theories in light of new evidence. Interestingly, a recent set of studies found that people with a greater disposition to experience awe had a more accurate understanding of the nature of science (Gottlieb, et al., 2018). A recent theoretical paper also suggests that awe may promote scientific learning and reasoning in children (Valdesolo, et al., 2017).

On a practical level, you can encourage curiosity by asking open-ended and thought-provoking questions to stimulate your child’s curiosity and wonder. For example, when looking up at the sky, you can ask, “Why do you think the sky is blue?” or “Do you think you could sit on that big puffy cloud?"

3. Fosters creativity

Awe also inspires us to be more creative by broadening our perspective to see beyond our current circumstances. For example, one study showed a group of children a series of photos beginning with simple, everyday objects and gradually shifting to vast, awe-inspiring images like the Milky Way (Liberman, et al., 2012). In contrast, the other group of children were shown the same images in reverse. The study found that the children who saw the objects from small to vast performed significantly better on creativity tests.

4. Encourages generosity

There is also emerging evidence that awe encourages kindness and generosity. Studies have found that those induced to feel awe are more likely to share their resources, donate money, support a worthy cause or help a passerby in need. In one study, people who were more likely to notice natural beauty in their surroundings were also more likely to be agreeable and empathetic (Zhang, et al., 2014). This suggests that experiencing awe may encourage us to engage in more altruistic and prosocial behaviours.

5. Improves mood and wellbeing

Research suggests that awe can boost our mood and wellbeing. For example, studies show that viewing awe-inspiring images puts us in a better mood and encourages a positive mindset (Joye & Bolderdijk, 2015; Chirico et al., 2018). Awe also plays a large part in nature’s ability to reduce stress and improve our mental health. One recent study involved taking military veterans and youth from underserved communities on a white water rafting trip to measure the effects of awe on their wellbeing (Anderson et al., 2018). The results showed that the amount of awe they experienced predicted improvements in their wellbeing and a reduction in stress one week later. This suggests that awe may play a crucial role in nature’s restorative abilities.

6. More time available

Awe can also make us feel more time-available. One study found that people induced to feel awe report feeling that time is more plentiful and expansive (Rudd et al., 2012). Those who experienced awe in the study were more likely to volunteer time to help others, value experiential purchases over material ones and report greater life satisfaction.

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Flower in a Pot

How to cultivate awe in children

The world is a new, exciting and awesome place for children. We only have to spend a few minutes with them to notice the little things we take for granted — Butterflies! Trees! Stars! When we’re around them, we can't help but join in and marvel at these wonders. 

Yet as we grow, so too do our responsibilities. Whether it’s dropping the kids off at school, a busy day at work or hanging up the washing, it’s easy to get caught up in the daily grind. This makes it all the more important not to lose sight of the awe-inspiring moments available to us each day. Here are some fun ways to nurture awe in your children and rediscover it for yourself:

1. Take an awe-inspiring walk 

Are the kids stuck on the iPad? Need to get out of the house? Take the kids for a quick stroll to get your daily dose of awe. Whether it’s a hike, a visit to your local park or a quick walk around the block, it’s important to approach your surroundings with an open-minded attitude. Notice the clouds in the sky, the sound of the birds or the people you pass by. If you’re not a fan of the outdoors, visit a museum, science centre, art gallery or any other venue that leaves you awestruck. 

Try to leave your phone at home or in your pocket to fully immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of your surroundings. Your child may not be as impressed as you are to see that panoramic view, so follow your child’s lead and let their interests guide you - even if it means gaping at the ice cream man stacking three scoops of choc-chip ice cream.

2. Watch a mind-boggling video

You don’t need to leave the house to be amazed by what the world has to offer. Watching a movie, a documentary or even a short Youtube clip with your child is the next best thing. In fact, the power of film and music can be incredibly moving, especially for young people. Visit Jason Silva's Shots of Awe, National Geographic, The Kid Should See This, The Scale of the Universe and Powers of Ten to find awe-inspiring videos that leave you with goosebumps!

3. Read a stirring story 

Find a book, poem, short story or biography that fills your child with awe. For the young ones, read a bedtime story about heroes, natural wonders, scientific discoveries or historical events. For older children and adolescents, reading about extraordinary modern-day figures such as Malala Yousafzai or the origin of the universe is an effective way to feel awe. Try finding an awe-inspiring topic that is unique to your child’s specific interests. Be mindful that some people are more prone to feeling awe than others, so don’t fret if your child doesn’t appear interested. At the very least, they will learn about something “awesome.”

4. Revisit an awe-inspiring memory

What was your most awe-inspiring experience? Take turns revisiting a moment you felt awe by sharing it at the family dinner table, pulling out a family photo album, or encouraging your child to write a story about their own awe experience. Ask them to write as much detail as they can to conjure up the feelings they had at the time. Another fun alternative is to ask your children to create their own artwork to reflect on a time they felt awe. Tap into their strengths by experimenting with collage, drawing, painting, photography or sculpture.

Actively seeking out opportunities to experience awe can transform your life for the better. It allows you to appreciate the bigger picture and ultimately be present in the here and now. Don’t forget that reigniting your sense of wonder will take time - but it’s worth the wait. Take small steps and open yourself up to the many wonders of the world by sharing these experiences with your child on a daily basis. By modelling a sense of amazement, you’ll help your child notice the astonishing marvels of everyday life.

View article references

  • Anderson, C. L., Monroy, M., & Keltner, D. (2018). Awe in nature heals: Evidence from military veterans, at-risk youth, and college students. Emotion, 18(8), 1195–1202. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000442
  • Chirico, A., Ferrise, F., Cordella, L., & Gaggioli, A. (2018). Designing awe in virtual reality: An experimental study. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02351
  • Keltner, D. J., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17(2), 297–314. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930302297
  • Gottlieb, S., Keltner, D. J., & Lombrozo, T. (2018). Awe as a scientific emotion. Cognitive Science, 42(6), 2081-2094.  http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/cogs.12648
  • Joye, Y., & Bolderdijk, J. W. (2015). An exploratory study into the effects of extraordinary nature on emotions, mood, and prosociality. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01577
  • Liberman, N., Polack, O., Hameiri, B., & Blumenfeld, M. (2012). Priming of spatial distance enhances children's creative performance. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 111(4), 663–670. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2011.09.007
  • Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(6), 883–899. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000018
  • Rudd, M., Vohs, K. D., & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1130–1136. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612438731
  • Shiota, M. N., Keltner, D. J., & Mossman, A. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition and Emotion, 21(5), 944–963. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930600923668
  • Valdesolo, P., Shtulman, A., & Baron, A. S. (2017). Science is awe-some: The emotional antecedents of science learning. Emotion Review, 9(3), 215–221. https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073916673212
  • Zhang, J. W., Piff, P. K., Iyer, R., Koleva, S., & Keltner, D. J. (2014). An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 37, 61–72. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.11.00

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