Explore the amazing role of wonder in kids’ spiritual growth — and learn how to bring wonder back to yourself and children.
“Look at the snow, Mom. It’s awesome! It’s amazing!” Nodding my head but gazing across our yard in another direction, I responded, “I know, Patch. There’s tons of it. It’s white and it’s everywhere. Neat.”
“No, Mom; get down here and really look at it.” As I turned my attention to him, I saw Patch lying with his face near the snow, staring at the sparkling, feathery flakes. “Each one glistens,” he said as he pondered the white blanket beneath him. “They actually look different. Some edges are soft and others are round. Flakes are big and small.”
“Yup, that’s snow, Patch.”
“No, Mom, you have to look at it from here. Get down here next to me.”
I obliged and lay prostrate in the snow next to my inquisitive 7-year-old. As we marveled at the tiny specks of wintery, translucent ice and guessed the weight and depth of the frozen mound of snow, I saw with fresh eyes-the eyes of a child-the wonder of newly fallen snow. Patch invited me to wonder. As I patiently followed his detailed exploration of what I perceived as mundane and trivial, I began to find the unfamiliar in the familiar.
Patch’s one act of wonder prompted me to wonder: When does wondering start? Why is it important? Why don’t I wonder any longer? How do we keep wondering alive in our ministries to children?
Wonder Begins When We’re Young
If you spend any time with young children, you’ll inevitably be asked some perplexing, surprising questions.
“Why do birds fly?” “Why is the sky blue?” “Why can’t people fly?”
A natural step in the development of young children is this exciting, and at times exhausting, “why” phase. During this time, children begin their journey of questions, starting with the simple “Why is that?” “Why not?” and “Why do I have to?” They quickly advance to more complex and deeper inquiries, such as “Why aren’t there any more dinosaurs?” “Why do I have to go to bed?” or “Why do we have eyelashes?”
Some researchers report that on average, preschoolers ask about 223 “why” questions per day. When children ask such questions, they’re beginning to wonder. When kids wonder, they find new in the familiar and extraordinary in the ordinary. A unique trait about wonder is the focused attention to the object of wonder itself and the time-consuming desire to know more about it.
Unfortunately, due to busy schedules, overcrowded classes, and curriculums that are rigid and lackluster, wonder and questioning seem to decrease as age increases. By the time kids reach age 12 or middle school, they cease questioning and wondering. Creativity begins to decline at this age as well. Rachel Carson, author of The Sense of Wonder, writes, ” A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.” Carson also concludes that “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.”
How can we foster this type of learning if we, in our heavily scheduled lives, have forgotten how to find wonder in our world ourselves? To get to this wonder-full place, we take the wonderer’s oath. We acknowledge that the way we’ve always done it no longer works. We abandon our preconceptions and embrace the strange and uncomfortable new ideas we’ve never tried before. We admit that we don’t have all the answers and are still learning along with our kids. Finally, we let go of our desire to control the learning environment by obsessively following the lesson plan-often a lengthy list of predictable, familiar things to do or say.
Let Wonder Wander In
There are specific ways you can invite wonder into your ministry.
Find wonder moments. As teachers, we can approach our lessons in the same way-as exciting adventures full of mystery, and we can make room for surprise and wonderings along the way. Start small and let wonder shape some part of your lesson. Guide children through “wondering moments” that follow your Bible experiences. For instance, let kids respond to statements such as, “I wonder what part of this event from the Bible is most important to you today?” or “I wonder why this or that happened?” and “I wonder how Noah’s life would have changed if….”
Keep in mind that with wondering, every statement or question is accepted because it’s the fruit of a child’s experience or imagination. There are no right or wrong wonderings. When wondering begins, actively listen to the detailed descriptions kids share. Let kids know you’re tracking with them by gently repeating some of their curiosities. Try tracking phrases such as, “So what you’re saying is…” and “What I’m hearing is….” Other ways to show you’re listening include making direct eye contact, smiling, and nodding.
Remember that wondering also requires intellectual and spiritual safety and security. When kids feel loved and nurtured they’re more likely to take intellectual risks, sharing creative, wonder-rich responses and ideas. This type of wondering can be time-consuming, so keep your lessons fl exible enough to follow children’s wondering and creative thinking.
For extra impact, have kids write or draw their wonderings in conversation bubbles and tape them to a “Wall Of Wonder” in your ministry area. This wall serves a couple of purposes: First, parents can see what their kids are wondering about. Second, you can use the wall as a rough diagnostic tool to determine where kids are spiritually. Kids’ wonderings can also be a springboard for great lesson ideas.
Create awe-inspiring emotion.
Rich experiences with kids will build a desire in children to know more about the object of their wonder: God. Find the wondrous aspects of the biblical truths or lessons you’re trying to teach. As you plan your lesson, ask yourself: What aspects of the Bible can I draw on so children connect emotionally to it? As you ponder, keep the focus on the learner. What would your kids fi nd emotionally engaging? Look for adverbs in the Scriptures and underline the verbs. Have kids actually experience what you’ve highlighted. Most often these words provide emotional cues that can be used to bring God’s Word to life.
Ultimately, these emotions will be communicated by you the leader and felt by the kids. Practice how you’ll communicate them to ensure highest impact and most profound learning.
Discover remarkable truths. Pinpoint rare, strange, and exotic points and topics in the content as a means to engage kids’ imaginations. Review the biblical account or truth and look for a sense of mystery in what typically might be taken for granted. Engage kids in conversations about biblical accounts that seem impossible in today’s world, such as being swallowed by a large fish or walking on water. Then stir the wonder and curiosity of children by having them wonder and contemplate what it would be like if those things happened today. Or have kids consider what outlandish events occur in today’s world that make us stop and wonder how they could happen.
Seek awe-inspiring action. Rather than just telling kids about something, have kids become part of the action. In Group’s Weird Animals VBS, kids explored the account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and the Bible point: “Even when you don’t understand, Jesus loves you.” After sharing a meal with their crew of six friends, leaders washed crew members’ feet with no explanation. Kids felt confused and perplexed as leaders removed shoes and socks and washed their feet. Just like the disciples! When children asked, “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” their leaders responded uniformly, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but later you will.” Their answer mirrored Jesus’ response to his disciples in the same situation. Just as Jesus’ disciples were left wondering what Jesus was up to, these kids were left wondering as well. In the midst of their wonder, they experienced and felt their leaders’ love-and learned that Jesus loves them in the same way.
To help kids “become” part of the action, give kids tasks to do, sounds to make, smells to experience, and props to move and manipulate. Appeal to all fi ve of their senses. Immersing kids in the action helps them make incredible faith discoveries, rich with personal refl ection and meaning. Kids experience the life-changing awe and wonder of God’s Word.
Wonder with your senses. During a wonder walk I took with Patch, he pointed out an odd-looking beetle just a few steps into our journey. As I stood looking at it, Patch immediately crouched down to better inspect his discovery. First came the visual commentary. “Gray-green shell with touches of white. Furry legs.” Then came the tactile treasure trove. Reaching out to touch the critter, Patch methodically described the texture of its shell and legs. “Rough with small bumps, a bit like smooth sandpaper. Awkward, but soothing.” Next he leaned in closer to listen for any audible beetle sounds. “Sounds like a staccato hiss,” he exclaimed. Six minutes had passed, and we were only at the edge of the driveway. “I wonder if I can eat him. What do you think he tastes like?”
Trying not to discourage his wonder, I surmised, “Crunchy with a gooey center, probably like a Twix bar.”
“Let’s find out.” He picked up the beetle and opened his mouth.
To prevent Patch from actually eating the bug, I interjected, “What might be all the ways we could discover how it tastes without actually eating it?” After a bewildered double take, he set the wiggly beetle free and began to brainstorm ideas.
On that walk, Patch demonstrated the importance of experiencing wonder in a multisensory way. We can learn from his surprise encounter with the beetle.
With children, read each Bible passage with a sensory filter. Try to see images in the words and phrases you hear. Sketch what you see as you read. Take descriptive notes, and use them to craft a visual landscape for kids.
Tea lights or white Christmas lights are an easy way to change the mood around any passage read aloud. Hear sounds in the passages by humming or tapping out a beat to the Scripture. Notice the high notes and low notes you create. What unfamiliar sound effects could you add to heighten the mystery of the passage? iTunes has several sound effects libraries; download a few and play the tracks as background music for surprising sound effects. What are the people touching? Provide opportunities for kids to touch and feel those objects, too. What can kids taste to enhance their experience? How might the tastes of sweet, salty, savory, and spicy communicate or reveal the uniqueness of your content? A sour candy can communicate bitter, hard times while a sweet piece of chocolate can evoke happiness or reward. Popping bubble gum can create a tasty, auditory celebration.
Ask wondering questions. When kids wonder, they challenge assumptions and think critically about their faith and world instead of regurgitating facts they’ve been told.
Specifi c question stems can guide kids in their wondering. Prompts such as “What might happen if…?” “Imagine if you could…” or “How might we….” all invite curious investigation of truths and ideas not yet discovered. Using these prompts will help kids explore their relationship with God in a new and extraordinary light.
Finally, requesting kids’ input via thoughtprovoking questions will build self-confi dence and self-esteem. Encourage kids to take what they learn one step further by questioning their theories or what they’ve learned about outside of the church walls during the week. When they discover that Jesus fed a multitude of people who were hungry, challenge kids to do the same by feeding the homeless the following weekend. Then talk with children about what they discovered through their experience and how their service to others makes them wonder about more things they can do to help others.
Make connections. Think of wonder as the engaging framework for your content-rich lesson. Wonder undoubtedly exists in God’s Word; your mission is to unveil it to children. A simple way to unearth the wonder in the Bible is to fi nd the extraordinary in the ordinary. As Jesus taught with coins, seeds, loaves, and fish, he helped us fi nd extraordinary faith in everyday objects, creating unexpected relationships between things seen and unseen. Use objects that kids love and that are familiar to them to help them explore God’s Word.
In our ministry, we gather cool toys and trendy trinkets from a kid’s world and play with them. We fi gure out how these items operate or discover their purpose. Then we ask how this action or purpose is like or unlike what we want kids to discover about God. For example, modeling dough can remind young children that God created them uniquely, just as they create unique things with their dough. Or a smartphone can be a reminder that we always have the ability to connect with our friends right at our fi ngertips: We just have to make a choice to connect-in the same way that God is always with us, but it’s our choice to connect with him in prayer. When you start to wonder, usually a multitude of ideas will emerge. The more ideas generated will guarantee a better result.
As kids make discoveries about God, they’re cementing biblical truths into their hearts and minds. When kids share, pause at their wonderings and marvelous discoveries to savor their precious, remarkable, and revealing insights. If we don’t pause to refl ect on what kids have shared, we risk communicating that wondering is a frivolous waste of time. Pausing to wonder alongside them gives us a glimpse into what kids see. Often it is more enlightening and rich than we’ve ever imagined or wondered.
When it snows now, Patch and I stop and study the fl akes. He no longer has to coerce me to lie in the snow facedown with him; I’m now a wonderer, too. Despite odd stares from the occasional passersby, we examine, wonder, and explore the tiny specks of extraordinary beauty, wondering if anyone else wonders with us. Patch’s insights challenge me.
“If you could be a snowflake, which one would you be?” he asks. I answer, “It depends.” “On what?” he inquires. And we begin another wondrous journey.
Patty Smith is the unconventional church lady who inspires and motivates people to think differently about reaching kids for Christ. She’s the director of children and family ministries in the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church.