Awe, Wonder, Fear and Fascination

Welcome to the conversation about sustainability education in early years and school education. The principle under discussion is number 3 from the IAPENE pedagogical tool. Your contributions to the discussion are welcome. Please click on the comment button below

Principle 3:Experiences in the natural world affect us emotionally and the body and the senses mediate this affect.

This principle recognises that we experience a range of emotions in response to our physical and cognitive experiences of the natural world, including awe and wonder, fascination, curiosity and fear. Nurturing children’s biophilia (Wilson, 1984) or sense of connection to nature is critical if we wish to engage them in action for combating climate change. White and Stoecklin (2008) contend that we need to teach children to love the world before we ask them to save it. Chawla and colleagues highlight the value of green schoolyards as stress amelioration and Schute and Torquati’s (2017) research points toward the value of time in green spaces for primary school children to improve executive function.

Photo by Stephen Andrews on

If we consider a post humanist perspective (Malone et. al, 2019), young children encounter the natural world in a state of ‘being with’ the other than human world and where living beings are kin or family – such is the child’s emotional connection. So what does it mean to actively engage in pedagogies to support children’s connection with nature and their understanding of climate change? We know that children feel fear and anxiety about climate change (Hickman et. al. 2021) and that being active in their communities in combating climate change, relative to their level of ability and understanding, assists children in dealing with eco-anxiety. So how do we as teachers and educators maximise children’s opportunities to be engaged in nature and agential in contributing to the amelioration of climate change?

As teachers we need to be aware that children with limited experiences in the colours, textures, smells, and movement in the natural world can experience fearful emotions due to the lack of familiarity (Torquati et. al, 2010). Conversely, children can also be fascinated by the shapes and movement of the smallest of insects or animals which can play out as child initiated story threads or or play topics. Spending time outdoors and using natural resources is a starting point for young children to allow them to become familiar with textures, smells, visual colours and distances and sensations of air movement. Observing preverbal children’s interaction with nature helps to identify what fascinates them and the meaning they are making from the experience and provides clues about what to include in our program for them.

Gardening is a very practical way of working with children so they understand where their food comes from and the processes of growth. Story telling is also an effective way of highlighting the perspectives of the other than human world. I once had a child in my kindergarten tell news about a humpback whale they had seen during their holiday at the beach. This raised so much interest that we embarked upon a series of story adventures that lasted for a whole school term and covered the migration of the humpback whales from the Antarctic to Hervey Bay in Queensland Australia, where they went for breeding. The culmination of this series of stories was an excursion to Byron Bay where we embarked upon three dive boats to see if we could find any whales (who were in fact migrating south after breeding at that time). We came across a mother and her baby who leaped and played in front of us for half an hour! The emotions during this whale/child interaction were intense with every child (and adult) in a state of awe and delight.

Engaging primary school children in outdoor walks and telling stories from the local community about the flora and fauna may help to deepen their sense of place and belonging. Providing opportunities for children to contribute to discussion and problem solving for environmental issues in the local community will help with providing a sense of agency which research shows helps to mitigate eco anxiety. Finding ways to imbue all areas of the curriculum with content about the natural world and local environment will assist with understanding that everything we do on the planet is related to sustainability and climate change.

Primary school children in Tayside and beyond in Scotland, often live in or within relatively easy access to spectacular environments and green spaces. Please share your ideas for working with children to support their emotional connection to the natural world.


Chawla, L., Keena, K., Pevec, I. & Stanley, E. (2014). Green Schoolyards as Havens from Stress and Resources for Resilience in Childhood and Adolescence. Health & Place, 28(0), 1-13. doi:

Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, R. E., Mahall, E. E., Wray, B., Mellor, C. and Van Susteren, L. (2021) ‘Climate Anxiety in Children and Young People and Their Beliefs about Government Responses to Climate Change: A Global Survey’, The Lancet: Planetary Health, 5(December), e863 -e873. DOI:

Malone, K., Moore, S. J. and Ward, K. (2019) Children’s Bodies, Sensing Ecologically: A study of Pre-language Children’s Ecological Encounters. Centre for Educational Research: Research, Western Sydney University.

Schutte, A. R., Torquati, J. C. & Beattie, H. L. (2017). Impact of Urban Nature on Executive Functioning in Early and Middle Childhood. Environment and Behavior, 49(1), 3-30.

Torquati, J. Gabriel, M. M., Jones-Brand, J. & Leeper-Miller, J. (2010). Environmental Education: A Natural Way to Nurture Children’s Development and Learning. Young Children, November, 98-105.

White, R. & Stoecklin, L. (2008). Nurturing Children’s Biophilia: Developmentally Appropriate Environmental Education for Young Children. Retrieved 27/5/2010, 2010, from

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

This entry was posted in IAPENE Blogs. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s