Ally in Wonder

June 19, 2023

I had a typical childhood in the 90’s with a full schedule of school, sports and lots of TV. Now that my husband and I have chosen a slower path with our own children, it’s as if I get to redo so much that I missed. I read somewhere that parenthood can be a second chance at childhood, and I aim to make the most of it. So far my second chance has been wonderful and fulfilling and delightful to spend so much time outside wandering and wondering.

In recent years I had prided myself on my newfound knowledge of identifying trees, plants and insects all thanks to my handy smartphone ID app, the knowledge is intoxicating. I can learn anything! Alas, I fear my modern way of learning comes at a low price and shallow understanding. I may be able to identify new things, but what’s the point? Not of just knowing, but learning?

The great 19th century educator Charlotte Mason wrote, “The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care?”.

If the point is to care, then my surface knowledge feels like a cheap version of a textbook quiz. I may know the names, the vocabulary words, but do I really know enough about the content of the things to care about them? And more importantly, will I remember it years from now? Simply naming the things is not enough!

As I lean in to Ms. Mason’s principles of observation, I release my need to know the names of everything and find freedom in not knowing. It’s ok to not know the name of something. In fact, it’s good to not know, because now we’re really exploring. Many people, once they can name it, are satisfied and stop watching. It’s only when my curiosity is still “lit”- when I haven’t satisfied that part in my brain that easily organizes content away that wonder continues to flow like the bubbling spring.

Nowadays, even if I do know the names of things, I try not to tell my children right away, even if they ask.

I find the less I “teach”, the more they learn. I find myself resisting being the teacher who knows all the answers and leaning more into a position of an Ally in Wonder. We are in this together. He is not “given” the knowledge, he gains it himself, through his own effort. It is truly his own.

Child asks: What is it?
My reply: Wow! What do you see?
Child: It’s a bug, and it’s walking on the water!
Me: I wonder how it does that! What else do you notice? Child: It has 6 legs and antennae
Me: How would you classify that?
Child: Insect!

Me: I think you’re right, what does it remind you of?

An on it goes, until I finally tell him it’s a Water Strider. Notice I didn’t need any scientific information or facts until the VERY END of the lesson. I didn’t even need that, we could have found it out together. Answers are not required for the child to learn, only more questions. The best questions will be enough for the child to want to learn for themselves.

Charlotte Mason teaches to us not to tell children the names of things until the child can thoroughly describe it; until they understand the true “nature” of the thing. What does it feel like? Sound like? Remind you of? How does it come together? How does it change or move? Does it bend? Is it rough or smooth? How does it consume energy? Can you describe the colors?

Only then, once we know the thing, do we seek to properly identify it and true knowledge has been gained.

I used to find myself feeling a bit intimidated by other mothers who could name all the things but not anymore. I’d rather have all the questions than all the answers; I thoroughly enjoy the wonder. Naturalist John Muir Laws writes, “Embrace what you do not know as a point of departure to explore the mystery of the world.” Don’t let it intimidate you that other moms (or kids!) may have a vast knowledge of the natural world greater than your own. All it means is that you have a vast delight of learning ahead of you. Enjoy it!

Charlotte Mason, Homeschool Series Volume 3, School Education Charlotte Mason, Homeschool Series Volume 1, Home Education John Muir Laws, The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling

Jenny Fifield is a wife and homeschooling mom of 3 who spends her days making big creative messes and chasing wonder with her kids. 

She loves nature journaling, slow hikes, camping, writing & utilizing her Theatre degree reading aloud great books. She co-leads a Barefoot University group and hosts a monthly book club for Homeschool families.