Receive Them in Wonder


As veteran early childhood educators, we are often asked what we wished people knew about young children, what to look for in high-quality programs, and now, more than ever— how to support young children through these unprecedented times. Today, we would like to take a moment to humbly offer this timeless response: receive them in wonder.

When we receive children in wonder, we experience small but powerful shifts in both our mindset and our practice with young children. We hope that by sharing our experience with these shifts, we might help to spread just a little more joy, trust, and inclusivity to more learning communities.


Shifting Our Mindset

When we first started teaching many years ago, we often felt pressure to be the experts in the room...always knowing what to do, what to say, how to answer all of the children’s questions (and they have a lot of questions!), and how to maintain a sense of control as the adult in charge.  But as we grew in our practice, we learned how to step back and to observe with awe what young children can do. And the more we stepped back, the more we came to appreciate the magic of the early years.

Young children can dream and imagine and play and build and create and love in ways that we adults have long forgotten. When we acknowledge that they have so much more to teach us than we could teach them, we start to shift the power dynamic and earn the trust of the children in our care. We demonstrate humility and curiosity and embrace the opportunity to learn from each other. We regard every child as a valuable member of our community, and we commit to seeing differences and challenges as opportunities to learn and grow ourselves.

When we receive children in wonder, we experience a shift from teacher to observer, from evaluator to marveller, and from outsider to partner. We ask ourselves: What wonderful thing will they teach me today? What magic will I be lucky to observe? What barriers will I learn to overcome as I get closer to seeing them exactly as they wish to be seen? 

Wonder in Practice

Over time, we found many ways to adjust our practice to make space for wonder.  We paid close attention to the young children’s transition into our community, opening our doors the week before school officially opened so they could come and spend time with us and a loved one.  We sent home surveys asking parents and caregivers to share what they wished we knew about their child, what it was like when they first met their child, or what their child’s super-power might be. We worked to help children and their families feel warmly welcomed and valued for their unique experiences and perspectives. We asked parents, grandparents, caregivers, siblings, beloved community members, staff members, and even the children themselves to lead activities each day.

We made critical shifts in our daily routines to ensure ample time for free and uninterrupted play, out of doors whenever possible.  While co-teaching in New York City that meant spending one morning a week in Central Park where the children could play freely in a natural environment. Back inside, we chose materials that would allow for open-ended exploration and we learned to be flexible with our schedules to make time for unexpectedly magical moments (the great milkweed seed blizzard of 2016 is a particular favorite, but that story is for another time).


We changed the way we approached conflicts, allowing children to come to their own resolutions, often with nothing but a warm smile, close proximity, and an encouraging nod. We apologized when we were wrong.  


We became intentional with our language—making a conscious shift from signaling that we were the definitive sources of knowledge, information, advice, and solutions to problems and leading instead from a place of wonder and genuine curiosity about the meaning they were making from their experiences and explorations. We became very aware of how restrictive or limiting our language could be when answers and solutions were provided for them and how much our ‘wondering’ orientation tapped into their innate resourcefulness and boundless creativity thus leading to far richer learning experiences. Consider the shifts in the examples below and the messages children receive when the language shifts to ‘wonder’:



Parting Words

Children received in wonder learn that we see and hear them, and value their active participation and leadership in the learning process. They are empowered to teach and listen to one another, and they trust that their curiosity and expertise will be honored. They learn that there is more than one answer or solution to most questions, and they begin to value the processes of tinkering, hypothesizing, and exploring. And most importantly, they are welcomed into a place where they feel safe, cared for, respected, and fully included in a community that sees strength and beauty in difference. Such communities can hold themselves together and thrive, even in the toughest of times. 

Now more than ever, we encourage you to set aside some time and space for wonder. When we are all surrounded by such uncertainty, and our contact with children may be limited to a small screen or a safe social distance, we can hold on to this thought: If one child looks through that screen or across a six-foot distance, and sees a teacher who is delighted to receive them in wonder, their light will shine a little brighter for a little bit longer.



Rebecca Gartman has been a teacher, director, advocate, and writer through her fifteen years in the field. Eager to embrace her own wonder, Becky has ventured into international, art museum, and forest school programs in addition to her years as a public school kindergarten teacher. She is inspired by educational communities that celebrate young children and families, particularly when joy, play, and courage are at the forefront of learning and relationship building. Becky holds an MA in Early Childhood and a BA in Elementary Education. She lives with her family in New Jersey, and it is her greatest joy to grow and learn with them. 

Shannon Reed is an early childhood educator with experience in both self-contained and inclusive settings, including several years as an inclusive educator in the New York City Public Schools. She is passionate about bridging the gap between research and practice in early childhood education and making more space for joy, respect, and inclusivity in our practice. She lives in New York City with her husband and a very curious 3-year-old. She obtained her MA in Early Childhood Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, and she holds dual teaching certification in Early Childhood Education and Early Childhood Special Education.