A Natural Sense of Wonder

RULE NUMBER SEVEN in our shaggy tiny house crammed with three lanky children: one hour of screen time per day, you choose the screens. Rule Number Eleven: yes, you can vanish all weekend on your bike whipping through the woods with your buddies, and yes, you can putter around in the creeklet all you want, and yes, you can wander along the riverbank looking for minks and money, just be home by dark.

And yes, there is daily wailing and gnashing of teeth about the television/ video/computer rule, but the queen of the house agrees wholeheartedly with Rick Van Noy, who says that any natural setting is better than the “flickering waves of TV and the electrifying boing of video games.” So out into the unkempt yard go the children, and to the creek, and to the river, and to the vacant lot by Mrs. Walsh’s house, which isn’t vacant at all, of course.

The greatest virtue of Van Noy’s lean and thoughtful book isn’t his thesis, now proved by oceans of evidence about increased obesity and decreased attention spans, or even his graceful and penetrating prose; it’s the witty ways he draws his two children and their friends outside, away from the electric drug — taking the long way to school, poking headlong into every vacant lot, building a treehouse, wandering off on birding adventures, hiking with other families, so that the day isn’t a Boring Family Outing but motley play, skating, wading in creeks, salamandering, poking in tide pools, running around in the dark chasing lightning bugs, and, well, just puttering around with open eyes and ears.

“Imagine if [kids] knew plants and animals the way they knew brand names and logos, if they knew mountains the way they know malls,” writes Van Noy. “They would feel like full participants in the landscapes they inhabit, happily roaming the ridges and creeks in a world that needs their attentiveness. . . . I share with Rachel Carson the hope that children be given ‘a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.'” And that’s the lesson I’ll carry away from this book, and the memorably sinewy phrase, too: an indestructible sense of wonder. I suspect nothing could be as useful, as generative of joy and mercy, as energizing and refreshing, as nakedly holy, as a faucet of wonder that never shuts off; and if we really do love and savor children as much as we say we do, if we really think them the heart of what we might be at our best, the secrets that might heal the bruised and broken world, we can give them nothing more crucial and nutritious than that.