Awe Inspiring…Inspiring Awe

One of the most useful teaching techniques I have found is using awe to inspire learning. What is awe? This word is both a verb and a noun, according to the Oxford online dictionary:

  1. a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder:

    “they gazed in awe at the small mountain of diamonds” ·


    synonyms: wonder · wonderment · admiration · reverence · respect ·

  1.  inspire with awe:
    “they were both awed by the vastness of the forest”

    synonyms: filled with wonder · wonderstruck · awestruck · amazed ·


    It is interesting to note that both of these examples from the dictionary cite our natural world! There is so much from which we can be inspired existing in nature!

I believe my interest, and initially accidental, use of awe in my teaching came from raising monarch butterflies and sharing the miracle of their metamorphosis with first my family and then my garden club students, and other community members.

Once I saw how engaging and motivating awe could be to students’ willingness to learn, I purposely sought topics that contained some element of awe. For example, did you know that the famous carnivorous plant called the Venus Fly Trap is the ONLY species of kind? And the only place it grows indigenously is the sandy, bog-like soils of the Carolina coasts in the United States? You might not realize that because, in this day of global trade, fast shipping, and unfortunate poaching, you can buy a Venus Fly Trap in any number of places…..especially at Wal-Mart in August! Of course the geographic habitat of this plant is not the only thing that is interesting. The Venus Fly Trap has evolved to trap insects to make up for growing in those poor, quickly drained soils! It is amazing!

Another example that always intrigues my students is the fact that we have a cactus that grows outdoors in Wisconsin! It is a variety of the Prickly Pear Cactus. When we talked about cacti and succulents during the garden club unit on this topic, once again, habitat was discussed, as it should be. But, who could guess that after finding out about the environmental needs of cacti, we would find one growing on the prairie or in someone’s yard, here in Wisconsin?! I further inspire awe and imbue excitement in the students by explaining that I have seen this cactus grow in many places during my travels…..Bermuda, California, New York State, and others….few of which possess desert-like conditions. After all, I don’t think you can say the side of the highway between Carlsbad and San Diego, California is a desert!

There are many, many other examples. Others have noticed the effect awe has on a human’s curiosity. You can read more about it in this article by Jake Abrahamson in the Sierra Club Magazine from December 2014, The Science of Awe.

It turns out that not only does awe inspire curiosity, it is also healthy for us to feel it! As a parent, many of us aspire to letting our children know that we are all part of a bigger picture, that the world is not only about us. What better way to convey that than through providing some awe-filled experiences? And the best part is, many of these type of experiences do not cost a thing! They are free!

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Gaze at the stars on a summer night – get out of  town and city lights for the best viewing.
  • Watch a monarch caterpillar form its chrysalis.
  • Watch a monarch butterfly emerge from the chrysalis.
  • Find out about rare and endangered species in your area, make an effort to learn about them and see them, if possible.
  • Visit a big city with little kids and look up at the tall buildings! Humans designed and constructed these structures.
  • Watch a baby being born. (Maybe, starting with an animal baby would be best!)
  • Stand on a mountaintop and take in the view.
  • Ride a bike down a volcano (Yes! This is possible! We did this in 2015 on Mt. Haleakala in Maui, Hawaii.
  • Find out how corn kernels are formed – amazing! You’d never guess all that corn silk had a purpose!
  • Grow a flower bulb without dirt!
  • Watch tadpoles turn into frogs.
  • Watch a chick hatch from an egg.
  • Marvel at the colors in a sunrise or sunset.
  • Watch an eclipse (with protective eye-wear, of course).

There are so many things that can inspire awe. What awe filled experiences have you had, personally? Have you ever used awe-inspriation in your teaching? I hope you consider adding some awe to your teaching or parenting style. I have found it not only useful, but extremely satisfying for both me and the children.

11 thoughts

  1. Wait, what??? A cactus in Wisconsin??? I live in Kenosha and did not know this. You have filled me with awe today too! 🙂 (BTW — I think awe is a perfect byproduct of student-centered learning. You are doing a good thing!)


  2. Your post reminds me how fascinated my fourth graders were this year by the growth of an amaryllis bulb. Your post is a great reminder to actively seek such experiences for my students and, as much as possible, incorporate them in my classroom. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! Planting bulbs could be a post of its own! I did with with garden club students for 11 of the 13 years we had meetings and in the last two years I had someone donate enough amaryllis bulbs to do the entire 3rd grade at one school and 4th grade at another, plus some Algebra II students (about 100) at our High School! Bulbs are great for engagement (and awe!). Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the idea of awe and really get the importance of it. My own kiddos are great with their enthusiasm for little things–my 8 year old son met a kitten that just blew him away last week, my 6 year old son sometimes spots the moon still up in the sky on winter mornings and has to stop and look at it, and my ten year old daughter was awe-filled at the fun-ness of the water camp she started yesterday. I’m lucky to have them, and I’m proud that I’ve sprinkled this skill or talent in them. But here’s my question: what about those kids who are too cool for school, too cool for awe? I listened to a mom lament today that her kids aren’t going to camps because they declared all of them “boring.” How can we RE inspire kids with awe? I think that’s a fun and worthy challenge!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a good question you ask and I’m not sure I have the answer, but I do know that if you don’t promote it as an awe-filled experience, you will naturally have some find it (awe) their own. For the most part, I think it has to be a natural course in both the exposure to awe and the inspiration received from it. I had high schoolers assist my garden club meetings and they commonly commented to me that they couldn’t believe what they were learning. But, these kids were not concerned about whether or not they were cool or that helping at an elementarty school club was boring. I also think almost all kids lack enough real life experiences that surely there are some that could provide awe. Additionally, one road to accomplishing that is less self-absorption via technology and more contact with nature.


  4. Every time that I visit your blog, I not only learn something, but I also am prompted to think about the topics of your posts long after I’ve closed my computer’s browser. Tonight, I thought about the different experiences that you suggested and how awe-inspiring experiences are all around us all the time—we just have to be on the lookout for them and not take these experiences for granted.


  5. I have been inspired & awed by you for many years. Watching you parent was an inspiration to me as I became a parent. Your ideas & love for teaching have inspired me as a teacher. I have done many of the things you listed with either students or my own children. I love capturing children in a sense of awe & engagement in learning. So many of those items you listed people take for granted & assume children know about. I’m thankful to share those experiences with my children & feel like I am teaching my children so many valuable life lessons as they encounter the sense of awe. I’m also excited to come back to first grade this year & teach about monarchs (and other insects), plants, & animal classification. So many interesting science units to capture awe & engage students in learning!

    Liked by 1 person

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