Into the Great Outdoors: Cultivating Curiosity and Wonder

By Erin Marteal

Photo by Erin Marteal
Allium in bloom at the Ithaca Children’s Garden.

Although late to the party this year, aunt spring has settled in, replete with her dandelion crown and allium wand. The horse chestnuts are brilliant this year (aren’t they every year?) and the green has touched down virtually everywhere it is destined to appear; weeds are springing forth as enthusiastically as students counting down to the last day of school. The “w” word is a distant memory and one that will not be named for some months. Our endurance is now being rewarded with the beauty and energy of this exuberant season.

While IC and Cornell students have largely cleared out, a quickened pace of spring flow fills the air, like the xylem and phloem in constant motion: Up, down, around. In the season of perpetual motion, creating a moment of pause can be the difference between paddling our boat smartly downstream or getting swept away in the rapids.

Curiosity and wonder are two old friends waiting patiently to remind us of all that is good and sweet in this world, if only we pause to notice. They are there to help us get reacquainted with the season, slow down, and wake up fully to the world around us.

As children, we are born with a natural inquisitiveness that engages us in learning about life and the world, and serves critical survival functions. By the time we are adults, many of us have found that innate curiosity increasingly overshadowed by energy towards external directives. This time of year is ripe for rediscovering that curiosity that lives in each of us, even if sometimes it is only as noticeable as a barely audible whisper.

One of my favorite places to get reacquainted with curiosity and wonder is behind the lens of a camera. If you have a nice camera, great, but any camera, smartphone or otherwise, will work just fine. This is really fun to do on your own, or with children who are old enough to hold the camera independently. If your child is able to move around safely with the camera, consider setting them free to go explore and capture images on their own that they can share with you when they return. Talk through any ground rules you may have for the care of your camera like keeping the strap on the shoulder or using slow feet while carrying the camera.

If a camera is not available, or as an alternative to this project, use physical frames in the landscape to guide your attention to new ways of cultivating curiosity. You can use a cheap store-bought frame (remove the glass and backing) or find one already in the landscape. This forces you to consider shapes in the world that can frame other things that you might not normally see as frames.

Photo by Erin Marteal
Using found objects, such as this pipe entrance, can create frames for images one wouldn’t necessarily see.

When taking pictures or working with children taking pictures outdoors, start by being still and quiet for a full minute, with the intention of noticing plants around you. (Taking photos of plants which are relatively stationary is much easier than photographing animals so there is no stress about rushing to capture the perfect shot.) When I find a plant I’m curious about, I like to imagine the plant’s circulatory system, and the internal world of the water, nutrients, and sugars moving from roots and leaves to stems and flowers. Imagining all the juicy activity within a simple flower or weed helps connect me to the mystery and essence of life, and brings me into the present moment.

Once I’ve connected to the subject, I take a snapshot from my normal vantage point, without fussing about anything except getting it in focus. Then I drop down as close as I can to root level, the “worm’s eye” view. I might take a photo of the plant, or I might take a photo from the plant’s perspective depending on what inspires me. I continue experimenting with angle and level, and finish up by taking an aerial perspective looking straight down. (If your plant is a tree, see if you can climb it to get an elevated view of your surroundings. Climbing trees is not just for kids!)

Using the camera as a tool to investigate different vantage points invariable piques my curiosity about the plant world: Noticing things I’ve never seen before. It helps cultivate “beginner’s mind” where we see old familiar subjects in new, often wonderfully illuminating light. Whatever noise was buzzing around in my mind fades to the background and becomes less urgent. And while the fruit of the investigation is in the process of slowing down and awakening curiosity, sometimes beautiful images result. Printing your favorite images to hang on your wall or use as a bookmark is a great way to create unique works of art. It also serves as a reminder of a special moment in time when you slowed down enough to cultivate your innate sense of curious and wonder.
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Erin Marteal has served Ithaca Children’s Garden as its executive director since 2011. She can be reached at