SENSORY CURIOSITY: The Key to a Child’s Exploration of the Natural World

About the Author

Erik Shonstrom is the author of "Wild Curiosity: How to Unleash Creativity and Encourage Lifelong Wondering" and a professor of rhetoric at Champlain College in Vermont. His next book, "The Indoor Epidemic," will be released by Rowman & Littlefield in late 2016. Erik lives in Vermont with his family.

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There’s a log in the woods behind our home that my seven-year-old son, Finn, likes to balance on. We dorkily call it “the Bridge of Khazad-dûm,” a moniker inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It’s a big, old white pine, knobby, barkless, and ready to rot. It’s canted up at an angle, with one end still attached to a high stump. At its tallest point, the log is about five feet off the ground.

When he was a toddler, Finn was content to waddle along the part of the tree that lay flat on the ground. As he got older, he worked up to walking the whole length. Now, he runs up and launches off the high point to land with a thud on the ground.

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Anyone who has spent time outdoors with children will tell you that some kids just seem to invite risk. They go right to the edge of the cliff on a hike, spreading their arms wide, making adults’ hearts skip a beat. They climb high up trees, scramble up vertiginous boulders, play in the river where the current is strongest. We fret, cajole, even threaten them to say safe– or else! But given the mildly stressful nature of these situations, we may never have the presence of mind to wonder what it is they’re actually doing. They’re experiencing sensory curiosity. And nothing fosters the opportunity for children to make an acquaintance with this type of curiosity as well as being free to explore nature.

Jordan Litman, a researcher at the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition, defines sensory curiosity as “seeking novel sensory experiences through adventure.” But sensory curiosity is slightly different from the kind of chest-thumping, adrenaline-charged antics we usually associate with risk takers.

While there may be a bit of danger involved (launching off the log, my son could sprain an ankle), it’s not life-threatening.

Woods, fields, scrubby parkland, really any natural places, are the perfect locations for a child to indulge in sensory curiosity. Like other forms of curiosity such as perceptual and epistemic, sensory curiosity is an exploration. Curious individuals are active seekers, engaged explorers, whether they are investigating intellectual ideas or reconnoitering a steep, weed-choked ravine near their suburban home. Curiosity is a good thing (despite what the cat tells us!). It spurs experience and learning.

A boy playing in a creek
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It’s important to offer children opportunities for experiencing the spectrum of curiosity, but sadly it’s often sensory curiosity that gets left out. Parents and grandparents may remember playing adventurous games that, today, would make most parents shudder. When I was a kid about Finn’s age, my favorite place to play was a local dump where I’d explore and try to find unshattered TV screens to throw rocks at. My favorite place to swim was a dark, narrow, swiftly-moving water hole called ‘The Gorge.’ While sensory curiosity can occasionally seem like carelessness or the behavior of a troublemaker, it exists within a spectrum of behaviors and traits that include inquiry, wonder, and awe. The cultivation of some of these experiences has been tied to both intellectual development and the nurturing of empathy and compassion.
When schools, parents, and communities don’t engender opportunities for children to explore the natural world in this way, the door to sensory curiosity gets slammed shut and kids suffer by not being able to come to terms with the world, each other, and themselves, through play and exploration.

So the next time you see a child balancing on teetering logs or recklessly leap-frogging from rock to rock in the middle of a river, just remember that they may be in the thrall of sensory curiosity – allowing their curious whims to guide them in an exciting exploration of the world.

Find Erik on twitter @eshonstrom or on the Web at

Additional Reading

BUILDING EXECUTIVE FUNCTION SKILLS: How Time in Nature Enhances School Success

IN DEFENSE OF BOREDOM: It Can Lead to Imaginative Play, Creativity and the Great Outdoors

THE NATURE OF MY DREAMS: Building the Confidence to Make a Difference

WHAT WOULD POOH DO? A Walk Through a Forest that Helped Shape (and Could Still Help Save) the Natural Childhood

NATURE IS THE ULTIMATE SENSORY EXPERIENCE: A Pediatric Occupational Therapist Makes the Case for Nature Therapy

C&NN Resources

Children’s experiences with nature involve sensory, affective, cognitive and behavioral dimensions

Park’s natural play space encourages unstructured, creative, cooperative play and exploration

Children & Nature Worldwide: An Exploration of Children’s Experiences of the Outdoors and Nature with Associated Risks and Benefits

In the News

Great Outdoors University Shows City Kids What They’re Missing

Take a Hike for Health: Small Doses of the Outdoors Make a Big Difference

Outdoor Education: Children Develop Sensory Integration Skills

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