Child Development Research, Insights, and Science Briefs to Your Inbox
Parents can help by also being curious, providing good answers and hosting open-ended conversations.
Babies are born with curiosity. It’s a formidable, innate skill that helps young children to learn deeply and lastingly. Our task is to nurture that curiosity by encouraging children’s questions and explorations — and by being curious ourselves.
From birth, children show a powerful inclination and ability to detect regularities around them, noticing when something is different or unexpected. This capacity to categorise helps them to make sense of the mass of information coming at them.
Curiosity helps children learn efficiently. It is a novelty detector, driving them to explain the unexpected and resolve uncertainty. Using all of their senses, they explore anything unfamiliar until it is no longer unfamiliar.
Being curious may also make people happier as adults. People who rate high on curiosity scales also report higher satisfaction with their lives and have higher scores for well-being. This could be because people who carry on learning – which typically requires curiosity – are happier.
Curiosity serves understanding
By 18 months, children are voracious and omnivorous in their pursuit of information; they inquire all day long, as many parents will testify. Toddlers work their way through a room like a wrecking team, driven by curiosity, all in the service of finding out about every new object, event or person they encounter.
“Most children aged 3 or 4 ask a question a minute and even the least inquisitive ask one every two or three minutes.”
Gradually, more of life becomes familiar. They know about breakfast, the trip to day care, the grocery store. That familiarity lets them engage in everyday activities and play. As everyday life becomes less worthy of exploration, children’s curiosity turns to new mysteries. There are still many questions to be asked.
Questions are tools of curiosity
A child’s approach to investigation is sometimes referred to as “taste, twist and rattle”. However, children also want to know about the non-physical world, things they can’t touch and feel. Asking questions helps them find out more about the unseen world.
They want to know what happens at the end of the sky, what happens when people die, or why we sit down when we eat dinner. In one of my studies, a curious child asked his mother: “Why are green things sometimes called lettuce and sometimes called spinach?” Most children aged three or four ask a question a minute, and even the least curious ask one every two or three minutes. Some of these questions are about the natural world, but many are about culture and the practices of community and family.
Curiosity is at risk as children grow older
Many of the skills we want children to develop must be instilled. We try to teach them how to do algebra, use self-control, and put other people’s needs ahead of their own. We tend to assume that children won’t develop these skills spontaneously, that they need help acquiring them. In this sense, curiosity is unique, because babies and young children already have it in abundance. The problem is that they may lose it as they grow older or in certain contexts – notably at school.
So how do we help children hold onto their natural curiosity? Just as important, what can we do to help them become more persistent, penetrating and adept at solving the mysteries of everyday life?
How to support curiosity
Parents can do at least three things to encourage children’s curiosity. First, provide satisfying answers to their inquiries. Children’s questions are sensitive to the answers they receive. If you give them a satisfying answer, they will ask deeper or more refined questions. If a response is unsatisfying, they will continue asking the same question, but, over time, they might stop asking.
We know from studies of curiosity that children who ask a lot of questions and receive satisfying answers are the ones who go on asking questions. Families where questions are encouraged are families where a lot of talking and knowledge seeking takes place.
We also know that the least curious children are the ones most vulnerable to an uninterested response or blank stare from an adult. It means, for example, that the children who come to school with a lower overall level of curiosity are the ones who most need to be encouraged to inquire.
Second, demonstrate your own curiosity — ask questions, look things up, investigate. In my research, we have seen that children are profoundly affected by adults who ask a lot of questions themselves, copying their linguistic habits. Children who ask a lot of questions typically have parents who do the same.
For example, imagine a child who asks: “Why does ice melt?” A perfectly satisfying answer might be: “I think it melts when the temperature gets high.” But a parent can go further than this in response to curiosity, which brings me to my third suggestion: be ready to follow a set of questions (your own and your child’s) that lead in an unknown direction. Enjoy the experience of speculating, not knowing something, and the expectation that you can find the answer.
A parent could model and extend the ice melting discussion by saying: “I wonder what will happen if I hold the ice in my hand?” Or you might say: “Let’s use a timer and see how long the ice takes to melt.” Here, the parent is both modelling curiosity and engaging the child in an extended pursuit of knowledge by opening more doors.
Curiosity crashes in the classroom
Adults often unwittingly discourage curiosity. For instance, in an attempt to challenge a child, they may answer a question with another question, for instance replying: “Why do you think the ice melts?” That can be fun, but sometimes parents try too hard to be instructive, deadening the exchange and making it too didactic. The Socratic method, in which an adult tries to lead a child towards a particular answer, is not necessarily the best approach.
“Families where questions are encouraged are families where a lot of talking and knowledge-seeking takes place.”
I keep chickens. A child might ask: “How come chickens have to go in at night?” I could say: “Why do you think they have to go in?” But I could respond more directly by simply saying, “It’s because I don’t want the coyotes to eat the chickens.”
That not only gives the child the satisfaction of fulfilling curiosity, it also opens up a new set of possible questions about coyotes. When adults and children extend and deepen their exchanges, everyone benefits. I might also ask a question that I am genuinely interested in: “I wonder if there is a better way to keep the chicken safe?” or “I don’t understand why they kill the chickens at night and not during the day.”
Parents should monitor what happens in school
Parents clearly can cherish and nurture their children’s curiosity at home. But they should also be discerning about children’s experiences at school. General curiosity inevitably wanes a bit with age. As we develop, it’s adaptive to be less voracious for every kind of information. But as soon as children go to school, curiosity unnecessarily plummets. Research has shown that even the children who continue to ask lots of questions at home ask very few at school. And the less curious children are, the more sensitive they are to discouraging or encouraging cues from adults.
Schools focus on disseminating prescribed knowledge. But the methods they most often use to instil such knowledge frequently turn children away from inquiry. Even when teachers ask questions – or encourage and answer questions – children rarely get a chance in school to experience deep, uncharted, sustained inquiry about things they really want to understand. We should encourage sustained inquiry both in class and at home, if the infants’ great gift of curiosity is to survive and flourish into adulthood.
Engel S (2011), Children’s Need to Know: Curiosity in Schools, Harvard Educational Review, 81.4