Young children are naturally curious. They have an itch to explore their world and figure out how things work. And parents have compelling reasons to foster this inherent inquisitiveness. Curiosity is tied to academic achievement, with research showing “unequivocally that when people are curious about something, they learn more, and better.”
According to one study, children whose parents encouraged them to ask questions were more likely to succeed in science. Curiosity also drives creativity, or as writer Elizabeth Gilbert notes, creativity is the natural byproduct of a “curiosity-driven life.”
Here’s one simple trick to raising curious kids: pay attention to their questions.
A one-year-old child’s first question is usually: “What’s that?”—or as my kids pronounced it, “Dat?” They want help naming their world—what they see, hear, taste, smell and feel. From there, the questioning steadily evolves.
For example, like most four-year-olds, my daughter is fascinated with “Why?” Yesterday, as an experiment, I wrote down each of her questions. Here is a small sampling:
- Why can’t I drink water and breathe at the same time?
- Why do slugs make slime?
- Why do walruses have tusks?
- Why are they called hot dogs if they aren’t made from dogs?
- Why does the sun go to bed later in the springtime?
And then there are the unspoken questions that can sometimes seem like misbehavior. My curious two-year-old spends much of his time asking himself, “What will happen if . . . ?” In the last few days, he has wondered:
- What will happen if I drop this egg on the floor?
- What will happen if I press this button?
- What will happen if I put a ukulele on top of my block tower?
- What will happen if I flush Mommy’s toothbrush down the toilet?
For parents, children’s unending questions can challenge our knowledge—and our patience. But if we want to nurture their curiosity, perhaps the best response we can give is simply this: “Good question. Let’s find out.”
Here’s how that might look:
Rather than squelching toddlers’ and preschoolers’ curiosity, redirect it if necessary: “You can’t do that, but you can do this!” If they want to know what happens when they turn the juice carton upside down, let them play outside with cups and a jug of water. If they want to know what it’s like to draw on walls, make some bathtub paint and set them loose in the tub. Take kids on nature walks and follow their pace—as they stop to dig in the dirt, look at bugs, pick up leaves and hunt for “treasure.”
Here’s another reason to give children space to explore their world: explicit directions about how to play make children less likely to make their own discoveries. For example, when you show children exactly how to use a toy, they are more likely to play with it one way: the way you demonstrated!
But if you let them explore independently—particularly with open-ended toys such as blocks and “make believe” materials—they get curious and are more likely to find new, creative ways to play.
Let’s look it up
In the information age, the answer to many “Why?” questions is in our pocket. When kids stump you—as mine regularly do me—it’s easier than ever to say, “I don’t know. Let’s look it up!” But before going online or to the bookshelf, first ask your child, “What do you think?”
For example, when my daughter asked me over breakfast why walruses have tusks, she followed up with, “Let’s look it up on your phone, Mommy!” She guessed that walruses use tusks to protect themselves and was delighted to discover she was right—but we were both intrigued to learn that they also use them to pull their bodies onshore and to cut breathing holes in the ice.
Let’s ask an expert
Help your curious child see that we are surrounded by experts who are willing to share their knowledge. Curiosity can drive connections. Start by thinking about your network of friends and family—and how they might be able to share their skills, hobbies, and life experiences with your kids.Recently, when my four-year-old was peppering me with questions about farm life, I suddenly remembered that we had an expert in the family: Grandma grew up on a ranch!
Through FaceTime, Grandma gamely fielded questions about milking cows, gathering eggs, and riding horses. Both were delighted by the exchange, and my daughter found a new resource for satisfying her (hopefully unending) curiosity.
Deborah Farmer Kris is a writer, teacher, parent educator, and school administrator. She works on parenting projects for PBS KIDS for Parents and writes about education for MindShift, an NPR learning blog.