How Nurturing Your Child’s Curiosity Improves Their Learning- Psychologist, Susan Engel

Instead of shutting down your child’s curiosity and taming them all together, Senior Lecturer and Psychologist, Professor Susan Engel says you should nurture it.

Curiosity is 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.”

Explains Susan.

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.

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Curiosity aids 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 daycare, 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.

Parents can do at least two things to encourage children’s curiosity, says Engel.

  • 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.

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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 modeling curiosity and engaging the child in an extended pursuit of knowledge by opening more doors.

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