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How to encourage curiosity in kids

baby staring curiously at something

Key points:

  1. Babies are born with an innate curiosity to explore and learn.
  2. Cultivating curiosity is critical to lifelong learning and motivation to seek out knowledge.
  3. Activities such as following your child’s interests, creating an interesting environment, redirecting instead of discouraging exploration, making time for pretend play, and using open-ended questions can foster curiosity.
  4. Fear, restrictions, and absence can undermine curiosity, and it is important for parents to provide a caring and invested presence to reinforce a child’s discoveries and encourage exploration.

Babies are born curious, they come into the world with an innate desire to understand how things work, a desire to learn. They are drawn to new things and experiences, they question, explore, and, by doing so, they learn thanks to their curiosity!

All children have some level of innate curiosity that motivates them to explore. As a parent, you don’t have to “make” your little one curious, because they already have this innate trait. But what you can do is help them cultivate their curiosity so your child can be a lifelong learner. 

What does science say about curiosity? 

Research has shown that it is a child’s inner desire to learn (their curiosity), not external pressures, that motivates them to seek out new experiences and solutions. Curious people are “seekers” of knowledge. They do not only enjoy exploring, but they actually like to look out for challenges. Curiosity helps people approach uncertainty in a positive light.

A recent study conducted by researchers from John Hopkins University revealed the critical role curiosity plays. In their experiment, when babies were surprised –that is, when their expectations of an object’s behavior were challenged– researchers discovered that they learned best! Curiosity drew babies to test, explore, and consequently figure out what was going on to better understand the situation.

Activities to foster curiosity

Given its importance in learning, how can parents nurture their child’s curiosity and make them become knowledge “seekers”? Here are some tips that will help you get started:

1. Follow your child’s interests 

Children learn best through activities that capture their attention and ignite their imagination. Find activities that your child likes and do them together often. For example, if they like a particular type of music, then play it for them or even dance together. If they like animals, take them to the zoo or read books about their favorite animals.

2. Create an interesting environment

Babies spend most of their time observing their surroundings. They’re curious about their environment, so make sure you provide safe toys and objects that your baby can explore and that stimulate their senses.

3. Redirect, don’t discourage

Children, even as babies, need to move to increase brain connections. Remember that no child is a passive learner! Try to figure out what is capturing your child’s interest and find a safe way for them to analyze it. Use as few restrictions as possible, but always verify they are safe.

4. Make time for pretend play

Although you may find some of the new electronic toys the most appealing, you should once in a while try to include objects such as boxes, blocks, or sand. Granted, they may seem dull, but they can be used in imaginative ways too! These toys are excellent learning tools because they let curiosity lead the way when children play with them. Do not tell your child what to do with the material, how to use it, or what it should look like in the end. Let your child’s curiosity be their guide!

5. Use open-ended questions 

This tip is for older children, but it’s still worth mentioning. Make sure you avoid questions that have a “yes” or “no” answer. That way, you will stimulate your child’s mind, encouraging them to develop their thoughts and ideas. Try to use questions like: “How do you feel about X” or “What was the experience like for you?”.

Things that undermine curiosity

Knowing how to cultivate your child’s curiosity is very important, but there are 3 things you should also keep an eye out for: the curiosity crushers. According to Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., an internationally recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis, these are fear, restrictions, and absence.

  1. Fear: It is the #1 killer of curiosity. When a child’s world is hectic or when they are afraid, they’re not likely to explore. Remember that the way you handle a stressful situation, and the way you encourage further exploration helps with their development.
  2. Disapproval and restrictions: When saying the words “Don’t. Don’t touch. Don’t climb. Don’t yell. Don’t get dirty”, children sense and respond to our attitudes and fears. If we convey a sense of disgust at the dirt on their clothes, their excitement for discovery will be diminished. Use as little restrictions as is safely possible.
  3. Absence: The presence of a caring, encouraging, and invested adult provides essential factors for optimal exploration. It gives your child a sense of safety as well as reinforcement and approval for their discoveries.

Overall, remember you are your child’s first and most important teacher. Explore curiosity together with enthusiasm and introduce them to new experiences. Don’t forget that children explore with their senses, so provide enough opportunities for them to use them in their environment. Take into consideration your child’s abilities and age, little by little, introduce new experiences and objects that feature different shapes, textures, tastes, colors, and sounds.

Remember that helping your little one learn to use curiosity through exploration is one of the best skills you could ever cultivate!

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