How to keep kids curious: Five questions answered

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Children are naturally curious. But various forces in the environment can dampen their curiosity over time. Is there anything you can do to keep children’s curiosity alive? For answers to this question, The Conversation US turned to Perry Zurn, a philosophy professor at American University and author of three books on curiosity, including Curious Minds: The Power of Connection, published in September 2022.


1. Is there a lot of curiosity at birth?

Curiosity is a natural ability that is present from an early age in both nonhuman animals and humans. Beings of all kinds search for information, explore their surroundings and invent new ways of solving problems. Creatures large and small, from elephants to bees, engage in exploratory foraging as they discover new territories and resources, while apes—and even cells and viruses—invent new behaviors.

Among humans, most people—scholars and non-scholars alike—feel that children are particularly curious. Psychologist Susan Engel confirms this sense in her book The Hungry Mind. Engel observes children’s curiosity at work in a variety of settings, from preschool nature walks and middle school science labs to asking questions at the dinner table. Her research confirms that children are bursting with curiosity about what is expressed in the things they touch, how they speak, and how they interact with others. But what happens to that curiosity as we get older?

Some people I meet lament the loss of their childlike wonder, others are proud to have preserved or expanded it. What could explain the difference?

2. What kills children’s curiosity?

While research clearly shows that children have a keen interest in asking questions, this interest can wane over time, especially at school. One study found that preschoolers ask an average of 26 questions an hour at home, but fewer than two an hour at school. Another study showed that fifth-grade students expressed curiosity — through asking questions, directed gaze, or object manipulation — less than once every two hours, on average. Why?

Many things can dampen curiosity. Internet search engines and smartphones that provide instant answers limit children’s ability to sit around with their questions and stew over their problems. Parenting styles that emphasize the value of questions only as a means to an end—such as correct answers—limit children’s ability to cultivate questions for their own sake. Finally, when schools train children to only ask certain types of questions in certain ways, it can limit their opportunities to innovate by confining their interest and research into narrow channels.

3. How good are K-12 schools at encouraging curiosity?

Because teacher education focuses on delivering content and developing basic skills, teachers may not know how to encourage curiosity.

To complicate matters further, educators often face impossible odds: growing class sizes, reduced resources, and increased pressure to achieve generalized, measurable outcomes. As a result, many teachers teach “compliance” over “curiosity,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, reflecting on his time as a student in Baltimore schools. In his experience, it was more important for students to behave and study assigned material than to explore their interests and get on their feet. This is particularly detrimental to students whose creative intelligence is already under-stimulated, such as B. Students of color and students with learning disabilities, including autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or dyslexia.

As astrophysicist and black feminist author Chanda Prescod-Weinstein points out in her recent book, The Disordered Cosmos, not everyone is encouraged to reach for the stars—or understand them. She sees black women as particularly discouraged from their academic and scientific pursuits.

4. How can parents protect their children’s curiosity?

Paying attention to each child’s own type of curiosity and instilling in them a sense of pride in that type will go a long way in empowering children to sustain their curiosity. Although children are naturally curious, they can express and pursue their curiosity in different ways. Research shows that there are multiple dimensions, or styles, of curiosity.

For example, a study I was involved in, led by communications scientist David Lydon-Staley, showed that people who search Wikipedia either tend to be busybodies — they click on radically different pages; or hunter – clicking on closely related pages. Your child would like to know everything about a few things? Or a few things about everything?

For the ancient Greeks, these two styles were best characterized by the hedgehog and the fox. According to Archilochus, “the hedgehog knows one thing”, but the fox “knows many things”. Following this instinct, in my book, Curious Minds, co-authored with neuroscientist Dani S. Bassett, we analyze 18 different creatures, from animals to insects, and characterize their unique styles of curiosity. Perhaps your child is more like an octopus, with arms outstretched curiously in all directions, or like an inchworm, slow and steady.

5. What role can universities play?

If people are to have the curiosity and creative imagination needed to tackle pressing problems around the world, we need to rethink what’s happening in the university classroom and what’s happening beyond.

Lani Watson, philosopher of curiosity, argues that as much as colleges and universities promote a core commitment to curiosity, they continue to prioritize “response education.” The exam, the multiple-choice test or the position paper are always the gold standard with which the students show what they have learned and what they have learned.

Asking better, more insightful, and more creative questions is rarely valued in educational institutions, except as a means to other ends—higher grades, more published work, more discovery, or innovation. Rising social pressures to put in more hours for classes, jobs, and internships, and declining investment in liberal arts education make questioning an endangered art. Few students have the time or encouragement to become curious for the sake of curiosity.


Become curious


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Citation: How to Make Kids Curious: Five Questions Answered (2022, September 15), retrieved September 15, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-09-kids-curious.html

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