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Curiosity is a major motivator of learning. Indeed, curiosity is important not only to how children (and adults) learn, it’s a foundation of good mental health. When we become incurious, we can also become passive, reactionary, and dull about other aspects of life, work, and leisure.
Children are said to be born curious – and therefore learning. In her research and her subsequent books – The Philosophical Baby and The Scientist in the Crib – psychologist Alison Gopnik demonstrates how infants have a drive for discovery and experimentation, curiously approaching life like little travelers, enthralled by every aspect of their environments. It’s a chain reaction: When we’re curious about something, our imagination gets fired up and we’re curious to know more.
Right from the womb, children’s curiosity drives their learning. They watch intently what others do, listen closely to what people say, touch everything, and explore every nook and cranny available to them. Later, they incessantly ask questions in an attempt to understand the whys and hows of their ever-expanding field of interest.
As I wrote in another article, educational researchers have demonstrated that when children want to know something, they’re more likely to learn it and remember it. In an article for the February 2013 edition of the journal Educational Leadership, Susan Engel – author, psychologist, and director of the program in teaching at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts – referred to research from the early 1990s that observed babies playing longer with, and exploring more, toys in which they had shown a prior interest. And, she wrote, “when older students are intrigued by unexpected or mysterious descriptions in their reading, they’re more likely to remember that content later, and to more deeply understand what they read.”
Sadly, most schools are structured to stop the curiosity chain reaction in its tracks. Where our curiosity leads is a uniquely individual thing, and is often in conflict with what curriculum writers dictate. In the standardized, competitive, results-focused environment of schools, there just isn’t time to deviate from the curriculum. And one almost sure-fire way to dampen a child’s curiosity is to query or test them about what they’ve learned as a result of some experience.
On the other hand, parents of kids who are living as if school doesn’t exist are free to recognize, nurture, and protect their children’s curiosity. However, that takes faith and trust in children and in their learning process. And even life learning parents can find themselves too busy being curious (or worried) about what children know (or don’t know) to allow curiosity to be their children’s guides. When we’re worried that children won’t learn on their own what they are “supposed” to know, we can sideline their curiosity.
Perhaps the most common concern I get asked about by new life learning parents reflects their doubts about being qualified to answer all their children’s questions. My response is that answers are easy to come by; it’s the questions that are important. The answers will come to the child who is curious and open – not to mention supported in finding the answers by a caring adult. Unfortunately, in school, that idea is stood on its head, with the adults asking the questions (to which they already know the answers) and the children expected to parrot back the “correct” answers.
Another barrier to allowing kids to fully pursue their curiosity is a concern that it will lead them to risky behavior or into unsafe situations or environments. Kids who are found to be too exuberant or curious are, all too often, labeled and sedated to keep them and their surroundings more suitably, well, sedate. However it’s not true that passive kids are safe kids; it’s just that the dangers are different – obesity from inactivity and junk food consumption, for instance, rather than “stranger danger” or whatever other concerns a fearful parent might have.
Although each family must make safety decisions based on their own living situation and their child’s development stage, we must remember that kids gain real knowledge from being able to pursue real experiences, rather than constant protection from risk. I like the way Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, puts it, “Free-range is not ‘free-wheeling.’ We believe in teaching our kids safety. We just also happen to believe that kids today are smarter and safer than society gives them credit for.”
Along with our trust in interest-led learning and our trust that our adventurous children will be safe, patience and time are required to help our life learning children go where their curiosity takes them. Children need unstructured time to play, dream, create, and explore. We should try and remember that learning is not something that we do to our kids, or that we can produce in them. An education is not something they “get”…it is something they create for themselves, on a life-long basis. The best learning – perhaps the only real learning – is that which results from our children’s personal interests and investigations, from following their own passions and asking their own questions. Our role as parents is to give them time to pursue their own answers, not to provide the “correct” answers.
Our support for their curiosity will, as our children grow older, sometimes be more active. We can provide guidance about the various ways to satisfy their curiosity: articulating helpful questions, conducting web searches, using a library, contacting and/or meeting people (adults or other young people) who know a lot about the topic, evaluating the quality of the sources and information, and so on. We can help nurture their imaginations through storytelling, reading aloud, travel and neighborhood expeditions, and time in Nature. Equally important is our modeling curiosity; when they see adults asking questions, being skeptical, pursuing adventures, and learning-by-doing, they’ll not only learn but be armored against society’s tendency to sit back and accept the information that’s fed to us.
The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind by Alison Gopnik (William Morris, 1999)
The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life by Alison Gopnik (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)
How Children Learn by John Holt (Da Capo Press; Revised edition, 1995)
Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy (Jossey-Bass, 2010)
Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine’s editor, the mother of two grown daughters who grew up without school, and the author of thirteen books.