We humans are born curious. You’ve seen your baby in action: putting everything she can get her hands on in her mouth to learn tastes and textures, banging on pots and pans to see how they sound, reaching for things she’s never seen before. We are wired to wonder how the world works.
Whether kids maintain their natural curiosity as they get older depends in part on personality and in part on the encouragement they receive from the adults around them.
Sure, the never-ending barrage of questions from a kindergartener can be exhausting, but most parents want to raise curious kids. As author Ian Leslie recently wrote in The Guardian: “The only thing worse than having to explain to your child how babies are made would be a child who didn't want to know.”
The more questions a child asks, the more they learn.
So how can we as adults help cultivate a child’s curiosity? Here are seven tips to bring out the innate inquisitiveness in the children in your life.
Break routine. Routines are great. They give small children a sense of security and control. They help parents maintain some semblance of sanity. Routines like washing hands before eating or looking both ways before crossing the street teach kids to be safe. But every once in a while, surprise your kids with the unexpected for the sake of cultivating curiosity. Have breakfast for dinner. Announce that you’re going exploring and take a new route to school or the playground. Introduce a little novelty into your routine to let children know it’s okay to try something new.
Tell only part of the story. In a 1994 study, Carnegie Mellon University professor George Loewenstein wrote that curiosity arises when we realize there’s a gap in our knowledge. Encourage that gap by giving children intriguing but incomplete answers to their questions. This invites more curiosity — and ultimately more interest — in the topic at hand. When your kid wants to know what happened to the dinosaurs, tell him a giant asteroid hit the earth millions of years ago. See if that doesn’t start a conversation!
Ask “what if?" After reading a book or watching a movie together, ask children what could have happened if the story’s ending had been different. What if the Little Mermaid decided to keep her fins and her voice? What if Max in Where the Wild Things Are had never left the island of beasts? Prompting children to rewrite the endings of their favorite stories not only encourages curiosity, it also teaches creativity and critical thinking.
Show interest. Show enthusiasm in your child’s passions. Get excited about the fort he just built or the worm she just dug out of the dirt. Ask your child who always chooses chocolate to explain why not vanilla, or what’s so great about the protagonist in a favorite movie. By showing interest, you’re encouraging children to be engaged in and curious about the world around them.
Go to the library. Thanks to the Internet, we have the entire world at our fingertips. We can type almost any question in our search bar and get something akin to an answer in seconds. But before all that, we had the library. Seeing a physical representation of all the knowledge accessible online can be awe-inspiring for kids. It can also help them explore new ideas and questions in a really tangible and satisfying way.
Embrace rules-free activities. So many of today’s toys have specific instructions to get to completion. The video game challenge is to save the world. The properly assembled jewelry kit results in a particular bracelet. But when it comes to developing curiosity, you want to give your children toys that come with zero instructions to follow. Items like wooden blocks, paint kits and play dough encourage curiosity because they allow kids to make their own rules.
Cultivate your own curiosity. We may be born curious, but as we get older it’s easy to get caught up in our daily routines, professional commitments and social obligations. We go to the same restaurants on the weekends because we know they’re good. We buy the same groceries each week because we know they’re tasty and nutritious. For kids, routines establish a sense of security. For adults, they minimize risk. You don’t have to learn to sky dive to demonstrate curiousity. Wonder aloud about the things you don’t understand. Ask questions. Share an exciting new fact you just learned or a simple summary of a book you just read.
The greatest thing we can do to encourage curiosity in the children around us is to stay curious ourselves.