Nurturing curiosity

Dear Mr. Dad: I have a very curious four-year-old girl—always asking questions and exploring. I know kids often lose this curiosity as they get older. What’s the best way to help a child stay curious and engaged?

A: There’s nothing like taking a walk with preschoolers. Every leaf and sidewalk crack seems to grab their attention. But somewhere along the line, as we grow up, we develop the ability to walk past absolute miracles without so much as putting down our cell phones.

Fortunately, there’s some good news about trying to nurture your child’s curiosity: she was born curious. So you’re looking at things in exactly the right way—trying to help her keep something she already has instead of acquire something new from scratch.

Think for a minute about the amazing task of growing up. It takes only 5,844 days to go from crying newborn to getting a driver’s license. Because we need to know so much just to survive, nature has hardwired us for curiosity, made us hungry for knowledge. Once we’ve got the basics down, though, our natural hunger tapers off. But oh what fun it is to keep that hunger alive so we can dig beyond the basics!

The first thing to do is turn wonder into curiosity. Wonder is the “wow” moment: “Wow, look at all the stars!” “Wow, look at the way that chameleon changes colors!” Curiosity is the next step—the desire to understand: “How do the stars keep burning?” “How many of them are there?” “How does the chameleon do that?”

By one estimate, kids ask over 400,000 questions between age two and age five. How you respond to those questions will have a greater impact on your child’s sense of curiosity than the thirteen years of school that follow.

If curiosity is what you’re after, your main goal in responding to a question shouldn’t be giving the answer. To keep the questions coming, you want first and foremost to make the child feel that questioning itself is a fun and rewarding thing to do. Adding some appropriate praise—“What a great question!”—makes it clear that you see asking questions as a neat thing to do.

If you don’t know the answer, say so! That way, you can join your child in the search for an answer, modeling curiosity at every step. Tell her that you’d like to know the answer yourself. Ask your child if she has any guesses and offer some of your own before you look it up. Here it is in a nutshell:

Kid: Why do leaves that are all green in the summer turn so many different colors in the fall?

Parent: Hmmm…What a great question! I have no idea, but now I’m curious myself. Any ideas?

Kid: Well, the one in our front yard is in the sun and it’s turning red, but the one in back is in the shade all day and it’s yellow. Maybe it’s how much sun they get.

Parent: That makes sense. Tell you what. Let’s take a walk around the block and see if all the red ones are in the sun and all the yellow ones are in the shade.

Of course you’re not always going to be able to drop everything and go on a quest—but consider this as an ideal, something to try when you can. If you don’t have time right then, write the question down and plan a trip to the library where you and your child can look up the answer together, and in the process, stumble upon new questions.

If on the other hand you do know the answer to a child’s question, you have two choices: give the answer, or pretend that you don’t know to encourage the quest. Again—the answer is a secondary goal. Answers are easy to come by. Curiosity, as a lifelong habit, is not.