Most of us remember having read Lewis Caroll’s beloved and most fantastical gift to children – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It begins with a bored Alice spotting a White Rabbit muttering how late he is.
This strange sight of a talking rabbit is nothing compared to what follows – the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on ... Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity , she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.
In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”
Forget Alice. If we were to encounter a talking rabbit on the road on our way to work, wouldn’t the risk-taking and adventurous ones amongst us follow it, led by our curiosity?
That is a classic example of what curiosity does to children – give a child a puzzle, or an unusual piece of information and she will not be satisfied till the mysterious makes perfect sense to her. Such is the thrill of exploration, that a child will forget her family and the dangers such an endeavour may pose to her life.
We are all born scientists as we are all born curious. The world is an endless source of wonder to your child – Where does the sun disappear at night? Why are some oceans blue, and some green? How do bridges bear so much weight?
Therefore, curiosity may well be another word for natural inquiry.
What propels curiosity?
“Curiosity is a search, a hunger for information, especially when things don’t fall into a pattern. It can be an answer to a child’s how, what, when, where and why. Children want to know why something is happening, or they may seek factual information like the height of Mt Everest, or get to the heart of how things actually work. When a child wants to ‘know’ on his own, learning becomes thrilling,” says Sriram Naganathan, founder of Ignite Minds, an education service firm based in Chennai.
‘Curiouser and curiouser’
It’s curious, but curiosity cannot be specifically measured. “For example, curiosity has been measured by the number of questions a child asks, or whether or not a child engages in specific exploratory behaviour, or whether or not, he has a preference for uncertainty. I will not say that any of these are ‘the’ way to measure curiosity; but each are ways of looking at it from a specific viewpoint,” says Jamie Jirout, PhD, a researcher at the Department of Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia.
You must have noticed how the baby, tugs at the gold chain glittering round your neck when you hold him. Researchers like Jamie believe that some children possess a keener desire than others to explore their immediate surroundings.
“I believe that all children are naturally curious, and that some children are more curious than others … Curiosity is both motivated by individual differences and by children's environment,” she says.
The exploring toddler
Uma Shankar, Director of Centre for Montessori Training, Chennai, is amazed by the curiosity pre-schoolers exhibit and believes that children are born explorers.
“If they see any object, they need to put it in their mouth to learn about it. They want to feel, touch and taste all the objects they can hold, and enjoy sensorial experiences a lot. Just open your bag in front of your child, and he will walk up to you and peek into it, and take out the contents one by one!” says Uma with a smile.
She wants parents to respond to questions keeping in mind their child’s age. “Once a mother told me how her son wanted to know where he came from. She was wondering how to answer this, when she decided to check what had aroused his curiosity. To this, her son replied that his friend had come from Chennai and he wanted to know where he came from!” says Uma.
Why curiosity is important
It is best to forget that old adage about how curiosity killed the cat. And moreover, it probably applies only to those prowling felines. For children, curiosity is a boon that ignites the creative spark. Though your child’s umpteen questions may tend to annoy, parents admit that curiosity is a desirable attribute of a child.
How does curiosity benefit children?
“While there is a generally held and intuitive belief that curiosity is important, there isn’t much empirical support for it, though I think curiosity is important. I have found curiosity to be related to children’s question-asking, and both curiosity and question-asking to be related to children's ability to deal with uncertainty in the world and find effective ways of resolving that uncertainty,” says Jamie Jirout, PhD, a researcher at the Department of Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia.
Curiosity is also a desirable trait in adults. The backdrop of any work that needs to progress, is innovation. And the backdrop of innovation is curiosity. (Curiosity and innovation are very desirable in the corporate world and equally among entrepreneurs.)
Curiosity declines with age?
Again there is no empirical evidence to suggest that curiosity fades with age or education, but it does appear to be dormant in many adults. Else, why are there so many self-help books, management books exhorting you to re-discover your inner child, and advising you to look afresh at the world with child-like wonder?
Scientist Carlo Parvanno had once lamented. “From the first ball they send flying, to watching the ant that is carrying a crumb, children use science’s tools—enthusiasm, hypotheses, tests, conclusions—to uncover the world's mysteries. But somehow students seem to lose what once came to them naturally.”
The decline in curiosity levels, seems to coincide with formal learning and age.
What kills curiosity?
“Formal schooling dumps information on the child. A California board has removed algebra requirement for eighth-graders as it is difficult to explain to the children why algebra is useful. I feel that curiosity gets killed in our formal learning setting,” believes Sriram.
“Fear of adult/parent disapproval can be another reason,” says Uma. “Children are constantly thinking – sometimes they choose to share their curiosity with the adults, while at other times they don’t, fearing parental disapproval,” she says.
“It is hard for children to be curious if they don’t feel safe exploring and asking questions. At the same time, children must also face some uncertainty and learn to be comfortable with that uncertainty, while learning how to resolve it,” says Jamie
Therefore, curiosity needs to be encouraged all the way through childhood and adolescence, for it to become ingrained in the adult psyche.
Prompting and preserving curiosity in children
For curiosity to be evoked, the child needs to feel secure, and at the same time, a little uncertain.
“There are individual differences in children’s interests. Children may be more curious about subjects they are interested in, and will probably try to get information in various ways to explore those subjects further. They may read books, visit museums, talk to content experts, and search the Internet. They are most curious when they are challenged with a problem or question.
But they will act further or explore further only if they are in the comfort zone,” says Jamie.
“Once my then 8-year-old grandson asked his father –‘Appa, you tell me that when you were growing up, there was no TV or computer. What will I get to tell my children?’ This shows how he is already imagining the future! We assured him that new technologies will be developed by the time he is a father and that he can tell his son that these things did not exist when he was a child!” says Uma.
“If you think that the child is feeling too shy to ask questions, you can voice these questions aloud to preserve the child’s innate curiosity,” says Sriram.
“Suppose you visit Mahabalipuram or the Ellora caves with your child. After admiring the beautiful architecture that has withstood the ravages of time, you can ask your child – ‘There was no electricity or sophisticated engineering tools some 1,600 years back when these grand structures were carved. How did the craftsmen transport these stones and take measurements to build them? What was it like living in Mahabalipuram in ancient times?’ ” he says.
This way, both your child and you can embark on a journey of learning together. It is natural that when you both imagine together, your child will truly enjoy learning. But he advises against overloading your child with excess information.
Curiosity is a child tinkering with questions – How does a mobile phone work? What binding agent can we use when baking an eggless cake? It can lead to greater explorations on the part of your child. So, the next time, your child asks ‘Why doesn’t it snow in Chennai?’, maybe both of you can Google climates and regions, and end up discussing climate change!
8 ways to keep curiosity alive
Uma, Sriram, Jamie and Dr Perry suggest tips to nurture your child’s curiosity:
1. Encourage your child’s interests. Find out your child’s interests, and explore them together. You can begin by asking your child to find out which is the oldest object in your house. If it turns out to be a cupboard, ask him to find out where it came from, who brought it into the house and the like. This way, he will discover a story.
2. Answer questions with enthusiasm. Respond to your child’s questions thoughtfully. If you don’t know the answer, seek out answers together from the Internet, books or experts. Help them feel comfortable with feelings of not knowing something, and also help them realize the excitement of resolving uncertainty.
3. Redirect interests. If your child enjoys playing with water, instead of saying ‘Don’t’ when she throws a cup of water, give her some water and containers, and allow her to play in an area which can be messed up. Show her acceptable ways of learning.
4. Ensure a safe environment: Safety should be your prime concern when children are exploring their environment. Cover plug points and keep medicines, cleaners, sharp objects and hot surfaces out of a young child’s reach. Supervise children around water.
5. Give children stability. “Young children thrive on a calm, orderly family life with regular mealtimes and bedtime routines. Since children cannot tell time, the routine is their clock. When children’s lives are stressful, they respond by playing and exploring less. Children who experience abuse, neglect, violence, natural disasters, or war lose their curiosity and do not explore like children raised in healthy, stable homes,” writes Dr Bruce Perry in http://www.betterkidcare.psu.edu/.
6. Choose play materials intelligently. Though video game consoles may be a rage, kids need play materials they can manipulate. Blocks, boxes, puzzles, water, and art materials – these can be an immense source of fun and learning for your child.
7. Allow children to collect things. Encourage children to collect seashells, miniature cars, sports-related items or pebbles.
8. Provide them with tools for exploration. Give them magnets, bucket, magnifying glass, measuring tape, sand, clay, water and measuring cups for their investigations.