Swiss psychologist, philosopher and pioneer in cognitive development research, Dr. Jean Piaget, defined curiosity as "the urge to explain the unexpected." A more intuitive definition is simply "an urge to know more."
Babies, by definition, are curious creatures. They hunger for information and knowledge about the world. They take in an enormous amount of information and acquire a vast amount of skills in the first few years of life.
Curiosity is necessary for learning
Curiosity is the single most powerful ingredient in learning. Many studies show when kids are curious about something they:
learn it far more easily
remember it far longer
learn at a deeper level
There are two types of curiosity:
Specific curiosity: This is curiosity about unique areas. Research suggests children tend to become curious about particular domains, such as cars or animals for instance.
Diversive curiosity: this is a general hunger for information or knowledge.
While we do not know what influences specific and diversive curiosity, we do know that they vary between children. These individual differences become apparent early in life, about the age of 4. This is when the ‘personality’ of the child emerges - whether it’s a love of cars, collecting puzzle pieces, or drawing. So it is not just that curiosity helps kids learn; it shapes who they are going to become.
While no one is completely incurious, the extent of enquiry varies between children. Some children may peek beneath closed containers, or turn every leaf for careful observation. Others may be much less exploratory. What accounts for these individual differences?
An emotionally secure child is a more curious one
One factor influencing a child’s willingness to explore is their emotional attachment to their caregivers. Research suggests kids are more likely to explore the environment around them when they are well attached to their caregivers.
This was first shown empirically by the distinguished developmental psychologist Dr. Mary Ainsworth, well known for her work on attachment theory. Among her most notable experiments is one she called the “strange situation” test. In this study, mothers and their babies, all close to 9 months of age, shared a room. All babies in the room followed their natural instinct to explore, interacting with new adults and engaging in toys. When mothers were asked to leave the room, the babies expectedly grew anxious. While all babies needed reassurance from their mother upon her return, securely attached babies soon went back to learning about their environment.
But not all babies were as easily reassured. These babies tended to feel much more distressed when their mothers left the room and took longer to feel reassured upon their mother’s arrival. They were ambivalent about exploring the room again and tended to stay closer to their mothers.
Ainsworth concluded that securely attached babies feel safe and confident to continue exploring the world around them.
Children become less overtly curious as they get older
It is not that kids become less curious as they get older; studies show they just do not express it explicitly as much as they did when they were younger. One reason is the way we are schooled. Stricter curriculums and the standardizing of tests pressure teachers to focus on getting through a protocol versus leaving time to ponder and enquire. By not fostering an environment to ask questions, children may feel worried about getting the right answer. This can hinder the very kind of wonderment important for development.
How to foster curiosity in your child
Creating an environment that encourages curiosity has to be genuine. The following suggestions are not milestones you want to achieve. Rather, try integrating these tips naturally into your own behaviour and in conversations.
Show what you don’t know
Unsurprisingly, research shows kids explore more when adults model that type of enquiry. Although this intuitively seems obvious, many adults act to the contrary. Studies show teachers are more intent in keeping control of the situation or demonstrating their expertise during a class lesson. Teachers and parents alike forget that an absence of knowledge and interest in gaining new knowledge is what models true learning. Next time you engage with your child, ask yourself: Do you want her to know you have all the answers? Or do you want her to see you know how to find an answer when you don’t know it? The latter teaches a child to enjoy the process of learning and discovery.
Create an environment of enquiry
Parents who ask questions have kids who ask questions. Ask your child questions around the dinner table, like what did they learn at school today, or why something works the way it does. You can ask questions about anything, from science and favourite books to neighbours and characters on favourite TV shows.
Tolerate exploration at home
Constantly focusing on mastery, accomplishment and performance inevitably makes us less tolerant of wonderment. Let your child meander and follow that ‘urge to know more’. When your child develops an interest – a fascination with trains, for instance - be patient. Nurture the interest: take her to an exhibit on trains at the museum, or watch movies on the topic. This way your child can fully indulge in the process of discovery, which is a key element in intellectual and creative development.
Curiosity is an urge to know more
Curiosity is essential for learning, as well as intellectual and creative development
An urge to learn more about particular areas is called specific curiosity. A general urge for information is called diversive curiosity.
Babies who are more securely attached to their caregivers are more likely to follow their curiosity and explore their environment
Emphasis on performance and achievement may explain why children become less overtly curious as they get older
Encourage your child's natural curiosity by asking questions at home, tolerating their enquiry and demonstrating the joy in learning what you do not know
Nira Datta, @NiraDatta