On a recent visit to the Half Pint section of Half Price Books, I grabbed a copy of Curious George and went to sit at a doll-sized table. Right as George was to meet The Man with the Yellow Hat, I met someone of my own. Bryce, 5 years old, wanted to know what I was reading.
“Curious George,” I said. “Do you know what it means to be curious?”
He did. “It’s what people do when they want to see things.”
After we discussed the things he is curious about (blocks, lightning and Superman), he looked up at the paper tree above us. A string of questions followed. “Is that a real tree? Does Curious George live there? Is that his house? Are those leaves fake?”
While Bryce can now voice all the thoughts swirling around in his head, he was likely questioning his surroundings long before he could talk.
“We are curious from the get-go,” says David Cross, Rees-Jones director at Texas Christian University’s Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development. Cross, who has a doctorate in education and psychology, explains that curiosity is an integral component of infant development. “If you watch babies, they are exquisitely attuned to their environment. They’ll attend to novel things more than familiar things.”
This act of opening ourselves to extract information from our environment is called an “orienting response” and signals healthy development—meaning curiosity is foundational for learning. In fact, according to a study published in the neuroscience journal Neuron in 2014, curiosity enhances brain functioning, allowing us to retain information. (That’s why you might remember more from those college courses you weren’t just taking for the credits.) Research also indicates a correlation between curiosity and higher levels of well-being, greater life and job satisfaction, and positive social interactions.
But if curiosity is an innate trait, what role can you play in developing your little one’s curiosity?
For starters, Cross suggests creating environments that foster intrigue, a concept he refers to as environmental engineering.
Kiaran Beck, a music teacher at Borman Elementary School in Denton, says singing alone can make her students feel vulnerable, putting a damper on their curiosity.
“[Kids] have to be comfortable to create,” she says.
So she adapts accordingly, changing lesson plans, swapping singing for instruments or having students perform in groups.
Parents can mimic this at home by eliminating conditions that might trigger fear or anger, which are incompatible with exploratory play and curiosity. Once children are at ease, they are ready to investigate and ask questions—or as Beck puts it, they are ready to take hold of their own learning.
He also proposes that parents model curiosity at home. Demonstrating good questioning teaches kids to do the same. Curious monkey see; curious monkey do.
When Nicole Sweeney’s 5- and 8-year-old ask her questions, the Plano mom responds with open-ended questions like “I wonder …” or “What do you think?”—so much so that she recalls her oldest saying, frustrated, “You never answer my questions! You always ask me what I think the answer is!”
Eight-year-old Brady will have his mom to thank if he someday makes a major scientific discovery. Because the way she sees it, “curious kids are likely to experiment with their ideas and take the information they learned and apply it to future curiosities.”
Thomas Close, who manages education programs at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, says the museum takes a similar approach.
“Our educators emphasize inquiry-based learning with children as a way to get them thinking about the knowledge they already have and connecting it to the answers they want to discover,” he explains.
Until Brady is happily employed at NASA, Sweeney encourages him to play outside with his little sister, Molly, building lean-tos from fallen branches and identifying animal shapes on leaves. She sees value in free play, especially out in nature. And she’s onto something: Play and curiosity are closely linked.
“It’s widely recognized that playfulness, creativity and curiosity are drivers of well-being,” Cross says. “The more curious we are, the more creative we are, the more playful we are.”
Allowing your children to exercise their curiosity through play does more than just wear them out before bedtime; it furthers their investigation of the world, which is likely to continue so long as there’s support. Sweeney believes that rewarding her children’s curiosity will keep them wondering, exploring and questioning—all things that benefit her too. Brady and Molly, she acknowledges, see the world in a way that she tends to overlook, reminding her to adjust her own vision.
“I’m constantly trying to reframe my parenting lens and encourage my kids to keep exploring their world,” she says.