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How to cultivate your child's curiosity

Toddler being curious

Children are naturally curious. You’ll know this if you’ve ever seen your little one squish his finger into a plughole or put a Tupperware box on his head. They are stimulated by and interested in new objects and experiences. Encouraging this interest can help them develop a lifelong love of learning.

A 2015 study published in the journal Science revealed the critical role curiosity plays. Researchers found that babies learned best when a surprise lead them to explore.

The researchers, from Johns Hopkins University, took babies through four experiments where they were presented with situations they could predict, as well as some that were unexpected, and gauged their reactions.

In one experiment a researcher rolled a ball down a ramp and toward the wall. In one trial the ball hit the wall, as you’d expect. In another, the ball passed through a hidden door in the wall. The babies didn’t pay much attention to the ball that behaved predictably, hitting the wall. Their inquisitiveness was sparked by the other one; which they grabbed and banged on the table.

The babies’ reaction was not a random reflex, but a contemplative attempt to work out what had happened; and as they tried to work it out, learning was taking place. Even before they can talk, babies are processing, problem solving and working things out, said the researchers. This further proves how important the key learning time between zero to age three is.

How curiosity builds learning

Curiosity is one of the tendencies required for lifelong learning, says Nubabi clinical psychologist, Claire Toi.

Curiosity opens an individual to using their imagination, being creative, taking risks, and questioning. A curious person is less interested in learning by rote and more focused on learning through engagement, says Claire. And this can lead to a deeper understanding of the world.

Curiosity is one of the tendencies required for lifelong learning

Not only does curiosity lead to an accumulation of knowledge, it can also contribute to personal growth (such as expanding interests and social networks). Since curiosity involves an openness to new information and uncertainty, it seems to follow that curious individuals value variety and flexibility and may therefore be more tolerant of differences.

A study conducted at the University of California has shown that curiosity increases the activity in the brain’s reward and memory centres. It appears that our ability to learn and remember new information is boosted by the presence of curiosity.

Curiosity is also shown to be associated with more positive emotions in encounters with strangers, as curious people tend to be more attentive to people and allow for people to deviate from the norm without this deviation feeling threatening. Curious people also seem to be less susceptible to stress as stressful situations are viewed as challenges, not threats.

Of course, some behaviours associated with curiosity such as risk-taking and not adhering to social mores can result in harmful consequences; the ‘curiosity killed the cat’ scenario, so it’s important to maintain safe boundaries for your child to explore within while he or she learns to limit risk by him/herself.

How to promote curiosity

  • Present your child with open-ended activities or toys: A jigsaw puzzle has only one ‘correct’ outcome, but a set of blocks presents your child with a myriad possibilities.
  • Plan some surprises: Set up some activities with unexpected outcomes and let your child explore. This could be as simple as hiding a toy in a new place or putting a teaspoon of sugar inside a balloon before you blow it up. Let your little one shake it and hit it.
  • Embrace mess: Let your child discover that when they pour water on themselves, their clothes get wet. Let them mix the play dough colours together! You’ll be allowing them to satisfy their curiosity as well as experiencing the natural consequences of their actions in a safe way.
  • Have fewer rules. What? Yes, you read correctly - have fewer rules. This doesn’t mean not having boundaries, but consider how many rules you have in place for your child and check what your intention is behind these rules. Having too many rules curbs your child’s natural curiosity.
  • Answer your child’s questions. Find developmentally appropriate ways to answer questions, even those you find awkward, such as questions about where babies come from or what that dog is doing to the other dog. Also ensure that you gauge your child’s thoughts on the topic as a starting point for any conversation.
  • Be curious. Model curiosity in your interactions with your little one. If you are curious about your child’s world, her thoughts and ideas she will realise that she has good ideas and be more inclined to seek out more information to form new ideas. Story time presents a great opportunity to ask for your little one’s thoughts about the characters, objects and so forth. Encourage her to become a good questioner by asking age-appropriate thought-provoking questions that are open-ended rather than a yes-no question. Example: What was the best part of your day? rather than: Did you have a good day?

Look out for these “curiosity crushers”

  • Too many rules.
  • Giving a child answers in situations where they could rather discover the answers for themselves, for example: “Ice melts in warm water” versus giving a child ice blocks while they’re in the bath.
  • Stopping a child from exploring. “If your child is interested in pouring water and most of the pouring is happening on the carpet, rather than stopping the pouring completely, move him to the bath or garden to continue the pouring. He will not only be satisfying his curiosity, but will also be learning where this particular behaviour is appropriate,” says Claire.

Curiosity is a natural and valuable quality in babies and small children, and there are loads of opportunities daily to nurture and grow a hunger for learning that will last a lifetime. Grab them!

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