7 ways you can encourage curiosity at home
Babies are naturally eager to learn, and curious children tend to do better at school, according to researchers from the University of Michigan, so how can we nurture this curiosity – without letting kids wreck the house or drive everyone crazy with questions? Below you’ll find practical tips to help you encourage curiosity in young children.
1. Take questions seriously
The ‘why’ phase can be intensely annoying, but it’s important to treat kids questions seriously if you want them to keep asking. Stocking up on a few rote phrases that encourage kids to ask better questions or have a go at figuring it out themselves. Try: ‘Can you make that a longer question please?’ to remind kids that ‘Why?’ is not a full sentence, and help you get a narrower question you can actually answer. ‘Why do you think?’ encourages kids to see if they already have an answer and ‘I don’t know, let’s find out’ is a great way to model curiosity and learning in action.
2. Give them opportunities to explore
Pandemic restrictions have meant a lot of time in familiar spaces, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give your kids ways to exercise their curiosity. Exploring could mean visiting a new park and building a dam in a stream – or it could be having free rein to choose books at the library. It could be building a den in the garden – or rummaging through your wardrobe for dressing up clothes.
3. Say ‘yes’
This doesn’t mean never saying ‘no’ or ‘not now’, but it may mean checking in with yourself and asking ‘why am I saying no?’ Often, as parents, we might say ‘no’ for short-term convenience when it goes against our longer term aims. Kids typically don’t have a great sense of timing, so you don’t need to agree to everything straight away or in the way requested. For example, if a kid wants you to buy a particular book, you might say yes and buy it, or you might say no but add ‘I know you love dinosaurs a lot. Let’s go to the library and choose 10 dinosaur books.’
4. Let your child lead
Sometimes, we need to just get where we’re going but sometimes it really doesn’t matter. If you’re wandering around a park on a family stroll or walking home from school, you can literally let your child lead the way and choose which way to walk. Even small decisions can encourage curiosity and spark new conversations. You can also offer open choices in other places, such as asking them to find a new fruit or vegetable to try at the supermarket or look in a recipe book with you for meals to make together.
5. Allow mess and mixing
Curious kids will be asking themselves ‘what happens if…?’ and they need space to find out the answer. Don’t try to manage the results – you need to accept that they won’t always be tidy or even necessarily make your child happy in the moment. ‘What happens if I mix all the play dough together?’ is ‘I have mixed up play dough and even grown ups can’t put it back’ (plus tears) but it might also be ‘I make a new colour and the best pretend cake ever’. Or both!
6. Set boundaries
It might seem counter-intuitive, but clear boundaries can be a real sanity saver and also, in their own way, encourage creativity and curiosity. In many households, boundaries often look like arbitrary rules, and that’s absolutely fine. Boundaries might be physical locations (‘Potion making stays in the garden’) or a time (‘No drum making after 6pm or before 8am’) or tied to a person or place. By making it clear when or where certain things can’t happen, you are also making it clear that they can, which is incredibly freeing, particularly for kids who tend to follow the rules.
7. Model and accept failure
In 10 Strategies To Promote Curiosity In Learning, Terry Heick said that "Curiosity is a human instinct but like most instincts, it can be refined through observation and practice".
Curiosity is about learning and trying something new, which means a good outcome is not guaranteed. From inventing a new recipe to creating a new vaccine, grown ups who are curious know that failure is a key step along the way, and have learned to deal with it. Kids will encounter this too, and they’ll look to you to see how to respond. Babies are typically on board with failure – a child learning to walk will stumble and fall down thousands of times. If you get upset at every tumble, eventually your baby will too and stop trying. Model failing gracefully and trying again (‘the potatoes are burned, what can I do next?) or take your reaction out of the equation. Grit your teeth – or step away entirely – and let them figure out all the different ways you can’t do something.