Monday, October 5, 2015

Curiosity Is at the Top of My List

(Borealis Press)

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”  – ALBERT EINSTEIN

I’m putting curiosity at the top of my list. What list? A list with critical aspects of learning, 21st century skills, models, standards, and threads for learning. Creativity, critical thinking, imagination, and problem solving often show up on these lists. It’s not that these skills and traits aren’t important, but I’m not sure creativity, for example, would have such a high profile if it weren’t for curiosity.

Considered both a trait and a disposition, curiosity is a natural, active interest in the world that we see everyday in children and adults. It is an attitude of wondering, an urge to find out more, a way of reducing uncertainty, and a means of getting at more complex or inaccessible aspects of the world. Expressed as watching, asking questions, predicting, taking things apart, and pointing, curiosity is a strength during childhood when it transforms a child’s world from new and unknown to familiar and predictable. According to Susan Engel, author of The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood, it is “…the lynch pin of intellectual achievement.” 

Curiosity unfolds when something in our surroundings sparks curiosity. A feeling of surprise or perplexity at some ambiguity captures our interest and sets in motion actions to find out more. We observe, explore through touch, smell, listening; we try to remember something that relates. This action leads to learning simple as well as more complex ideas and concepts.
Huntington Museum and Gardens (Pasadena, CA)
(Photo credit: Vergeront)

Curious From the Start
From birth, babies have an urge to understand what is happening in their immediate surroundings and the effect they can have on it. The world captures a baby’s attention with countless invitations to want to know and know more. Will someone come if I cry? What’s inside the box? How can I reach the ball? They watch people, objects, and events to try and explain what is not immediately apparent, what they can’t determine from interactions alone, or what explains the unexpected. Even before babies can talk or ask questions, they want to know what’s going on and enlist others in helping them find out. They point to indicate interest, curiosity, and invite others to wonder with them. Adults and older children respond with smiles, assistance, answers, or bringing the baby and object closer for better observation.

The nature of children’s curiosity and questions changes with age. Their earliest questions generally have to do with getting new information–What’s that? What does it do? In pointing to or asking about a strange object or the unusual behavior of a pet, a child tries to find out more about what is not immediately apparent. These questions seek clarification of what’s happening, fill out knowledge about a topic, and probe for deeper levels of understanding. They get at inaccessible information, like motives; at the unseeable, like germs; and the unknown, like God. Questions build on questions and answers connect with answers to construct a firmer foundation of knowledge.

At an early age, children are persistent about getting their questions answered. A child might ask a string of questions. Engel notes that children are capable of asking 10 questions in a row to satisfy their curiosity. She cites a study by Tizard and Hughes (1984) in which children 3 and 4- years of age asked an average of 26 questions per hour at home.

Young children are generally curious, but some are more curious than others. All 3-year olds ask more questions than 7-year olds, Engel notes. But all 3-year olds do not ask questions at the same rate and persistence. Individual differences may be apparent in a child’s general attitude of inquisitiveness or as a specific interest. Some children enjoy an intense interest in vehicles, sports teams, dinosaurs, or bugs. Cultural differences and family patterns also affect a child’s curiosity by encouraging or discouraging questions and exploration.

With age, curiosity becomes more social, shifting from a search for physical information to social-cultural knowledge. Interest is in the social layer of life, how people do something and what other people–family, classmates, neighbors–are like. No longer relying solely on adults for answers and information, children can satisfy their curiosity via one another. They explore and think together, pooling knowledge, scaffolding skills, and solving problems together.

Another remarkable change in curiosity occurs with age. Curiosity is alive and well early in life and peaks around 5 years of age when the urge to find out lessens.

Sparking Curiosity
City Museum (St Louis)
(Photo credit: Vergeront)
Children’s curiosity flourishes in intriguing environments with materials that attract steady attention and topics that engage interests. The setting that fascinates the 2 year old–the cupboard, a pile of dirt, the highchair–is unlikely to be equally fascinating to 5 or 10 year olds. But qualities that intrigue the toddler attract the older child and teen–novelty, ambiguity, complexity, surprise, and suspense. High places with extraordinary views, a leafy enclosure for hiding, a terrarium alive with critters, or something exotic engage and invite exploration and inquiry. Variations in patterns, unpredictable phenomena, hidden objects, or the suspense of what’s next mystify children and compel them to find answers. Drawn by complexity and ambiguity, children attend to novelty when something appeals to them.

Wondering, inquiring, and wanting to know more occur not simply because a child is intrinsically curious or the environment is fascinating. A child’s curiosity is strongly related to the adults surrounding her. Children look to them for clues about how to interact with the world, respond to objects and events, and interpret what they witness. When these adults display curiosity, smile and encourage the child, give informative answers, show interest, ask their own questions, and give permission to explore, children notice. Adult facial expressions and responses to children’s curiosity show them they think their ideas, experiments, questions–and they– are important.

These signals further fuel curiosity. When children ask questions and get them answered, they not only have answers, but they also develop a disposition to ask questions and actively seek answers from others. And they are likely to keep asking questions. Children care about the answers they get to their questions.

Curiosity Diminished
Just as curiosity fluctuates by age, it fluctuates from setting to setting. Intriguing environments, objects and materials, and responsive adults continue to spark curiosity after children start school, but they are present less. In the setting where children spend a significant amount of time–school–triggers for curiosity are sparse. The drop in children’s curiosity from the preschool years to kindergarten is sharp.

Paradoxically, the very place we dedicate to children’s learning does not cultivate it. Curiosity may accompany children to school, but it does not flourish there. Other responsibilities and objectives assume higher priority; mastery of a set of skills in the classroom is valued over expressions of curiosity; completing a worksheet about wasps trumps exploring a wasp’s nest.

Just as children notice when adults smile and encourage them to explore, they also notice when adults smile and encourage but do not invite them to explore–as Engel found among many teachers in her studies. Children are expressing curiosity in the classroom about phenomena, materials, activities, other students and the teacher. Teachers, however, deflect questions and curtail exploration in trying to keep everyone on task and accomplish curriculum objectives. In fact, in the classrooms Engel has studied, teachers rather than children ask the questions. Typically, students’ expressions of inquiry are channeled into a discussion of the topic at hand. And when children do pursue their curiosity in the classroom, these episodes are relatively short.

Extending Curiosity’s Range
Because curiosity triggers the best learning, it’s important to figure out how to extend it in age and across settings. Engel notes that at about 3 years children seem to either cultivate curiosity and a habit of finding out, or they don’t. She draws on research to provide examples of how schools can nurture open-ended curiosity. Teachers can be alert to children’s cues of what interests them, invite their questions, and encourage them to follow their ideas and questions. Curriculum, activities, and discussion can incorporate suspense and surprise, provide access to fascinating objects and materials, make room for extended lines of inquiry, and allow children to think together.

Kentucky Science Center (Louisville)
(Photo credit: Vergeront)
In this area, museums, libraries, and out-of-school programs have a prime opportunity, if not an actual responsibility. They burst with information, are unbound by curriculum and tests, and place learners at the center. In fact, museum collections are a great expression of curiosity.

With objects and through design, museums create fascinating environments and experiences that can prompt questions, provoke ideas, and spark explorations. In these settings a wider array of adults–museum educators, docents, play guides, and librarians–can model ways of finding out. This is especially important in influencing older children and children with less of a disposition to be curious who tend to be more susceptible to adult feedback. Extending episodes of curiosity also reinforces museums’ interest in increasing dwell time and prolonging active engagement. Museums’ professional development workshops for teachers can highlight practices that cultivate curiosity, stimulate investigation, model ways to find out, and make connections.

We think we value curiosity. Unintentionally, however, we undervalue it because it is obvious or so very basic and we are distracted by showier qualities such as intelligence and creativity. We use Leonardo da Vinci and physicist Richard Feynman as paragons of creative genius. Feeding their creativity, however, was relentless curiosity. There will not be as much creative thinking or remarkable imagination to celebrate or to change the world if we don’t assure curiosity has a robust and persistent presence throughout children’s and adults’ lives.

Curiosity–the "whys" that are inside of us–matters. A gateway to other skills, dispositions, and accomplishments, curiosity is critical across the lifespan because as we follow our curiosity, we encounter all sorts of valuable moments and connections. The pleasure of finding out and then wanting to find out more goes at the top of my list.

“Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do.”  – Richard Feynman

Related Resources 
• Engel, Susan. The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. (2015). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
• Grazer, Brian and Fishman, C. A Curious Mind. (2015). New York: Simon & Shuster.
• Gower, Reid. (Uploaded 2011) The Feynman Series – Curiosity. 
Hollett, R. (6.2014). The Importance of Curiosity: Lessons from Richard Feynman 
• Perry, Deborah L. (2013). What Makes Learning Fun? Principles for the Design of Intrinsically Motivating Museum Exhibits. Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press.


  1. Thank you for this, Jeanne! We have been talking a lot about curiosity at the Peoria PlayHouse, and, with our research partners at Bradley University, have decided to make that the focus of our collaborative efforts. I do think that one of the reasons that curiosity appears undervalued is that it is so hard to see or measure. Hopefully we will come up with some useful strategies to share!

  2. What a great focus to take on with your research partners, Rebecca. If you and they are not familiar with Susan Engel's work on curiosity, I hope you will take a look at it; she describes lots of studies she and her students have done with children through 5th grade, in and out of school and those of other researchers. The school setting, of course, is quite different from the museum setting, but I think there are applications to exhibits and programs and staff interactions. I do hope you come up with some useful strategies to share and I look forward to hearing about them.