Developing curiosity in the young child’s brain

The more curious a child is, the more they learn.

When we are curious, we are eager to explore, discover and figure things out. Infants are born curious. This is one thing we don’t have to teach our children. It is a child’s internal desire to learn what motivates them to seek out new experiences, which leads to success in school over the long term. Curious children not only ask questions, but they seek the answers. When children are curious, they’re much more likely to stay engaged.

Curiosity prepares the brain for learning. This makes sense as people enjoy reading and learning about subject matter that interests us, but as it turns out, curiosity also helps us learn information we don’t consider important or interesting at all. When children become curious, the brain becomes a fast moving, information gathering tool that encourages learning. The brain’s chemistry changes when we become curious, helping us learn and retain information that might not interest us at all. Curiosity is a basic impulse in humans and education should be based on this behavior.

A study at the University of California, Davis found that when participants were asked a question that piqued their curiosity, such as, “What does the term ‘dinosaur’ mean?” they were better at learning and remembering completely unrelated questions. If a classroom teacher is able to arouse curiosity, students will be more capable of learning things normally considered boring or difficult, according to Edutopia. For example, relating a math question to something that matches the student’s specific interests, say outer space, could help the student better remember how to go about solving similar math problems in the future.

The University of California, Davis study also showed that when the participants were tested on what they learned, the ones who were curious were also more likely to remember the right answers at a later time.

Michigan State University Extension offers the following suggestions for nurturing curiosity.

  • Wonder aloud. When we say out loud, “I wonder why the lake is frozen,” we are modeling what it means to be curious.
  • Encourage natural interests. If your child is interested in painting, for example, then give them lots of different opportunities to paint.
  • Answer questions simply and clearly. However, no matter the age, always ask your child first what their thoughts are before answering.
  • Use open-ended questions. Use who, what, when, where, why and how to stimulate your child’s curiosity.
  • Redirect versus discourage. Give your child an opportunity in a safe way to explore their interests. If it something unsafe, say houseplants, give them chances to play in the dirt. If they like to pour water out of their cup, then move them to a tile floor or give them similar items to play with outside or in the bathtub to have similar experiences.
  • Have open-ended material available. When we give children items to play with like blocks, water, sand, pots and any art material, we are giving them the chance to use their curiosity about how to play with the item. Many store-bought toys can only be used in one way and do not challenge the child to figure out a way to play with it on their own.

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” – Albert Einstein.

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing things because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” – Walt Disney.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2016 impact report: “Preparing young children for success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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