Encouraging Curiosity in Kids

Posted on October 28, 2011  Comments (25)

How do you help make your children scientifically literate? I think the biggest thing you can do is encourage curiosity.

One way to encourage curiosity it is by answering their questions (and not saying: I am too busy, don’t bother me, don’t ask me?, stop asking why…). I know adults are busy and have all sorts of stuff we are trying to get done; and the question about why I need to wash my hands doesn’t seem worth answering. But I think anytime a kid is asking why is an opportunity to teach and encourage them to keep being curious.

It is very easy to shut off this curiosity, in our society anyway (we do it to the vast majority of people). The biggest difference I see between adults and kids is not maturity or responsibility but curiosity (or lack thereof in adults) and joy (versus adults who seem to be on valium all the time – maybe they are).

As they grow up kids will have lots of science and technology questions that you don’t know the answers to. If you want them to be curious and knowledgeable, put in the effort to find answers with them. You have to help them find the answers in a way that doesn’t turn them off. If you just say – go look it up yourself (which really they can do), maybe the 2% that are going to become scientists will. But most kids will just give up and turn off their curiosity a little bit more (until eventually it is almost gone and they are ready to fit into the adult world). Which is very sad.

Once you get them used to thinking and looking things up they will start to do this on their own. A lot of this just requires thinking (no need to look things up – once a certain base knowledge is achieved). But you need to set that pattern. And it would help if you were curious, thought and learned yourself.

Photo of kids intently studying on a Malaysian beach

My mom with a group of Malaysia kids apparently intent on learning something. I am there, but not visible in this photo. Photo by my father.

While walking in the park, see one of those things you are curious about and ask why does…? It is good to ask kids why and let them think about it and try and answer. Get them in the habit of asking why themselves. And in those cases when no-one knows, take some time and figure it out. Ask some questions (both for yourself – to guide your thinking – and to illustrate how to think about the question and figure things out). If you all can’t find an explanation yourselves, take some time to look it up. Then at dinner, tell everyone what you learned. This will be much more interesting to the kids than forcing them to elaborate on what they did today and help set the idea that curiosity is good and finding explanations is interesting.

It is fun as a kid if your parent is a scientist or engineer (my father was an engineering professor).

You often don’t notice traits about yourself. In the same what I know what red looks like to me, I figure we both see this red shirt you see the red that I do. But maybe you don’t. I tend to constantly be asking myself why. If I see something new (which is many, many times a day – unless I am trapped in some sad treadmill of sameness) I ask why is it that way and then try and answer. I think most of this goes on subconsciously or some barely conscious way. I actually had an example a few months ago when I was visiting home with my brother (who is pretty similar to me).

As we were driving, I had noticed some fairly tall poles that seemed to have really small solar panels on top. I then noticed they were space maybe 20 meters apart. Then saw that there seemed to be a asphalt path along the same line. I then decided, ok, they are probably solar panels to power a light for the path at night. Then my brother asked why are there those small solar panel on top of that pole?

A question like that, I hear maybe every couple of years from an adult (probably less) – other than hearing myself ask it (to myself many times a day, but even to others fairly often). I would much rather ask some question that a person might give me some new insight on, or answer some question I haven’t figured out than discuss some new movie or what new gadget someone is thinking of getting, or what they are going to do this weekend… But I notice I am very much an outlier in this desire to have someone explain what they know to me.

Anyway, that interaction with my brother made me aware of something I wasn’t really very aware of. I wasn’t aware how much (many times a day) I am curious and trying to figure out an explanation. Normally I think this curiosity is in some barely aware state. It feels like, only if I don’t semi-consciously figure out the answer do I push it to the forefront of my brain and really concentrate on it.

My impression is most people don’t do this, but it is hard to know if that is true. I base this on

  1. how infrequently the questions are asked (but this is less than solid evidence)
  2. when I ask the question people normally have to think about it (they haven’t noticed, questioned and reach a satisfactory conclusion)
  3. when I directly ask people they don’t say they do (but my sample size for this is very small)

Related: Getting Kids to Rediscover the Great OutdoorsScience Toys You Can Make With Your KidsStoryCorps: Passion for Mechanical EngineeringNaturally Curious ChildrenWhat Kids can Learn With a Computer and CuriosityPlaying Dice and Children’s NumeracyWho Is Explaining Technology To Our KidsIllusion of Explanatory Depth (losing the desire for curiosity)

25 Responses to “Encouraging Curiosity in Kids”

  1. Peter
    October 29th, 2011 @ 10:43 pm

    I agree with you about curiosity. When one has this they never stop learning always new things to explore.It starts when your young and hopeful dose not stop till your old if you are lucky.

  2. nik
    October 30th, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

    Yes, Encouraging Curiosity in kids is a necessary thing today. If they know their own curiosity they can make mark in the field which they find fun in…Nice article.

  3. Smart Gadget Insurance
    November 1st, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

    Amazing article, couldn’t agree more, now days kids stay home and play video games instead they should be out and about discovering!

  4. Dr. Len Schwartz
    November 3rd, 2011 @ 10:56 am

    I agree with you in that you def. answer your child/Childrens, question. That’s a great way for their curiosity to be answered, and for them to put another wrinkle in their brain. You want your kids to be as smart as you can so they can go far and succeed in life. It’s just a shame that some parents are to “busy” for their kids.

  5. Matthew
    November 3rd, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    I am a father of two and I am this way.

    I see my kid coming up with some fantastic, (though not always accurate), explanations for things. If I know he’s wrong, I might ask him an open-ended question or say, “Hey, that’s a good idea. Maybe!”. (He’s three years old.) I think my correcting him at this point would probably stifle his creative thought process before it produced a more accurate one, which he has his whole life to hone.

    Just wanted to let you know there was someone else out here doing it too. Thanks for writing the article.

  6. Amber
    January 4th, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

    Wow great article! It is such a good reminder for me to continue my young kids, I could definitely ask them more questions about how things work, etc. sometimes I must admit I avoid it because then a whole new can of questions is opened, but I need to remember to do it more often. Thanks.

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  8. Ben Lichtenwalner
    August 2nd, 2012 @ 11:25 am

    Great advice, John. In business leadership, we see this all too often. “Yes men” and women provoke group think. The result is the same old behavior, driving the same results – definition of insanity.

    I love how you point out that encouraging curiosity in kids may help restore the same in yourself. So, if we encourage more curiosity in our kids, maybe our business and leadership skills will improve as well.

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  12. Moos
    June 20th, 2013 @ 9:06 pm

    It may sound weird but my children aren’t that curious. At all.. They do like science though. I’m a full time physics teacher and they DO like to listen to me.

    I sometimes wonder why, because when I was their age I was out, playing with friends, not even thinking about school or physics. Somehow they grew an interest. People tell me it’s because I’m their dad and therefor a role model.

    I would like to think I am. It does feel good to know your kids look up to you in a way.

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  15. Patrick Hollingworth
    October 3rd, 2014 @ 2:55 am

    I do agree. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have read once that curiosity can lead to science. Thus, it is good to encourage your child or children to experiment and just be curious. It’s healthy. As a parent, you need to know how to nurture and feed their curiosity, especially their natural curiosity to figure out themselves how our world works. Follow their lead and be with them as they explore through activities that interests them.

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  19. Edgar Chapman
    July 18th, 2015 @ 2:21 am

    I like the idea of encouraging the curiosity in children. Kids tend to ask “why”, “what” when they see new things. As parents, we shouldn’t ignore them; instead, answer each question to stimulate the habit like-to-explore in them.
    Thanks for the information!

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  21. DoÄŸal TaÅŸ
    March 30th, 2016 @ 5:50 am

    It may sound weird but my children aren’t that curious. At all.. They do like science though. I’m a full time physics teacher and they DO like to listen to me.

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  25. Jamie
    August 29th, 2020 @ 6:09 am

    Great post, curiosity is a very underrated quality to have these days.

    Without curiosity most scientific advances would not of taken place.


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