Supporting Children’s Intellectual Curiosity: What it is and Why it Matters
“Why is the sky blue?”
“Where do babies come from?”
“How long can dolphins hold their breath?”
“What is the biggest country in the world?”
Anyone who has spent time with young children is all too familiar with the constant flow of questions that come out of their mouths. Preschool children ask their parents about 100 questions a day and between ages 2-5 years kids ask around 40,000 questions.
At times, these questions can even be exasperating and hard to keep up with! But before you shut down the hundredth question with an “I don’t know” and a sigh, keep in mind that these questions represent a child’s budding intellectual curiosity – an important developmental milestone that needs to be fostered by adults in order to set kids up for success in K-12 education and beyond.
What is Intellectual Curiosity?
Intellectual curiosity is the act of asking questions with the purpose of learning something new. Unlike questions about what time snack is or whether they can go to the bathroom, questions that demonstrate intellectual curiosity demonstrate a thirst for understanding the unknown. Intellectual curiosity represents an openness to experiences, a desire for novelty, and willingness to embrace the unexpected. When we help to foster children’s intellectual curiosity, we are really fostering the joy of discovery – a key component in raising lifelong learners.
Curiosity is not something an individual is either born with or without. It is a developmental process that can be supported through enriched environments and activities. Asking questions (especially questions like “where?” “how?” and “why?”) is a developmental milestone that sets the groundwork for language learning and vocabulary acquisition. On the flipside, failing to initiate questions in the preschool years could have an especially profound impact on language development.
Why does Intellectual Curiosity Matter?
As kids grow up, they stop asking so many questions. At around age 5 (right when most kids are starting formal schooling) the questions they ask drop steeply. Their curiosity is often stifled by the need to cover academic content, the logistics of the school day, and school culture that is more focused on kids providing the right answers as opposed to asking the right questions. This is, unfortunately, counterproductive to our goal as educators.
Curiosity is a driving force behind self-directed learning, and research suggests that fostering intellectual curiosity beginning in Kindergarten may be a key determinant of academic success. Curiosity has been associated with greater reading and math academic achievement at Kindergarten. Research has also linked curiosity to a number of positive and adaptive behaviors, including tolerance of anxiety and uncertainty, positive emotions, humor, playfulness, out-of-box thinking, and a non judgemental attitude.
Curiosity and critical thinking go hand in hand. Critical thinking is an important skill for children and adults to have across domains and subjects. It is the ability to ask questions, analyze facts, and use this information to make important decisions. Essentially, critical thinking is problem solving as well as self-reflection. Therefore fostering curiosity can also foster critical thinking skills.
From science to literacy, curiosity is at the heart of learning in all domains. In the sciences, for example, we start with a hypothesis we are curious about exploring. In engineering, we start with a question we have or a problem we’re curious about solving. We read to make real-world discoveries or because we are so curious about the fictional characters in our books that we can’t put them down. When we write, we engage in a revision process that is rooted in self-reflective curiosity about our own work: How can we improve what we have written? How can we make edits that will add to clarity or tone?
How Can Adults Support Intellectual Curiosity?
We know that curiosity is important, but how can we support it? The good news is that children’s curiosity and sense of inquiry are highly sensitive to adult behavior. That means teachers, parents, and caregivers can build upon young children’s natural urge to know, helping them hone their skills, continue asking questions, and continue their pursuit of knowledge as they grow up.
Remember, the goal of fostering children’s curiosity is not to provide answers, but to help them learn how to ask more questions. Table 1 shares some examples of how an adult can respond to questions like “why is the sky blue?” in a way that prompts children to make hypotheses, seek out their own answers, and celebrates the significance of their questions.
Tips for Responding to Questions to Foster Curiosity
Why not try…
“I don’t know”
“What an interesting question! I’m not sure I know the answer. What could we do to try to learn more?”
“It’s because [insert adult-level scientific explanation]”
“Hmm, I’ve wondered that too. Do you have a guess? Should we share our ideas?”
“Wow, you have so many questions today!”
“I love your curiosity! I can’t talk about that right now because [X], but would you like me to write that question down and we can research it together later?”
Additionally, adults may want to consider the following tips and strategies:
- Try to understand the child’s ideas before you offer your own explanations. They may not be ready to hear your answer yet.
- Model how to look for evidence. Demonstrate for children how your use your 5 senses to collect information and make informed guesses
- Offer other information sources for investigation, like researching on PebbleGo, asking a friend, and reading books at the library.
- Ask what new questions they have! Every new question is an opportunity to practice their growing investigation skills. Remember that answering one question should always lead to asking new ones!
Ready to Support Lifelong Curiosity?
Curious kids grow into curious adults. Curious adults are engaged citizens and critical thinkers who question the status quo. Curiosity is linked with innovation & creativity in the workplace and curious employees more easily adapt to organizational changes. In short, there are lifelong benefits to supporting lifelong curiosity.
If you’re ready to start supporting curiosity, check out these resources:
- PebbleGo & PebbleGo Next - PebbleGo is a curricular content hub specifically designed for K-2 students. Packed with informational articles and ready-made activities, it is the perfect resource to help kids answer their questions and then dig into new questions – keeping the cycle of curiosity repeating! PebbleGo Next provides a natural next step for 3rd-5th grade students with articles all aligned to state and national standards so that older elementary students are encouraged to stay curious too!
- PebbleGo & PebbleGo Next Curiosity Cards - Keep kids asking big questions and fueling their intellectual curiosity! The PebbleGo Curiosity Cards are designed to inspire inquiry in your students by providing 52 distinct questions to research and discover.
- PebbleGo and PebbleGo Next Curiosity Cards Lesson Plans - Ready to start teaching lessons that spark curiosity? Foster curiosity and prompt exploration by posing questions in these game show exercises. Students will work collaboratively with their teams to research the selected PebbleGo/PebbleGo Next modules and find answers to the game show questions.
- Encouraging Curiosity in K-5: Why It’s Important and Where to Start - This Capstone webinar provides ideas and inspiration for supporting curiosity in early elementary school through PebbleGo Resources, conversational strategies, and more. Check out the recording here.
Still curious? There’s a lot more content coming! This is just the first in an exciting series of blog posts all about fostering curiosity in K-5 and beyond. Let us know what you want to see on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook using #PGCuriosity