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Help your children sustain and build curiosity – research and activities

Because you are an adult, I’ll be very direct and ask you: Why are humans curious? Is there good curiosity and bad curiosity? What would it be like to have NO curiosity?

Curiosity is a basic element of our cognition, yet its biological function, mechanisms, and neural underpinning remain poorly understood. It is nonetheless a motivator for learning, influential in decision-making, and crucial for healthy development. 

Research shows that children structure their play in a way that reduces uncertainty and allows them to discover causal structures in the world (e.g., Schulz & Bonawitz, 2007). This work is in line with the earlier theories of Jean Piaget (1930), who asserted that the purpose of curiosity and play was to construct knowledge” through interactions with the world.

If curiosity aims to reduce uncertainty in the world, we would expect learners to exhibit an increased curiosity about stimuli in a world that they do not understand. In fact, this is a behaviour that is well attested in recent developmental psychology studies. In their work Bonawitz and colleagues (Bonawitz, van Schijndel, Friel, & Schulz, 2012), demonstrate that children prefer to play with toys that violate their expectations. Children also exhibit increased curiosity outside of pedagogical contexts, in the absence of explicitly given explanations (Bonawitz et al., 2011). In an experiment in which Bonawitz and colleagues gave children a new toy to explore, either prefaced or not with partial instruction of how the toy works, the children played for longer and discovered more of the toy’s functions in the non-pedagogical conditions.

Curiosity aims to reduce uncertainty in the world. It is fuelled by increased knowledge and awareness of gaps in that knowledge.

Some cognitive psychologists harbour the belief that there is more than one type of curiosity. For instance, Jepma, Verdonschot, van Steenbergen, Rombouts and Nieuwenhuis (2012) have identified two different types of curiosity. These are perceptual and epistemic which can be classified as either specific” or diversive.” They explain: Perceptual curiosity is aroused by sensory factors that are novel, while epistemic curiosity is driven by the desire to learn and acquire information.

Epistemic curiosity leads to intentional learning, and perceptual curiosity leads an unintentional way of acquiring information. Furthermore, specific curiosity involves seeking information about a particular topic, and diversive curiosity involves the desire to learn about general information.”

Use what interests you to retain what doesnt.

So how can your support your children’s curiosity? When children are curious about something, their brains are primed to absorb all information presented around that topic. That is why you should pair information that is less interesting to them with information that is more interesting. They will naturally remember the more interesting information. However, their brain will also associate the less interesting information with it, so they will recall that better, too. I know from experience, for example, that being asked unusual and interesting questions before exposure to material helps. How? Well, this enabled my workshop participants to retain the material that followed the questions because the questions piqued their interest in the material and therefore stimulated their curiosity.

No matter how we define it scientifically, curiosity feels good. It is a positive emotional state, and it is associated with positive outcomes, enhanced performance, greater life satisfaction, increased motivation, and feelings of competence and control. It has a positive impact on relationships, on subjectivity and, it is suggested, on longevity. That’s why children’s curiosity needs to be fostered.

Curiosity is inhibited by an excessive preoccupation with the self, by fear and criticism or excessive surveillance, by overconfidence or high anxiety. The external rewards that parents and educators often use also diminish curiosity about certain tasks.

Your children’s curiosity is a strength. Thus, if your children are generally very curious, you can use the challenges below to help them by providing ideas about how to use this strength more and how to increase their enjoyment and energy levels. For children with less of this strength, it offers a chance to build it. These challenges should always be optional. If children wish, the challenges may be done in pairs or small groups. These challenges are appropriate for children aged 6-12 if performed with adult participation. Encourage your children to also use their sense of humour, their design skills and their creativity. To facilitate the child’s choice, it will help if a variety of materials are made available for each challenge. Paper, scissors, magazines for a collage approach, and pens, pastels or chalks should, if possible, be at hand if children choose to use them.

Brain Challenge 1: Design a Curiosity SuperChild. 

Draw an outline of the childs profile on some big flip-chart paper. Ask the children to name the hero. To draw the outfit or appearance. To describe its identity and character. To describe its mission and all the things the hero is curious about regarding the visible and invisible parts of the beings, the world, or the universe.

Brain Challenge 2: Find out something new each day for a week.

Draw a chain, then mark with a symbol each day of the week. Invite the children to look in books, on the internet, or facilitate access to an expert to find out something new each day. Invite them to record their finding with text, drawings or collages on the week-chain chart.

Brain Challenge 3: Look someone up.

Look up someone the child has always been curious about but never investigated. You can create a set of cards with pictures and data about several people. Use different colour codes to create different categories, e.g. green cards for important people in sustainability, blue cards for scientists, yellow for sportspeople, red for best friends, etc. Feel free to mix important worldwide personalities with community or family members to show children that we can all contribute no matter the circumstances.

Brain Challenge 4: Eat a food you and your child have never tried before.

Eat a food you and your child have never tried before. Show your child how you investigate whether or not the food is good for you. Teach your child where it can be bought and where it naturally grows. If you try this once per month for a year, draw or take a picture of the food and place it on the fridge in your kitchen to make your progress visible.

Brain Challenge 5: Look up places that you would like to visit. 

Create a collection of clippings from magazines or the Internet that do articles on places that your child wants to visit one day. Encourage him or her to create a creative travel journal. 

Brain Challenge 6: Listen to music that you have never listened to before. 

On your way to school or work, listen to music that you have never listened before. Listen for long enough to decide where or not you like it. Invite your child into a conversation around what he or she likes or does not like about the new type of music.

The same kind of brain challenges could easily be created around different cultures, countries, parts of the universe, or parts of the human body. Enjoy—and don’t forget to share your results with us on our Facebook or Instagram pages!

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