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Tips for Nurturing and Encouraging Young Children’s Sense of Curiosity

Most young children have a natural sense of curiosity that inspires them to explore their environment, meet new people, and try new things. These interactive experiences become opportunities for children to learn about themselves and the world around them, and to develop new skills and relationships with others.  As educators, we can support little learners by introducing them to new items and activities and by encouraging them to enjoy being curious explorers!

The Power of Curiosity 

Curiosity is a sense of wonder and spirit of exploration that inspires us to learn and try new things. In young children, curiosity opens the door to learning by motivating them to engage with their environment and interact with their caregivers and peers. An article from Penn State’s early learning program, Better Kid Care, highlights three key reasons that curiosity is so important for young learners:

  1. Curiosity motivates children to try new things. A strong sense of curiosity can inspire children to try new things and take on new challenges. This boosts their sense of self and self-confidence, as they notice themselves experimenting with new skills and extending themselves to new people. 
  2. Curiosity leads to learning. Wondering about the world around them encourages children to investigate and ask questions.  Learning becomes a fun and engaging experience that paves the way for children to develop an internal motivation to keep learning. 
  3. Curiosity generates excitement. By embracing their curiosity, children can enjoy playful experiences that foster joyfulness, wonder, and excitement. They are less likely to get bored as they learn that there are always new, interesting things just around the corner. This sense of adventure can support children as they get older by helping them to feel excited about the world they live in. 

Additional information about the connection between curiosity and early learning can be found in the G2K article, New Research: Curiosity in Early Childhood Supports Later Achievement

Developmental Stages and Curiosity

Curiosity can be expressed in a variety of ways, depending on a child’s age and stage of development. As children become more mobile, for example, they discover new ways to follow their curiosity and interact with their environment.  Following are examples of the ways that little ones between birth and age 3 are likely to demonstrate their curiosity at different stages of development. 

Birth to 9 months

During the first few months of life, children discover the world within the context of relationships with their caregivers. They are particularly interested in new objects and people. We might notice infants displaying their curiosity by observing people in their environment, investigating their hands and feet by putting them in their mouth, and attempting to initiate social interactions with caregivers by smiling or reaching out. 

7 months to 18 months

Around the time of their first birthday, children experience rapid development of their ability to exercise physical control, which enables them to explore and initiate interactions in more purposeful ways. At this stage of development, we might observe children demonstrating curiosity by exploring and manipulating new objects, or by using familiar objects in new ways. You might also observe a curious child crawling or walking toward an interesting new item or activity. 

16 months to 24 months

During toddlerhood, little ones become increasingly curious about new experiences and activities that include peers and adults. We might notice toddlers expressing  curiosity by actively exploring a new environment, trying to engage in new experiences, and initiating play with peers, siblings, or caregivers. At this age, sensory play is also enjoyable, so you might see toddlers moving toward items with bright colors and interesting shapes and textures. 

21 months to 36 months

Older toddlers and preschoolers are eager to utilize their newly developed movement, language, and social skills to try new things and participate in activities with peers.  At this stage of development, children begin to demonstrate their curiosity by participating in a broader array of experiences, such as climbing on a jungle gym, riding on a scooter, trying out new art projects, and joining in games with groups of children. 

You can find more details and useful information about curiosity during early  developmental stages at the  Illinois Early Learning Project’s website.

Tips for Nurturing Curiosity

In an article for Harvard Graduate School of Education, cognitive scientist and researcher Elizabeth Bonawitz encourages educators to focus on creating moments, situations, and interactions that provoke curiosity and generate a curious response. Below are some tips for creating moments of curiosity with the children in your care: 

Offer Open-Ended Materials

Open-ended materials are items, such as blocks and empty cardboard boxes, that can be used in a variety of ways. These items spark children’s curiosity and creativity, causing them to wonder about the different ways that they might use the open-ended items and to figure out how they will incorporate them into their play. 

Natural items, such as twigs, leaves, sticks, acorns, and other things that are found outdoors are a source of interest and curiosity for many early learners.   We can encourage children by noticing, enjoying, and talking with them about nature’s varied textures and colors. 

Follow the Child’s Lead

A wonderful way to nurture a young child’s curiosity is to follow their lead by encouraging a deeper exploration of the subjects and topics that interest them.  An article from ZERO TO THREE explains, “Children learn so much more through activities that capture their attention and imaginations. If he likes music, play it for him often, make and play instruments together, dance together. If bugs are her thing, give her a shovel and a net. Find books on bugs and read to her.” 

Model Curiosity

Children learn so much from watching the adults in their lives. We can demonstrate curiosity by initiating conversations with children that include statements and questions such as “I wonder what would happen if…” “How do you think that got there?” or “Why do you think ___ happens?” These kinds of questions inspire children to think creatively.  And, when children see that the grown-ups in their lives wonder about the world, they will want to ask more questions and talk about the things that cause them to feel curious.   

Answer Children’s Questions

Preschoolers and young children often have a lot of questions about how things work and why things are the way they are. When they wonder out loud to us, children are communicating their curiosity and letting us know that they trust us to support their interests. As educators, we can answer their questions with thoughtfulness and honesty. We might even ask them some follow-up questions to encourage their curiosity and support their exploration. 

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