Typically developing children are usually eager to explore their world. As soon as they become mobile and gain the ability to touch and interact with objects in their environment, young children begin to explore. We see the early signs of curiosity and exploration when we see newborn babies trying to follow the many interesting objects that parents playfully move about in front of them, and we witness the continuing development of this curiosity when we see a growing infant trying to touch and taste objects within their reach or a toddler trying to repeatedly open and close kitchen cupboards and explore and play with pots and pans.
Although curiosity is important to foster in children, it is not always easy for parents to manage. The curiosity of a young child can sometimes become annoying. Many parents have likely sighed after trying to answer the endless ‘Why’ questions of their young child.
Mom, why is the sky blue?
Mom, why do you have those spots (freckles) on your face and I don’t?
Mom, why is the moon white?
These questions can be difficult to answer, and they can become tiresome to a pressured parent who is rushing to get dinner ready or trying to get siblings out of the house and to school on time. But, in terms of development, these curious questions are a critical indicator of healthy development and mental growth.
Why Parents Should Try To Foster Curiosity In Their Children
Curiosity Supports the Development of Meaningful Communication
Curiosity facilitates shared engagement and experience sharing interactions. Novel discoveries and the emergence of new skills give both parent and child a reason to engage in experience sharing communication.
A child who makes a new discovery will most often want to share that discovery with their parent. They will be motivated to use gestures and words to draw their parent’s attention to their ‘success’ or new skill.
Parents who ‘receive this communication’ and who witness their child making discoveries and learning new skills will typically reinforce their child’s agency both verbally and nonverbally. The parent is able to spotlight this new learning by smiling and clapping and by making comments that build their child’s sense of pride.
The parent is also able to spotlight this success and help the child encode this success in a meaningful way. The parent can use the opportunity to develop the child’s growing sense of self. The parent can make comments that help the child link their perseverance to their success and help the child begin to see themselves as a thinker and someone who can successfully engage with challenge.
Curiosity Supports The Development of Important Developmental Drives
Curiosity supports the development of personal agency, mastery motivation and the drive for competency and independence.
Personal agency is all about the beliefs we develop about our ability to accomplish goals and do hard things. Mastery motivation is the psychological force that drives us to repeatedly engage with these challenges challenge in a persistent and focused manner.
The feelings of competency and self-efficacy that successful experiences of personal agency can foster are very motivating. A child who learns to do something on their own feels a powerful sense of achievement and success. These feelings build the child’s self-confidence and over time help a child develop the important internal motivation that fosters their desire to interact with new challenges.
The little boy who, despite struggle and repeated failure, keeps trying to open and shut the cupboard doors learns that he if he keeps trying he can do hard things. He learns that with perseverance and grit that he can achieve his goal. When he encounters a new challenge he is emboldened to interact with it.
The little girl who repeatedly tries to open the clasp on her mom’s purse experiences a potent thrill when she succeeds. She has learned that she can ‘make things’ happen. This experience leaves her feeling powerful and clever. The little girl develops strong feelings of agency that further develop her drive for mastery motivation (and in the process provides the little girl with an opportunity to develop fine motor skills).
Curiosity Supports Mental Growth
“Curiosity is the quality that urges a child to keep on finding out more, to connect actions with outcomes, people with feelings. Wondering why is the powerful engine that drives discovery.”
Dr. Stanley Greenspan Great Kids
Curiosity develops and builds the brain. The “aha” moment a child has when he or she makes a new discovery is the result of the child’s active exploration with a challenge and the neural connections within the brain that are activated when a child engages with that challenge.
The brain is made up of billions of special cells called neurons. These neurons communicate with one another through the release of special chemicals. When a child learns something new or perceives something new about an activity these neural cells are activated. They begin to send and receive information to and from one another.
These neural networks are altered when the child acquires new information. Existing neural connections that are associated with a child’s memory of a task become active and begin to from new connections with other neurons when new information about the task is learned. As these new neural connections are created older neural connections are also enhanced and strengthened. Neurons that fire together begin to wire together, and over time the neural net associated with the challenging task becomes more and more efficient and effective. The child’s “aha’ moment, their ability to understand and make sense of the activity in a new important way, is facilitated by the development of these new neural connections and the general strengthening of the neural network or neural net that is associated with engagement in the task.
Curiosity fuels development, and it needs to be valued and encouraged at all stages of development (Bruce Perry, 2001).
Parents who want to support the mental and social development of their children need to understand the critical role curiosity plays in development.
Parents also need to understand that they play a critical role in supporting the developing of curiosity and in maintaining and building their child’s curiosity and their interest in exploration and discovery over the course of development.