How to Nurture Your Child’s Curiosity

In Wayne Dyer’s book What Do You Really Want For Your Children, he describes some of the hopes parents harbor for their children: self-reliance, risk-taking, creativity, and a sense of emotional well-being.  But with two adult scientists in our house, we had to add one more to the list: curiosity.

Remember when you were little, and everything around you was wondrous?  You didn’t ask why to be annoying, you asked why because you were awed by life.  And then?  You get busy and lose your focus on that beautifully unfocused exploration.

I saw first hand what happens when you don’t make curiosity a priority, long before I became a mother.  I was teaching chemistry at the Air Force Academy to kids who were, by and large, as self-reliant, risk-taking, creative and emotionally balanced as they come.  But their competitive edge had largely pounded their curious nature into the ground.  They were so bent on achievement, they just didn’t have time to stop and admire their titration (so to speak).

The problem is many adults forsake curiosity in favor of productivity themselves.  They have to-do lists, they haul their kids on errands, then sink in front of the TV at night, exhausted.  The best way to raise curious kids, regardless of their age, is to model the behavior yourself.

Here’s how to continue to nurture the scientist in all of us :

  1. Go slow: Mornings used to be miserable.  It seemed like we were always late, not to mention stressed.  Now, I’ve purposely set aside time for dawdling (big yay from my toddler).  Before we get dressed, we talk about the weather.  On the way to school, we look for acorns and talk about why squirrels hide them.  But there’s nothing special about mornings.  Just set aside time each day to observe and discuss the world around you.
  2. Be bored: I don’t know how boredom came to be associated with the 7 deadly sins, but it’s actually the quickest way to  pique curiosity.  Pick a time or day to shut down electronically (as well as other external stimuli) and you’ll find your mind magically turns on.
  3. Multi-task: One of the best places to learn about chemistry?  The kitchen.  Talk about what happens when you fry an egg or use yeast to make dough rise.  And don’t worry if you don’t know the answers–guessing (what scientists forming a hypothesis) is half the fun!  A good resource for the answers is the book What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained.
  4. Look outside:  Don’t think this is just about pointing out to your little ones how the leaves are changing colors.  You can pack a magnifying glass on your next hiking trip, plant a garden, catch bugs, or classify the birds in your neighborhood.  Don’t forget there’s terrific physics to discuss in the weather year round (lightning never gets old).
  5. Make a game of it: Put that competitive spirit to good use!  Have everyone in the house come up with 5 questions they don’t know the answer to–the zanier the better.  At dinner, pull out one of the questions and discuss.  To entertain my students, I used to ask questions like, ”Why does soap remove dirt and grease, but not your skin?”  (You might have to revisit suggestion #2 to get beyond the mundane.)

A few years ago, I was dilated as part of an eye exam.  It was something I hadn’t done in years, and when I went outside, I felt like I was seeing everything for the first time.  Here’s an excerpt from a poem I wrote about the experience

Imagine the geode of this world cracked open,

the radiance of everyday objects revealed—

the tea kettle and its shimmer of steam,

the spoon’s hazy splendor, the window’s

white cascade, every bush burning.

How the river becomes a needle

strung with burnished silver thread,

how the goldfish beneath the pond’s surface,

restored of their luster, glimmer and glitter
like coins thrown.

I want my life to be like this everyday–as curious and wondrous as the day I was born.  If I can manage that for myself, I know my daughter won’t be far behind.

Jennifer Gresham is a PhD biochemist and the author of the blog Everyday Bright, where she writes about career design and how to live a happier life.  She is also an award-winning poet.  She and her husband often joke they “just had that chemistry.”  Her daughter Ingrid is still young enough to laugh at her jokes.

Image from Mads Boedker on Flikr

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6 Responses to “ How to Nurture Your Child’s Curiosity ”

  1. SallyBR says:

    Wonderful, Jen….

    Glad I caught your Facebook bit about it, so I could jump here right away and enjoy your beautiful text!

    • Jen Gresham says:

      I’m so glad you caught it too! I loved writing this post because it forced me to generate new methods for curiosity seeking as Ingrid gets older. I also think making time for my own curiosity is a good idea regardless of my child rearing goals.

      Good to “see” you and thanks for the comment!

  2. David says:

    Very nice post, Jen. You should also help them see the benefit of curiosity by not simply answering their every question, but asking back to them: “Why do *you think that …?” Work out the answer together.

    You probably have to be judicious about this, and also creative, because I expect this could be tedious for a child. But it helps them take that curiosity and do something with it.

    • David says:

      I feel my comment was awkwardly worded. My intent is that along with encouraging curiosity, you should encourage self-learning. When they ask a question, don’t always answer it directly, but help them come up with the answer themselves. Nurture their problem-solving skills along with their curiosity.

      • Jen Gresham says:

        I didn’t think your first comment was awkward. I actually love this line, “But it helps them take that curiosity and do something with it.” Good point!

        And maybe that’s another piece of what I was observing in the cadets–an inability or disinterest in teaching themselves.

        Anyway, I love this idea and am grateful for you sharing it. Many thanks!

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