Curiosity in children is a fundamental source motivating development, playing a crucial role in their ability to learn, explore, and make sense of the world. As children experience curiosity, they engage in a process that encourages cognitive and psychological growth. As parents, we must encourage this fundamental force in our children to fuel a life long process of learning and growth.
Psychologist George Loewenstein described curiosity as a form of deprivation that ‘arises from the perception of a gap in knowledge or understanding’ (Love, 2023). My 22 month grandson continuously points to objects and asks, “watsdat, watsdat?” He understands that objects have names, and he doesn’t know them. He perceives a gap in his knowledge. His pointing and asking is a simple expression of curiosity. He is filling the ‘gap.’
Roy F. Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and at the University of Queensland in Australia, explains that “living things have various built-in needs and wants, which may be called natural motivations.” He includes curiosity as one of these natural inclinations (Baumesiter,1992). Gaining knowledge produces a pleasant effect, while the perception of an information gap may produce the opposite. In psychology, we know this as the pleasure or hedonic principle.
Abraham Maslow placed “intellectual curiosity and self-actualization on a higher plane…distinguishing them as ‘being needs’ or ‘growth needs'” (Kenrick, 2011).
Curiosity is having a strong desire to learn or know something, driven simply for the sake of gaining knowledge.
Unintended Dousing of the Flames of Curiosity
We intuitively know that curiosity benefits children. However, when a child explores, we often limit this exploration. Curiosity is free flowing, disrupting planned structures. We would rather put a lid on unstructured curiosity and direct our child to standard forms of learning.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a distinguished professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, warns that “with few adults who can serve as models for how to enjoy complex activities, with little encouragement to become interested in challenges for their own sake, with living environments that are too boring or too unsafe to explore and to learn from, many children gradually lose their ability to find flow in everything they do. Having learned that boredom and worry are the norm in the family, in the school, and in the community at large, children give up curiosity, interest, the desire to explore new possibilities, and become used to passive entertainment” (2009, Kindle location: 3,666).
In a Wall Street Journal article this week, the author illuminates a growing trend of voters to values belonging to a group over the actual issues (Zitner, 2023). Adults are trading curiosity for security. Perhaps, the world is growing too complex. Science and technology are growing at such a rapid rate that we can’t intellectually keep up. So we quit asking, “what’s that?” and just join a group, close our eyes, and follow.
Curiosity requires cognitive effort. Processing events that elude our immediate understanding consumes vast cognitive resources. Perhaps, this is why we employ defense mechanisms to protect current beliefs rather than explore the cognitive dissonance between what we encounter and what we believe. We selective choose information that supports our set beliefs rather than engage in curious explorations into the unknown.
Loewenstein explained, “cognitive effort, like any other type of effort is costly, and this is taken into account in human decision making.” Accordingly, “people differ in the amount of time they are willing to invest in complex, intellectual problem solving when the main reward for engagement in this activity is just knowing more or feeling less irritated by one’s own information gaps” (Tanaś, 2021).
Although, life is growing in complexity, we must never give up the quest for knowledge. However, this remains increasingly challenging where facts are debated and conclusions attacked. As adults we must continue to feed our curiosity while simultaneously feeding the quest for knowledge by our children.
Benefits of Encouraging Creativity in Children
Let’s take a closer look at some of the key psychological advantages that curiosity brings to children:
- Enhanced Problem-Solving Skills: Curiosity stimulates a child’s mind, encouraging them to ask questions, seek information, and find solutions. This process enhances their problem-solving skills as they actively engage with their surroundings, fostering creative and critical thinking abilities.
- Increased Knowledge Acquisition: Curiosity serves as a catalyst for learning, driving children to explore new topics, ideas, and experiences. It motivates them to seek out information and develop a thirst for knowledge, leading to a deeper understanding of the world and fostering a love of learning. Research shows unequivocally that when people are curious about soemthing, they learn more and better (Engel, 2013).
- Improved Memory Retention: When children are curious, their brains become actively engaged in the learning process. This engagement strengthens neural connections, improving memory retention and recall. By actively exploring and seeking answers, children are more likely to retain information and integrate it into their existing knowledge.
- Heightened Motivation and Engagement: Curiosity acts as a natural motivator, inspiring children to actively participate and engage with their environment. It sparks a sense of wonder and a desire to explore, making learning more enjoyable and increasing their overall engagement in educational activities.
- Development of Emotional Intelligence: Curiosity helps children develop emotional intelligence by encouraging them to understand different perspectives, cultures, and ideas. It fosters empathy, tolerance, and an openness to new experiences, promoting social skills and emotional growth.
- Boosted Confidence and Self-esteem: When children are curious, they take risks, explore new possibilities, and gain a sense of accomplishment when they find answers. These experiences contribute to building their self-confidence, self-esteem, and belief in their abilities.
How Do We Encourage Curiosity in Children?
We know that curiosity is important to help develop young minds and refine older minds. However, as Susan Engel reminds, “what we admire and what we cultivate aren’t the same” (Engel, 2013). We must deliberately cultivate curiosity in children, and mindfully continue to learn as adults.
According to Elizabeth Bonawitz, a professor of learning sciences at Harvard University, we should “create a curiosity peak in the moment” (Love 2023). Basically, this requires observing and pointing out to children events, objects or phenomenon that produce a surprise. Derek Vidler explains that these surprises are created by a “conceptual conflict.” We are surprised when new inform violates expectations derived from existing beliefs (Vidler, 1980).
However, the surprise alone is not enough to elicit exploration. We must walk the child through questions that lead to probable explanations for the conceptual conflict. Hopefully leading to expansion, and refining of previous beliefs. Vidler explains that this process eventually eliminates the conceptual conflict of the surprising phenomenon as it “is gradually understood and comes to be understood.” Basically, the “conceptual conflict creates a state of discomfort which provides in turn motivating power for the search for a solution to the conflict” (Vidler, 1980).
Flow States and Curiosity
Csikszentmihalyi suggests that beneficial curiosity grow from activities that create flow. Flow is a psychological state that is a mix of both joy and challenge. Flow is a person’s sense of joy, creativity, and the experience of complete involvement in life.
“But enjoyment alone will not lead evolution in a desirable direction unless one finds flow in activities that stretch the self. Therefore, seeking out complexity is also necessary. Continuing curiosity and interest, and the desire to find ever new challenges, coupled with the commitment to develop appropriate skills, lead to lifelong learning. (Csikszentmihalyi, 2009, Kindle location: 4,447).
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
Encouraging and nurturing curiosity in children is essential for their holistic growth and development. Parents and educators can support curiosity by providing a stimulating environment, encouraging questions, and fostering a sense of wonder. While children are born with different levels of openness to new experience, we can encourage the continued growth of those children naturally high in this trait and assist those somewhat lacking in curiosity. By doing so, they empower children to become lifelong learners, critical thinkers, and active participants in their own education. So, let curiosity soar and watch as your child’s mind expands and flourishes!
Baumeister, Roy F. (1992). Meanings of Life. The Guilford Press; Revised edition.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2009). The Evolving Self: Psychology for the Third Millennium. HarperCollins e-books; Reprint edition.
Engel, Susan (2013) The Case for Curiosity. ASCD. Published 2-1-2013. Accessed 8-23-2023.
Kenrick, Douglas T. (2011). Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A Psychologist Investigates How Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity are Revolutionizing our View of Human Nature. Basic Books; 1st edition.
Love, Shayla (2023). This is how to nurture curiosity in children (and yourself). Psych. Published 8-22-2023. Accessed 8-26-2023
Vidler, Derek (1980). Provoking Curiosity in Children. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 14(4). DOI: 2https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/j.2162-6057.1980.tb00258.x
Zitner, Aaron (2023). Why Tribalism Took Over Our Politics. Wall Street Journal. Published 8-26-2023. Accessed 8-27-2023.