Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

What’s so important about fostering curiosity anyway? 

My daughter waves to Sue the T-Rex back in the days when Sue lived in the main hall of the Field Museum in Chicago.

My daughter waves to Sue the T-Rex back in the days when Sue lived in the main hall of the Field Museum in Chicago. (Photo: Shala Howell)

I am astounded and mortified that January is almost over and I have yet to post anything on Caterpickles.

Happy New Year, by the way.

There are often good reasons for it when I take a break from the blog. This time the main one is simply that I’ve been putting what little writing time I’ve had these past few months into other projects, including the next book in the Caterpickles Parenting Series.

This next book focuses on science and how parents without a science degree can handle their child’s curious questions without enrolling in a college-level refresher course. Because it’s about science, it seems only proper to include some actual data about why curiosity matters. 

As a result, I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading and thinking about curiosity lately. One of the first articles I came across was this one by Daisy Yuhas of The Hechinger Report entitled “The Benefits of Cultivating Curiosity in Kids.” 

In the article, Yuhas talks about a set of studies that demonstrate that curious people tend to be happier in their jobs, better at social interactions, and enjoy greater academic success. 

Reader, I had questions.

Are curious people really happier in their jobs?

Unfortunately, the study on curiosity in the workplace that Yuhas links to in her article is hidden behind a paywall. It was also relatively small — with a sample size of only 233 adults — and published in 2001. This particular combination happens a lot when it comes to curiosity research.  Considering the central role curiosity plays in driving things like scientific research, scientists are asking surprisingly few questions about curiosity itself.

At the moment, the best information I have to offer you on this point is an anecdote from my own life. (Talk about a small sample size! Don’t worry, I will find something more substantial for the actual book.)

You may have noticed a definite shift in tone and reduction in frequency of Caterpickles posts over the past few months.

Here’s what happened.

You see, I have all these writing projects that I’m supposed to be working on, and around November of last year, I discovered I had very little interest in writing any of them. In fact, I had a very great interest in never writing again and going back to school to become a librarian.

I would be an excellent librarian. Even Google thinks so. I know this, because when I searched for “librarian” in the Google Photos app on my phone, this popped up.

Yes, it’s a selfie. I forget why I took it. Probably something to do with Facebook.

Although, to be fair, Google also suggested this:

I have no idea why this picture is on my phone. I suspect the Eleven-Year-Old might have been involved.

And I think we can all agree that Grace Elvis, Super Criminal has no place in a library.

Still, based on my own experiences volunteering in a local library this school year, I am pretty confident I’d love the work. The only possible exception might be the part where I have to host visiting authors to talk about their books. Don’t get me wrong, I love meeting visiting authors. I would just hate the part where I had to listen to them talk about how they showed up and did the work of writing when I had allowed myself to stop. That would bother me.

I recognize now, of course, that all of this was largely some combination of seasonal depression and burnout talking, but at the time dropping everything writing-related seemed like a reasonable thing to do. 

So I gave myself permission to do it. “Self,” I said, “For the rest of the year, your only job is to follow your curiosity wherever it leads you. If you end up wanting to write about it, fine. If not, that’s fine too. Just stay curious.”

Following my curiosity turned out to be a wonderfully restorative thing to do. Which is no doubt one of the reasons I find myself back here at my desk, actively working on the very same writing projects that just two months ago I had given myself permission to quit forever.

You don’t have to tell me that curious people are happier and more productive in their jobs. I am living it.

Now if only I could find some non-anecdotal proof.

Are curious people really more successful socially?

Again, the study Yuhas links to here is hiding behind a paywall. The study by Todd B. Kashdan and John E. Roberts, “Trait and State Curiosity in the Genesis of Intimacy: Differentiation from Related Constructs,” was published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in 2004, and has been cited several times by other people in the years since. I remain hopeful that I will be able to find some actual data for the book over the coming weeks.

For now, though, let’s work with the abstract. From what I can tell, the researchers found that curious people are more likely to be perceived positively in social situations. The effect of curiosity was blunted somewhat in folks with higher social anxiety, but overall, being curious was linked with having greater success in forming personal connections.

Although I haven’t yet seen the data behind this result, on an intuitive level it makes sense. Curious people are more interested in learning about whomever they are talking to, which is pretty flattering for the person with whom they are talking. Small wonder curious people are more likely to make a positive first impression.

Do curious children really do better in school?

It all boils down to this, doesn’t it? As parents, we want to give our children the best possible start in life. And that means helping them get the most out of whatever academic opportunities are available to them.

And on this, finally, there is some research to talk about. An April 2018 study of 6200 kindergartners demonstrated that greater curiosity was associated with improved scores in math and reading. The study was done by Prachi Shah, an associated professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan.

To some extent, again, it just makes sense that curious kids would learn more in school. After all, academic performance is not simply a matter of intelligence. It’s also about being motivated to pay attention, work harder, and as a result, learn more. Curious kids are more likely to do all of that.

And again, there is some research to support this contention. An article in the Atlantic describes the work Adele and Allan Gottfried of California State University have been doing to trace the development of giftedness in children over time. Their decades-old Fullerton Longitudinal Study began with a group of 107 healthy, full-term, normal weight 1-year-old children back in 1979. The Gottfrieds have been following the progress of the kids in their study at regular intervals ever since.

Not surprisingly, when the children entered school the Gottfrieds found a clear link between cognitive giftedness (defined in the study as an IQ of 130 or more) and academic performance. Nineteen percent of the children in the study had an IQ over 130, and as you might expect, those children tended to perform at a higher level across various subjects starting in kindergarten.

However, the Gottfrieds also found that by the time the kids are adolescents, motivation matters as much as intellect. (Motivation, for the purposes of this study, is defined as enjoying school; displaying an active curiosity; being willing to try challenging, difficult, and novel tasks; and persisting until those tasks were mastered.)

The Gottfrieds found that being intellectually gifted didn’t automatically mean a child would also be motivationally gifted. Only 8 of the study participants had both an IQ over 130 and intrinsic motivation. Although the motivated students weren’t always the ones with the highest IQ scores, their teachers consistently described them as working harder and learning more. As a result, motivated students outperformed their peers in math, reading, and on the SAT.

Clearly, curiosity is an academic gift in its own right.

To some degree, the principle of work harder in school and you’ll do better seems blindingly obvious.

What’s more interesting though, is that the curious children from impoverished backgrounds in Prachi Shah’s University of Michigan study scored just as well as affluent children on math and literacy tests.

Can the simple act of instilling curiosity in our kids level the socioeconomic playing field?

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that more research in this area is needed. However, there’s little doubt that parents as well as teachers play an important role in fostering curiosity in kids. 

So, what does that look like? What can we parents do to foster curiosity in our kids at home?

In this area, as in so many others, more research is needed. Shah is planning future research into parenting styles that foster an active, curious mindset in children. In the meantime, we have a few clues.

Encourage kids to follow their own interests.

Often a child’s interest lies far, far outside the classroom. Maybe they love soccer, collect rocks, or have an encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs. Teachers have to figure out how to relate those extracurricular interests to whatever it is they’ve got going on in the classroom.

But as parents, we have the luxury of allowing our child to explore whatever it is they are curious about in the moment without worrying about the impact on year-end test scores.

Take advantage of it. Curiosity feeds on itself. The more we allow our kids to take the lead on exploring things that interest them, the more they will want to explore.

Model curiosity for your children.

In 2015, a team of MIT researchers used a story telling app and an interactive robot to demonstrate just how contagious curiosity can be. It turns out, having anyone — even a robot — show an active interest in how a story will turn out makes kids more likely to take an interest in that story themselves.

What does modeling curiosity as a parent look like?

Well, it can mean giving kids experiences that take them out of their everyday lives — taking them to a zoo, a science museum, story time at the library, or to a play, for example.

But it can also mean much simpler and less time-intensive things, like asking questions about the public art you pass on the way to the grocery store, the books you are reading together, or the TV show you’re watching at home.

Don’t just focus on your child’s intelligence.

Praise them for working hard, for trying again when they make a mistake, and, dare I say it, for asking questions. 

We are so used to thinking that academic achievement is a product of intellect. Many gifted and talented programs focus exclusively on one marker of academic potential — an IQ or standardized test score. But as the Gottfrieds’ work shows, over time it’s our children’s willingness to put in the work that is really going to matter.

Want some more ideas? My book, What’s That, Mom? provides 15 accessible, practical strategies for using public art to spark conversations with children between the ages of 3 and 10 — no artistic talent or insight required. Available on Amazon, IndieBound, and wherever online books are sold.

A final note, and then I’ll let you go

In addition to describing the Gottfrieds’ research, the Atlantic article “Schools are Missing What Matters Most About Learning” includes a brief story about Orville Wright. Orville and Wilbur Wright grew up in poverty, a fact which made their invention of flight all the more miraculous for one of their acquaintances. After all, that acquaintance pointed out, the Wright brothers had had no special advantages growing up and look what they did. They were a marvelous example of what people could accomplish in spite of their origins.

Orville Wright violently — but oh so politely — disagreed. “…to say we had no special advantages [is incorrect], … the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity.”

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to lately. I’d love to hear from you.

What sorts of things have you tried at home to cope with or nourish your child’s active curiosity? 

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