How to nurture kids’ curiosity

Recently, a journalist asked Let Grow: How can we foster our children’s desire to learn things on their own — not just for a class? Our response:

School as we know it – the thing most kids attend around the world for most of their childhoods – is actually a new development. In the United States, for instance, school only became compulsory a little over 100 years ago.

Previously – by which we mean for most of human history — kids learned simply by watching, copying, helping and playing. In other words, they’d hang around the adults and see how they wove baskets, or skinned antelopes. They’d ask questions, noodle around, and try to copy what their elders were doing. They’d also help out as soon as they could – fetching, foraging, whatever – and in between they’d be playing with a group of kids from toddlers to teens.

All these activities were fueled by curiosity. As a kid you were motivated to learn what the adults were doing because that’s how you, too, could become important and competent. You were motivated to learn what the bigger kids in your group knew, too, because they were so cool and wordly. Your entire day consisted of observing and practicing the stuff you needed to know – skills and games. If you weren’t curious you weren’t going to enjoy life, or succeed at it.

Longing to be part of the “real world”

One reason kids might seem less curious today is because most of their education, inside and outside of school, seems disconnected to the “real” world. Diagramming a sentence just doesn’t seem like a very marketable skill (or even prestigious on the playground).

Most of the day, an adult is telling kids what to do, rather than kids figuring it out for themselves. Even extracurriculars are like that: Kids do the drills the coach assigns, as opposed to tagging along with the older kids and working hard to get good enough so that they start letting you play.

The key to curiosity, then, is giving kids enough free, unstructured time for them to find something they love to do for its own sake – not for a grade, or coach.

Of course, as a parent or teacher, you absolutely can and should introduce kids to all sorts of different things that they might come to love – the arts, sports, music, language, nature, animals, people. But then it is also our job to get out of the way and not turn a budding interest – budding curiosity – into yet another adult-led activity that kids passively go along with. Not every interest has to lead to formal instruction, or at least not until a child really wants it.

Prying them off the couch

Curiosity and self-direction go hand in hand. If you believe all this but your kid is still welded to the couch, try this: Designate an hour or two of the day as “outdoor” time…without devices. Every day from, say, 3 to 5, or Saturday mornings. Put some junk out there – old suitcases, blankets, buckets — whatever you’ve got. Of course at first the kids might be bored. Scratch that: They WILL be bored. They’ll want to come back in and grab the iPad. Resist the temptation to let them in or entertain them. Give them a stretch of time – especially if you can send some other kids out there with them – and out of “There’s nothing to do” something will catch their interest.

And a curious kid is born.

Love to hear any other tips you’ve got!

NEXT WEEK, PART 2: If a child seems to have lost their spark of curiosity, is there anything that can rekindle it?

Photo by Tony Tran on Unsplash