On a trip to the Museum of Natural History in New York City, 5-year-old Luke and 6-year-old Ethan were awestruck by the giant skeletons on display in the Hall of Dinosaurs. "There's the T-Rex!" shouted Ethan. "And there's the stegosaurus," said Luke. The boys' excitement quickly turned to curiosity, and a stream of questions came pouring from them both: "Are these bones from real dinosaurs? How do we know if it's a boy or girl? How old are the bones? Why do some have big bodies and little heads? How come the dinosaurs aren't alive today? Did they live here in New York?"
A young child's interest can be sparked easily and at any time. It might be a friend's new pair of shoes that light up, a book about dinosaurs, a trip to a new place, a passing fire truck, or a bug sitting in the grass. You never know when a new discovery will capture your child's fancy, but chance favors you if you are open to new experiences, seek knowledge yourself, and encourage his curiosity. There is no better way to raise a curious child than to encourage him to ask questions — lots of them. And you don't have to know all the answers; you can make searching for information together part of an exciting, shared learning process.
Let the Search Begin
The goal is to deepen your child's thinking about new discoveries by stimulating language and building on background knowledge. When you help your child observe closely and connect new information with what he already knows, you foster essential critical-thinking skills that can be used in all areas of learning.
There are plenty of ways to help your child explore new interests — to seek, find, and interpret new information — whether it's through books, direct experiences, technology, conversations, or play. No matter how you decide to begin your search for answers, you can set the stage for stronger information-processing by making available materials that aid in collecting, recording, and exploring the information your child finds interesting. Here are some items to keep on hand around the house or to take on your excursions:
- Tools such as a magnifying glass, a digital microscope, binoculars, or a flashlight aid in visual observation.
- A digital camera or camcorder helps your child gain a new perspective on a discovery.
- Tools for measuring allow her to examine all kinds and sizes of units. Try rulers for smaller items, such as leaves or insects; a yard stick for block structures; a tape measure for longer distances, such as how far a ball rolls.
- A computer with Internet access puts a world of information at your fingertips.
- Open-ended materials like clay, molding putty, or sand can provide ways for children to make representations of what they are studying, such as a dinosaur fossil.
One of the best ways to spark your child's curiosity about the world around him is to step out into it. Family field trips — whether you visit a local shop, park, library, or museum, or travel somewhere farther away — are among the best ways to gain a fresh perspective on familiar surroundings or discover something entirely new.
These family excursions will help your child gain an appreciation of his environment and his place in the world, and they lend themselves to extended learning. After any type of trip or event, you have the opportunity to dig deeper and build on his knowledge by seeking out even more information.
Before a trip, talk with your child about where you're going and what you might learn there. You might want to read a book or check out an Internet site before you go. Encourage your child to write down any questions he might have and to take lots of photos that he might want to use to create a book about his experience. Here are some of our favorite family jaunts:
Visit offbeat businesses. Your community might have a jeweler, dairy farmer, potter, veterinarian, or baker who will allow children to visit. (Call ahead to find out.)
- Explore nearby transportation hubs: airports, train stations, or piers. Kids love to study the things that get them where they want to go. If possible, arrange a behind-the-scenes tour (airplane cockpits, bridges, and control towers).
- Go for a hike or comb the beach. When you visit the woods, the ocean, or a stream, you're sure to find treasures worth studying and collecting. Hunt for rocks, shells, insects, crab legs, sea glass, or bones. Talk about the items you find. Invite your child to sort the objects by color, size, or shape.
- Attend events at your local cultural centers. Wherever you are, you should be able to find museums, libraries, or other community centers that host exhibits and events. Children can learn about animals, people, and other cultures. If you're able to watch a live dance performance, for example, encourage your child to notice the costumes, hand gestures, and facial expressions.
- Visit a cemetery. It might sound creepy, but cemeteries are filled with rich stories, history, and cultural meaning. A cemetery visit also offers a chance to discuss the natural cycle of life and death. Historical societies and visitor information centers can direct you to popular sites. Before you visit, talk about what you will see and how to be respectful. If there is someone famous buried there, talk about his life and work. Gravestone rubbings are a great way to document your findings, too.
Using the Internet and Technology
For kids today, computers, high-tech toys, and the Internet are merely additional ways to understand the world. These tools are not replacements for basic materials, such as blocks, books, writing, drawing, or other direct, hands-on experiences. No Web site or electronic toy can compare with the sensation of a cricket's sticky feet in the palm of your hand. As learning theorist Jean Piaget discussed at length, children internalize (or know) a concept if they are given the time to "try it on for size." This process is helped when children are given time to experiment with both real and symbolic representations of a new thing (sketches, verbal descriptions, and writing are all forms of symbolic representations). Increasingly, new interactive technologies in toys and software can also bridge the gap between the real and the symbolic.
Consider this true scenario from my own family archive: One dark and stormy night, our family woke to a loud clap of thunder. I found my youngest daughter sobbing into her pillow, certain that a tornado was coming. As much as I tried, I could not convince her otherwise. Desperate, I brought my laptop to her bed, and together we pulled up a real-time weather map showing a satellite's view of the storm front right over our town. We both were reassured to see that most of the storm had already passed by. It worked like magic, and soon she was asleep. Today, thanks to computers and Internet access, we can access the expertise of entomologists, geologists, meteorologists, teachers, and so many more.
Here are some tips on helping children use the Internet safely and how to maximize the experience:
- To minimize contact with inappropriate content, keep your computer out in the open in a public part of your house.
- Have an open and direct conversation about Internet usage before you think you have to. Let your child know that you understand how the browser works (even if you don't) and let him know that you actively monitor his browsing.
- Consider using a filtering package, such as Cybersitter, SafeEyes, Net Nanny, or CyberPatrol (all about $40). These keep a log of what your child does, as well as filter Internet content.
- Search for information together. If possible, bring the Internet to your child. A laptop with Wi-Fi can help with homework.
- Use the image search option on Google, for example, to explore topics visually.
- Let your child choose the keywords for your searches. Help him understand how a few carefully selected words can improve the chances he'll find what he's looking for.
- Consider using a news aggregator or feedreader to capture news on his favorite topics, from sports and horses to insects.
- Teach older kids how "wikis" work by editing a page in Wikipedia. Help them to start their own wiki at one of the free sites, like Peanut Butter Wiki.
- If your child posts content on social sites, make sure you monitor what he does.
- Utilize your local library. Explore professional references, such as Encyclopedia Britannica, or free resources, such as Microsoft Encarta. Likewise, many of the databases your school might subscribe to extend access to families. You just need to ask.
Building a Nonfiction Library
Early literacy studies show that children who love to read have access to many books at home. Having a diverse home library ups the likelihood that you'll be able to put the right book into your child's hand when his interest is piqued.
Reading nonfiction books expands your child's reading skills, language skills, and knowledge base. "Most of the reading people do during their lives is informational reading. Children are curious critters, and informational books and magazines can help them learn about the world in a way that stories cannot," says Richard Allington, Ph.D., professor of education at the University of Tennessee.
The following ideas will help you begin building a nonfiction collection your child will use time and again:
- Invest in basic kid-friendly reference materials. "Everybody needs a good dictionary, and a thesaurus is a good idea, too," says Timothy Shanahan, president of the International Reading Association (IRA). He adds: "I would also argue for an atlas and a recent almanac."
- Look for books that fit your child's needs and interests. If your child loves the natural world, for instance, lots of books about history probably won't cut it. Consider your child's reading level, too. If the book is for independent reading, help her select something that isn't too difficult.
- Look for quality. A good place to start is to ask your librarian. You can also check out the Orbis Pictus Award winners. The award criteria include accurate information; clear and logical organization; engaging design; and stimulating style that leaves readers wanting more.
- Another great source is the IRA's Children's Choices. Each year 10,000 U.S. children read and vote on the newly published children's and young adult trade books they like best.
- Use the TV shows and DVDs your child watches as a springboard to reading. Documentaries and how-to videos can inspire further exploration of interests and hobbies.
Children love learning new things, and everyday experiences provide wonderful opportunities for deeper exploration. Try to slow down, be open to your child's questions — no matter how many times they ask "But why?" — and enjoy the process of investigating the world together. You just might be surprised at what you find!