Ages & Stages: How Curiosity Leads to Learning

By Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., Susan A. Miller, Ed.D., and Ellen Booth Church
  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

0 to 2 "WHAT THIS?" by Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D.

At 3 months, Tessa has good control over her neck muscles. Sitting on her mother's lap, she turns her head slowly from side to side to look at the brightly colored dishes and cups on the table in front of her. Twenty-month-old Naftali toddles over to watch an earthworm wriggling on the sidewalk. Watching in wonder, he bends down to gently touch the worm.

Babies are born curious. A newborn stares deeply into an adult's eyes as if trying to get to know all about that person. The baby's desire to explore is powerful; it draws her hand to her mouth, as she learns to suck her fingers for self-comfort. Within the first months of life, she manages to bring her fingers to her mouth over and over, finding comfort and learning to soothe herself.

Curiosity About Body Parts

By 4 months, a baby's natural curiosity impels him to move a hand back and forth in front of his face. He watches the hand closely as if puzzled: Why does the back look different from the front? A baby's curiosity about his hands may result in indignant wails if he waves his hand so vigorously that it hits him in the face. It takes much more experimentation before a baby realizes he can control his own arm and hand movements.

Curiosity leads to explorations of other body parts as well. When placed in a swing with openings for the legs, the baby notices her feet and toes. Curiosity is sparked! The baby leans forward trying to catch her own toes. A younger baby lying on his back manages to raise a leg and get his own toes into his mourn to explore their taste and texture. Lying on the floor in front of a mirror, toddlers often squirm and twist their bodies. They are curious about how they look from every angle and position.

Curiosity Beyond Oneself

As babies grow into early toddlerhood, their curiosity grows as well. Babies at about 10 months know how to extend the index finger to poke, point, and prod. They may also poke and pull at adult eyeglasses or hair while being carried. You can gently remove the glasses from the baby's hands and say calmly, "I need my glasses on my eyes, honey."

Babies are also quite curious about other babies. A baby may pull on another infant's hair and look genuinely surprised at hearing the yowl of indignation. Toddlers are also fascinated with belly buttons and are intrigued when they see other babies being changed or bathed.

How Does It Work?

Curious crawlers find everything in a room interesting. They wonder: "What will happen if I crawl toward that interesting contraption on the wall? What will happen if I climb up on that low table?" Babies respond to sensory experiences with curiosity and a desire to find out more about the world.

If a teacher hangs some nursery birds over a bassinet and starts them swinging, the baby is : entranced. When the birds stop swinging, however, the baby does not understand that an outside agent made the birds swing. You might see a baby shaking his own body back and forth in a swinging motion, as if to put the birds "in flight" again! A toddler is full of curiosity about how toys work. Playing with stacking cups, he separates them and scatters them about with delight. He'll take apart far more of his toys long before curiosity compels him to figure out how to put the pieces back together again. ECT

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3 to 4 "WHERE DID THE RAIN GO?" by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

A group of preschoolers are playing in the school play yard. Suddenly, there's a rainstorm and the children are brought inside. Staring at the startling, eye-popping shower of tiny ice balls dropping from the sky, 3-year-old Jennifer inquires, "What is this stuff?" Her teacher, Mrs. Kelly, replies, "Hai." Jennifer then asks, "Where does it come from?" Four-year-old Brent rattles off questions rapid fire: "Can you hear how loud it is? Do you see it bounce? Can we catch it in something?"

Preschoolers' curiosity is aroused immediately by novel events such as the hailstorm. They become excited when things change dramatically, like when Jennifer and Brent observe the raindrops turning into ice as they fall through the sky. By tuning into their surroundings with their senses, preschoolers' curiosity is stimulated, and that motivates them to ask questions. Notice how Brent uses sight and hearing to investigate the clattering ice balls bouncing off the deck. Typical of a 4-year-old, he then asks questions meant to draw others in. He also wants others to listen to his ideas. In contrast, Jennifer's questions are classic for a 3-year-old: she wants answers to the things she is curious about.

Extending Curiosity

Preschoolers must be attracted to an item or a situation in order to feel curious about it in the first place. For instance, 3-year-old Adam found a measuring tape that had recently been added to the manipulatives area. He was so fascinated with it, he felt compelled to measure the furniture and report the different heights: "That's 13,11 pounds!" It's important to find ways to keep and extend young children's curiosity. Brent's interest in the hail is piqued when, after the excitement of the storm has passed, he explores a "captured" piece of hail. This allows him to compare it with the ice cubes found in the freezer.

Three-year-olds are excited about an event that takes them by surprise, like a bright flashing light in the dark or spilled water dripping off a table. But their short attention spans cause them to move on after a while. To extend their curious feelings, threes frequently need an adult to ask questions or provide additional enriching materials. For example, Jennifer's teacher motivates her inquisitiveness about the hailstorm further by asking, "What's happening to the hail in your hand?" ("It's melting.") "Why do you think that is happening?"

In addition, the very situations that attract a more adventuresome 4-year-old, such as a hailstorm with its noise, chaos, and surprise, may very well frighten a quieter, more timid, 3-year-old. She may want to watch, but from a safe distance. Or, she may require the security of an adult to stand close by as she gazes out the window.

Following the Lead of Others

Preschoolers frequently follow the lead of their friends, such as when their curiosity is aroused while experimenting with making bubbles. Fours, in particular, are often drawn to curious events that the big kids think are "cool." This may include the anticipation involved in some "risky" or "dangerous" activity like turning over rocks with long sticks to see what kinds of wriggly things crawl out from underneath.

Conducting Investigations

When young children feel empowered, their curiosity is intensified. For example, a group of preschoolers who discover a treasure trove of brightly colored plastic lids and caps in a bucket are intrigued about what they can do with this fascinating collection. Empowered to investigate, they sort through the items and begin to think and talk about the similarity of some of the lids (in size and color) and alternative ways they can be used (as play money for a bank or for clay cutters). The children feel confident they can turn their find into whatever they choose. Their curiosity continues over the next few days, motivating them to discover new uses. And, typical of preschoolers with their diverse interests and attention spans, individual children follow their interests in different directions. This is especially so with 3-year-olds.

Sorting Through Magical Thinking

Preschoolers find it difficult at times to sort out what is real and what is not. They are keenly curious about things that seem almost magical, like "ooblick," a cornstarch and water mixture that looks like a solid but reacts like a liquid when handled. When 3-year-old Tiffany visits the drive-through bank with her father, she wants to know, "Why did that bird just fall out of the sky?" After investigating the circumstances with her dad, a supportive adult, her curiosity leads her to discover that the "bird" is actually a can containing money that travels overhead from the bank in a transparent tube and drops down to the driver's window.

Less egocentric, 4-year-olds can more easily look at interesting situations from a viewpoint other than their own. This may help them better understand the things they are curious about. ECT

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5 to 6 "WHERE DO BABIES COME FROM?" by Ellen Booth Church

It's a beautiful fall day. As soon as they enter the playground, the kindergarten children begin exploring a large anthill that has formed overnight. The questions come fast and furious: "Where did the hill come from? What are the ants doing? How big will the anthill grow? Can the ants hurt us?" Their teacher listens carefully to the questions and then says, "I am not sure of the answers to all of your great questions. Let's investigate together!"

For young children, curiosity is as organic as breathing. They breathe in the world around mem, process it, and breathe out understanding. Through this process, they construct their own knowledge of die what, why, and how of life.

Curiosity Begins at Home

Five- and 6-year-olds are naturally curious. They notice and pick up the smallest speck or insect on the sidewalk and turn it into a science experiment. They wonder about how things happen or how they work. Often 5- and 6-year-olds will ask the most amazing questions that inspire our own curiosity: "What makes leaves change colors? Where does the night come from? Where are the ants going?"

In the first few months of kindergarten, 5- and 6-year-olds are starting to move through the me-centered, egocentric stage of development. Their curiosity is mostly about the observations they make in their own lives and that which is dosest to them. They wonder about what they see at school and at home, about nature, about their family and friends, and naturally, about their own growing bodies.

Let Them Wonder

At this stage, it is important for you to place equal value on whatever the children become curious about; no one moment is more important than the other. In fact, the state of being curious is more valuable than the content or "findings" of their wonderment. That is why it is essential to hold off on providing all the answers when children begin asking questions. Instead, invite them to consider a variety of answers without fear of rjeirig "wrorig." By encouraging kindergartners to wonder (and hypothesize), you model creative thinking and inductive and deductive reasoning. The children will use these higher-order thinking skills throughout their lives to solve problems and gain information.

Encourage Cooperative Learning

During the preschool years, children working in groups tend to say whatever other children say when asked for their opinion. In contrast, kindergartners can work cooperatively in groups without losing a sense of self. Five- and 6-year-olds enjoy acting on their curiosity together and expressing their ideas individually using their growing verbal skills. They also worry less about being "wrong." This gives you an opportunity to brainstorm with them as they search for possible answers to the questions that make them most curious.

Answering the Big Questions

Some curiosity at this stage is laced with anxiety. As the year progresses, kindergartners become more aware of events outside their immediate world. They wonder about "bigger" things, such as life and death, violence, and war. For instance, the birth of a sibling inspires questions about how babies are made; the death of a pet triggers curiosity about what happens when something dies. Be aware that children often just want to wonder "out loud" and make up answers for themselves. However, if a child wants an answer from you, it is important to respond simply and honestly.

  • Subjects:
    Early Learning, Child Development and Behavior, Life Experiences
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