"Whas'at? Whas'at?"
- A question from a 3-year-old boy asked of his mother over and over as they walked through the zoo.

Children are such curious creatures. They explore, question, and wonder, and by doing so, learn. From the moment of birth, likely even before, humans are drawn to new things. When we are curious about something new, we want to explore it. And while exploring we discover. By turning the light switch on and off over and over again, the toddler is learning about cause and effect. By pouring water into a dozen different-shaped containers and on the floor and over clothes, the 4-year-old is learning pre-concepts of mass and volume. A child discovers the sweetness of chocolate, the bitterness of lemon, the heat of the radiator, and the cold of ice.

The Cycle of Learning

If a child stays curious, he will continue to explore and discover. The 5-year-old finds tadpoles in a tiny pool of mud on the playground. This discovery gives him pleasure. When he experiences the joy of discovery, he will want to repeat his exploration of the pond. [Pleasure leads to repetition.] Each day, he and his classmates return. The tadpoles grow legs. [Repetition leads to mastery.] The children learn that tadpoles become frogs — a concrete example of a complex biological process. Mastery — in this case, understanding that tadpoles become frogs — leads to confidence. Confidence increases a willingness to act on curiosity — to explore, discover, and learn. "Can we bring tadpoles into the class? How do other baby animals grow up? Why don’t dog babies lose their tails?" This positive cycle of learning is fueled by curiosity and the pleasure that comes from discovery and mastery.

Shared Discovery

What is most pleasurable about discovery and mastery is sharing it with someone else. ("Teacher, come look! Tadpoles!") We are social creatures. The most positive reinforcement — the greatest reward and the greatest pleasure — comes from the adoring and admiring gaze, comments and support from someone we love and respect. The teacher smiles, claps, and comments, " You are great. Look at all these tadpoles! You are our science expert!" This rewarding approval causes a surge of pleasure and pride that can sustain the child through new challenges and frustrations. Approval can generalize and help build confidence and self-esteem. So later in the day, when this boy is struggling with the introduction of simple math concepts, rather than eroding his esteem by thinking, "I’m stupid, I don’t understand," he can think, "I don’t get this, but I’m the one who knows about tadpoles."

Constrained Curiosity

For too many children, curiosity fades. Curiosity dimmed is a future denied. Our potential — emotional, social, and cognitive — is expressed through the quantity and quality of our experiences. And the less-curious child will make fewer new friends, join fewer social groups, read fewer books, and take fewer hikes. The less-curious child is harder to teach because he is harder to inspire, enthuse, and motivate.

There are three common ways adults constrain or even crush the enthusiastic exploration of the curious child:

  1. fear
  2. disapproval
  3. absence

Fear: Fear kills curiosity. When the child's world is chaotic or when he is afraid, he will not like novelty. He will seek the familiar, staying in his comfort zone, unwilling to leave and explore new things. Children impacted by war, natural disasters, family distress, or violence all have their curiosity crushed.

Disapproval: "Don’t touch. Don’t climb. Don’t yell. Don’t take that apart. Don’t get dirty. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t." Children sense and respond to our fears, biases, and attitudes. If we convey a sense of disgust at the mud on their shoes and the slime on their hands, their discovery of tadpoles will be diminished.

Absence: The presence of a caring, invested adult provides two things essential for optimal exploration:

  1. sense of safety from which to set out to discover new things and
  2. the capacity to share the discovery and, thereby, get the pleasure and reinforcement from that discovery.

This article originally appeared in the March, 2001 issue of Early Childhood Today.