The world of a young child is full of new foods to taste, new people to meet, new games to play, words to understand, places to visit, and concepts to master. The infant and toddler will touch, taste, smell, climb over, poke at, take apart, watch, listen, and learn more than at any other time in life. It is, simply, how we learn.

Secure Beginnings

Curiosity grows from the safe and familiar. A secure child with a familiar teacher on a field trip to the zoo will be excited. She will explore and ask dozens of questions. In contrast, a shy or timid child, will quietly tolerate the field trip and feel mostly discomfort.

In safe and familiar settings, we seek novelty. When we feel overwhelmed, we seek familiarity. The challenge for early childhood classrooms is that the learning environment has to be safe and familiar as well as novel and stimulating. This is a significant challenge when the classroom has children with varying temperaments as well as different styles of exploration.

Individual Styles of Exploration

Each child will express his curiosity in different ways. If the teacher brings a frog to class, one child might barely be able to contain himself. He wants to touch and hold the frog. Another child might be "grossed out" by touching, but she may ask what frogs think about-or if frogs have friends. The first child is interested in exploring the visible, outside world, while the other is curious about the inner, invisible world of relationships.

Sometimes a young child's style of exploration can be dangerous. Very young children have not had many experiences, but they have watched us for years. They have seen us pour liquids from bottles and drink. They watch as we put metal objects into electric sockets, climb high on ladders, place tapes into a VCR, use a lighter to start a fire, and push buttons on our computer.

Toddlers are great mimics. So when their curiosity sends them out to explore, they use all their available senses and their catalogue of observations to try to figure out the world. The 3-year-old may put a fork in an electric outlet, climb too high, put a sandwich in the VCR, or put a finger in a baby's eye. He night pull the cat's tail, walk into the street, drop a glass vase, and generally figure out how to take anything apart. These are almost always exploratory behaviors. So curiosity has its dangerous side. Accidents during this time of life are a major cause of injury and even death. Early childhood is a time for high-vigilance and supervised exploration. The challenge is to provide a safe and supervised setting so the child can express his curiosity in productive and healthy ways.

When a Child Struggles

Anxiety impedes learning. The anxious child will be reluctant to explore either the external or the internal world. When presented with the same learning opportunities, the anxious child will learn more slowly and less completely in comparison to a secure child. An anxious child requires special attention, reassurance, and comforting. If you are patient, this child can come to feel safe and secure. For all children, it is curiosity that is behind a positive feedback cycle of learning (see figure above). If you take the time to make an anxious child feel secure, he can benefit from this self-reinforcing process of learning. The extra time, attention, and patience with this child in the beginning of the year will save you many hours of additional work throughout the year. Also, you will be helping this child feel more comfortable with novelty, exploration, and the joys of challenges mastered.

Encouraging Curiosity in the Classroom

Shared discovery gives the greatest pleasure. In the classroom, the curious child will want to share her discovery with you. The attention, smile and shared joy you show will provide a powerful reward to the child. This is an important part of the cycle of learning. You will encourage positive exploration with your attentiveness.

Dealing with disappointments that come with exploration can be as important as the rewarding experience A visit to the zoo, where the sleeping lions don't move, can be upsetting for children. Your ability to find positive and encouraging elements of the trip will help keep children open to another try. Give children hope that the next visit might be the one where they can have an exciting and rewarding experience. The capacity to be hopeful about the excitement and joy of learning helps sustain children through any discouraging learning experience.