Rocking and Rolling. Fostering Curiosity in Infants and Toddlers
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Cody, a 9-month-old in Ms. Angela’s infant room, crawls over to an interesting object: it is silver, made of metal wires, and easy to grasp. He tries to put it in his mouth. It doesn’t fit but the metal feels cool against his lips. He holds this strange object out to Ms. Angela, catching her attention. He opens his eyes wide and shakes the silver object. Ms. Angela smiles and nods. “Yes, I see it,” she says. “It’s called a whisk. You can mix ingredients with a whisk.” Cody shakes it again and tries once more to put it in his mouth.
In the toddler room across the hall, the children are excited about a visitor coming today. Their teacher, Mr. Geoff, will be bringing his pet rabbit, Sherman. Their other teacher, Ms. Amy, is asking the children what they already know about rabbits: “Soft!,” “Eat carrots!,” and “They have ears!” Then she asks the children what they want to know about rabbits: “Have babies?,” “Do they bite?,” and “What do they play?” Ms. Amy writes down all their questions and then takes out a book that she said will help them find answers before Sherman arrives. She starts to read.
Curiosity is the desire for knowledge (Markey & Loewenstein 2014). The opening vignettes highlight how curiosity drives children’s learning (von Stumm, Hell, & Chamorro-Premuzic 2011). But what does curiosity look like before a child can talk?
In babies, we might observe
- expressions of wondering or questioning (raised eyebrows, for example);
- steady gazes between what’s being observed and a trusted information source (parent, teacher, or older child);
- vocalizations (of excitement, or rising, questioning intonation);
- or pointing (as if to say, “What is that?” or “What is happening here?”).
To express curiosity, toddlers may
- ask a question or repeat an action over and over again;
- take your hand and show you what they are curious about;
- or persist in trying different ways of gathering information about an object or activity.
Tips for Nurturing Curiosity in Your Early Childhood Classroom
Think About It
- When was the last time you felt curious about something? What did you do in response to your feelings of curiosity?
- How did your family, friends, or teachers support your curiosity (or not) as you were growing up?
- How did your family respond when you asked questions as a child? How do you respond when children ask you questions in the early childhood classroom?
- What activities already occur in your classroom that encourage children’s curiosity? What materials do you have available that can foster wondering?
- How do you identify and document children’s wonderings in your daily practices?
- Document children’s curiosity in different formats. Snap photos of the way infants gaze at and grasp seashells that you have offered for exploration, and laminate and post the photos at their height. Try taking a video of how toddlers adjust the height of a ramp to see whether the ball will roll farther or faster—watch this video together later in the day and talk about what children discovered. You can also refer to these recordings later for your own inspiration and ideas for how to build on children’s knowledge and curiosities.
- Share with the children stories that focus on the power of curiosity. For babies, consider the board books Gossie Plays Hide and Seek, by Olivier Dunrea or Press Here, by Hervé Tullet. For toddlers, try stories like Windows, by Julia Denos, The Thingamabob, by Il Sung Na, and What’s Next, by Timothy Knapman. You can use these books as a jumping off point for activities that nurture curiosity. In The Thingamabob, a curious elephant spends much of the book wondering about what a funny red object is (it’s an umbrella). Following reading the story, you might introduce an unusual object to the children—like a cake decorating tool—and allow them to explore it and wonder what it might be or do, before you demonstrate its function.
- As you plan activities, identify three “I wonder . . . ” or “I’m curious about . . . ” statements you might use with children each day. For example, if you are planning an exploration with flashlights you might consider asking questions like, “I wonder what will happen if I put my hand in front of the light? I’m holding the flashlight in my hand, but I wonder where the light is shining? Where did my shadow go?” It is a good habit to share and model your own curiosity with the children in your group.
There are several different kinds of curiosity (Berlyne 1978). Curiosity can be motivated by a desire for knowledge or information—wondering how a door opens on a busy box or why some objects float and others sink. There is also the curiosity that is driven by a desire to entertain ourselves—like wondering what will happen if we pour water into sand. Still another type of curiosity is driven by the pleasure of that comes from mastery—imagine watching a child patiently stacking unevenly shaped rocks into a tower, sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding but all while maintaining curiosity.
Think of curiosity as being prompted by an essential knowledge gap between what we currently know and what we wish to know; we feel intensely motivated to fill this gap with desired knowledge (Loewenstein 1994). When individuals feel curious, they “engage in persistent information-seeking behavior” (Shin & Kim 2019, 854), and all children are curious. Perhaps this is why emerging research shows a connection between higher curiosity in children and higher reading and math scores at kindergarten (Shah et al. 2018).
Promoting curiosity in the classroom
Each type of curiosity can be nurtured in the early childhood classroom, and each curiosity can foster a child’s early learning. Here are some key practices that early childhood educators can try to build on a child’s natural desire to explore and learn. (Also see “Tips for Nurturing Curiosity in Your Early Childhood Classroom” above for reflection questions and suggested activities.)
- Practice the 5 Ws of wondering. Look for opportunities to model asking questions and wondering together by asking who, where, when, why and how questions. Toddlers are able to ask what questions at about 24 months, then where (26–32 months), who (36–40 months) and finally when, why, and how questions (42–49 months).
- Use “I wonder . . . ” statements. Find ways to incorporate “I wonder” statements into your discussions and activities: “I wonder what will happen next in this story,“ “I wonder why the ball rolled farther on that ramp,” “I wonder how he’s feeling,” and “I wonder where they’ll pour the cement.” By modeling “I wonder” statements, you are showing your own curiosity and encouraging children to engage with you in finding a solution. You may find children begin to share their own wonderings with you—which create important opportunities to implement an emergent curriculum driven by their curiosity. Imagine a group of three toddlers running up to show you a cicada casing (empty shell) that they found on a tree trunk. You might use this as a learning opportunity in the classroom. You can introduce new vocabulary, such as cicada, casing, and life cycle, and teach them about the distinctive loud buzzing sound cicadas make. You may also follow up on this conversation with some age-appropriate books on insects to continue the children’s wonderings.
- Document children’s wonderings. For toddlers (ages 2 years and up), make it a practice to ask children what they are curious about when you introduce a new material, object, or experience. Document their questions and wonderings on a flipchart and find answers to their questions during this planned exploration. For younger toddlers and babies, use the “sportscasting,” or play-by-play technique, to describe what babies seem to be asking or curious about: “You’re wondering how that top pops up. Watch how I turn the handle—here, you can help me try.”
- Point out changes. Identifying changes and patterns in the world around us sparks a child’s desire to “figure out” how things work. “Do you see how this leaf looks different than this leaf over here? What do you see that’s different? Would you like to touch them both?”
- Allow children to try and fail. Rather than offering a solution to every problem, share an observation and ask a question: “The block tower keeps falling down. Why do you think that happens? What can we do to make it stay up?” Of course, the teacher knows that putting the giant rectangle block on the very top of the block tower means it will come crashing down. But toddlers do not yet understand balance and weight distribution. Letting children experiment in this way builds their problem-solving skills and grows knowledge about the physical world by harnessing their curiosity about the event.
- Follow the children’s lead. Every child is different, and what sparks curiosity will vary from child to child. See what captivates a child’s or group’s interest and suggest, “Let’s learn about this together!” One class, after hearing an informational text about bats, became fascinated by these flying mammals. Their teacher created a “bat cave” out of a child-sized table covered by a blanket. The children would “fly” around the classroom and then return to the cave where they would pretend to hang upside-down.
Curiosity can be a source of motivation, learning, and joy for all of us—not just children. In fact, the inborn drive to be curious and seek out knowledge has been shown to activate the reward center of an adult’s brain—seeking knowledge to satisfy our curiosity feels good (Kang et al. 2009). By creating classrooms that celebrate curiosity, we can nurture children’s internal pursuit of knowledge, their pleasure in discovery, and their emerging understanding of the world around them. Most of all, by sharing in their curiosity, we build stronger relationships with children—the kind of relationships where they can better grow and thrive.
Rocking & Rolling is written by infant and toddler specialists and contributed by ZERO TO THREE, a nonprofit organization working to promote the health and development of infants and toddlers by translating research and knowledge into a range of practical tools and resources for use by the adults who influence the lives of young children.
Berlyne, D.E. 1978. “Curiosity and Learning.” Motivation and Emotion 2 (2): 97–175.
Kang, M.J., M. Hsu, I.M. Krajbich, G. Loewenstein, S.M. McClure, J.T.Y. Wang, & C.F. Camerer. 2009. “The Wick in the Candle of Learning: Epistemic Curiosity Activates Reward Circuitry and Enhances Memory.” Psychological Science 20 (8): 963–73.
Markey, A., & G. Loewenstein. 2014. “Curiosity.” In International Handbook of Emotions in Education, eds. R. Pekrun & L. Linnenbrink-Garcia, 246–264. London and New York: Routledge.
Shah, P.E., H.M. Weeks, B. Richards, & N. Kaciroti 2018. “Early Childhood Curiosity and Kindergarten Reading and Math Academic Achievement.” Pediatric Research 84 (30): 380–86.
Shin, D.D., S. Kim. 2019. “Homo Curious: Curious or Interested?” Education Psychology Review 31: 853–74.
Von Stumm, S., B. Hell, & T. Chamorro-Premuzic. 2011. “The Hungry Mind.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 6 (6): 574–88.
Copyright © 2020 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
Rebecca Parlakian is the senior director of programs at ZERO TO THREE. She has developed a video series on early STEM and coauthored a recently released early math curriculum supplement. Rebecca has also coauthored five parenting and professional curricula and published articles on topics ranging from dual language development to the impact of screens on very young children. Rebecca holds a master’s degree in education and human development, with a concentration in infant-toddler special education, from the George Washington University, where she currently serves as adjunct faculty. Her most important work in child development, however, is her two children, Ella and Bennett.
Vol. 75, No. 5