Plenty of parents will tell you that one of the most annoying questions to come out of their kids’ mouths is “Why?”
There’s a stage nearly every child goes through, when it becomes their response to almost everything — even your answer to the last time they asked the question.
It can be exhausting, particularly when you don’t actually know the answer to whatever it is they’re currently questioning. Why is the sky blue? Does anyone actually know?
But take heart, parents. All those “whys” could pay off in a big way for your little one down the line.
Pediatric Research recently published a study linking curiosity to academic achievement. The study involved direct assessments given to 6,200 kindergarten students, as well as parent-reported behavioral questionnaires. The results yielded a correlation between curiosity and greater academic achievement in reading and math.
The study’s findings may help ease the minds of many modern parents, particularly in light of a 2016 poll that found over 50 percent of parents with kids under the age of 18 placed their children’s academic performance as being among their top three parenting concerns.
But if curiosity is the key to academic success, can curiosity be fostered, or is it an innate trait?
Shaping curious minds
Lead researcher Dr. Prachi Shah tells Healthline: It’s a little bit of both.
“It’s tricky because, to my knowledge, there haven’t been any longitudinal studies of a child’s curiosity,” she explains. “So, we don’t know how curiosity changes or grows with age or experiences. However, I think we can align experiences with a child’s innate passions, and in that way, we can cultivate their interests and their engagement in topics that can help foster early learning.”
It’s a sentiment with which pediatrician Susan Buttross agrees wholeheartedly. “There is no doubt that curiosity can be fostered,” she says, offering a word of caution as well. “It can go both ways — curiosity can also be hindered. Parents who are intent on raising a child who is perfect in every way may become overly involved in directing play. And when that happens, the child is less likely to try things on their own.”
It’s ironic, but true. Well-meaning parents may actually be preventing their child’s natural curiosity from developing.
The new research also showed that all children deemed curious by the study yielded similar performance results regardless of their socioeconomic status (SES).
This is perhaps one of the most fascinating finds from the study. Previous research has found the socioeconomic background of a child to have a strong impact on school performance. The American Psychological Association (APA) even reported that children from lower-SES households and communities progressed slower academically than their peers.
The new evidence would seem to suggest otherwise in some cases, as that performance gap disappears for curious kids.
Nevertheless, curiosity may not be enough in some situations, as the research compiled by the APA also pointed to other issues interfering with learning among lower-SES students. These included school systems often being under-resourced and higher dropout rates.
Still, the new study offers hope for positive change.
“This is one of the most exciting findings behind the paper,” Shah says. “The literature talks about the achievement gap associated with poverty, but according to our findings, if you are from a low socioeconomic environment and have higher curiosity, your academic achievement is the same as if you are from a higher SES and have higher curiosity.”
She points out that children from higher-SES backgrounds often have more opportunities afforded to them, such as access to books and caregivers who may scaffold their learning in many different ways. They’re also likely to have more experiences.
Children from lower-SES households often come from environments that are resource-poor. Yet, curiosity is related to a child’s intrinsic motivation — the internal drive which propels a child to learn, explore, ask questions, and seek information. Therefore, if curiosity is cultivated, that motivation may drive them to learn when their environment doesn’t offer natural stimulation.
This finding has huge potential to help teachers reduce the socioeconomic performance gap in classrooms.
Katie McNair of Florida, a current middle school media specialist and 8th grade journalism teacher with over a decade of teaching experience, is an educator who’s excited about that potential.
“Students who come from a lower socioeconomic status are at a disadvantage from the beginning because of differences in resources,” she explains.
She notes that their parents often work longer hours and the affordable childcare options available to them tend to be more focused on keeping kids safe, rather than on nurturing learning opportunities outside the classroom.
Nevertheless, the new study gives her hope that cultivating curiosity can help improve academic performance throughout their lives.
“If a child who is disadvantaged has an innate sense of curiosity, or has their curiosity piqued in some way, it gives them the self-motivation to think things through and puzzle them out until they are able to make sense of the world around them,” she says. “They also might seek out someone who can help them learn what they want to know, which can potentially lead to a mentor willing to teach them.”
A potential game-changer
This isn’t the first time that curiosity has been found to have a positive impact on behavior. A 2016 study found that curiosity could be piqued in order to influence people’s choices, potentially changing behavior for the better by encouraging people to choose healthier options.
Also, Neuron published a study in 2014 with findings that indicated curiosity actually triggers chemical changes in the brain that help people seek out answers and retain the information they learn.
All of this means that curiosity has the potential to be an education game-changer. But how can teachers apply this information in the classroom?
“Good teachers find ways to connect what the students are learning to things that matter to them,” McNair says. “An easy way to do this is to give them part of the whole picture, and then provide ways for students to put the pieces together themselves. Even though it can be tricky, students feel a greater sense of accomplishment when they figure stuff out on their own.”
Dr. Shah thinks a lot of it also has to do with teaching to a child’s specific interests. “Kids can be curious about one topic, but not another,” she explains. “For both parents and educators, it’s really about discovering what a child’s individual passions are. What’s driving their interest? If a child feels they can play an active part in making a decision about what they are pursuing, that helps them to be more invested in what they’re learning.”
This could be as simple as taking a child’s interest in ladybugs and using it to tailor math lessons: Let’s count how many ladybugs we find.
It’s about taking the problem and presenting it in a way that piques the child’s curiosity.
Getting a head start
Of course, you don’t have to wait until your child is attending school to begin looking for ways to foster their curiosity. Buttross advises playing games like peek-a-boo with very young children as a “great way to start.”
“Then there’s asking who, what, when, and where questions, even before they can give a verbal answer,” she says. “Walk into a room with your baby and say, ‘Where’s Daddy?’ Then wait a few seconds, look around, and finally point and say, ‘There he is! See?’”
Buttross adds, “You can also discuss the scenarios you witness. For instance, as you’re watching the cat, you might ask, ‘Why do you think the kitty is licking his paws?’ Wait a beat and then respond, ‘Maybe he’s washing them!’ In this way, you’re modeling for them what that curiosity might look like, even before they’re old enough to ask the questions themselves.”
She also encourages parents to allow toddlers to explore their environment without many stops or interruptions. “This is a way to let them have their own quizzical thoughts,” Buttross explains. “Free and undirected play allows a child to investigate what’s under that stone or where the water poured onto the sand goes.”
As children get older, she recommends activities such as nature walks, visits to the museum, or trips to the zoo. And when questions come up, she suggests parents reply with additional questions, encouraging children to find the answer on their own.
“Talk to children more. Engage in dialogic reading. Ask questions. ‘What do you think about this? Where do you think he’s going next?’” Shah says. “That sort of parenting elicits a child’s input and requires them to be reflective of what they think is going on.”
Looking to the future
For Shah’s part, she hopes this latest research leads to new training tools being provided to parents and educators alike, especially in lower-SES environments.
“There’s some really innovative work being done by developmental psychologists to create learning landscapes,” she says. “So there may be signs at a grocery store [in the future] that encourage parents to talk to kids about what they see. [For example,] you may see a sign describing an eggplant and its various attributes, along with questions parents could ask their kids about that eggplant.”
She adds, “Communicating with children in this way is something that parents can be taught. These findings really can be applied universally and can promote early social emotional development in children across all socioeconomic strata.”
While more research needs to be done, the findings from this study could help more children reach their full potential — and that should give parents everywhere a reason to smile the next time their child asks “Why?”