A small boy, playing out in the woods behind his home, came across a bug in the dirt. He stooped down to examine it more closely. Like children everywhere, looking wasn’t enough. He picked it up to study its interesting shape, little legs, and odd movements. But then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw another bug quite different from the first one, on the ground nearby. He had to have that one too. Not ready to give up the first bug, but needing both hands to capture the second bug, he did what many curious children might do under the circumstances: he popped it into his mouth for safe keeping. But as it turned out, that wasn’t so safe. In an act of instant self-defense, the bug squirted an unpleasant liquid onto the boy’s inner cheeks and tongue. Unpleasant, but not poisonous. The little boy survived his encounter with the two bugs. Years later, facing another intriguing source of mystery involving wild creatures, he wrote this:
The naturalist, looking at the inhabitants of these volcanic islands in the Pacific, distant several hundred miles from the continent, yet feels that he is standing on American land. Why should this be so? Why should the species which are supposed to have been created in the Galapagos Archipelago, and nowhere else, bear so plain a stamp of affinity to those created in America?1
When people think about Darwin, they are likely to focus on what made him exceptional: his brilliance, intellectual bravery, and vision. And it’s tempting to try and identify glimmers of Darwin, the towering adult scientist in Darwin, the little boy. His biography makes it clear that even as a young child he had a formidable intellect and an appetite for exploring the natural world. Beyond these stable internal characteristics, it is also clear that his mature accomplishments rested in part on other benefits as well: wealth and opportunities to travel and to study. Those features may help explain what set him apart from the average child or adult. But asking what set him apart from others may be less fruitful than trying to identify other more common aspects of his experience, which help explain his sustained inquiry and intellectual industry. By understanding these, we may get a better sense of the potential for more “ordinary” children to develop into inquisitive and thoughtful adults. You don’t need to be Darwin to be curious and eager to solve intellectual puzzles. This chapter is about the path that leads children to become curious adults.
Curious at Birth
Though few ever achieve what Darwin did, in one essential way, almost all very young children are like the very young Darwin: they are indefatigable explorers. This tremendous appetite for discovery begins with a very powerful and simple mechanism universal to human babies. They are predisposed to look for regularity and familiarity in everyday life.2 They know the difference between the face of someone they have already seen and that of a stranger; they notice the difference between the sound of their mother’s voice (which they were exposed to in utero) and that of someone new; and when shown pictures or patterns that are different from the one they have been shown before, their breathing and heartbeat change, and their skin produces more moisture. They not only show surprise and momentary tension when they encounter something new, they also do things differently in the presence of novelty. Specifically, they look longer, studying whatever is new or unexpected.3 This attention to novelty is the foundation of curiosity, and helps explain why babies and young children learn more than they ever will again in their lives. The tendency to devote intellectual resources to the unfamiliar powers the enormous advances children make by the time they are five. Needless to say, it also helps explain why babies and toddlers seem curious so much of the time. A great deal of their daily lives entails encountering things they haven’t yet experienced: any number of animals, new people, most foods, and 101 other small changes to the routines that make up a very young child’s day. They quickly absorb most of these new things into their schema—that is, the cognitive scripts that guide them through daily life get more flexible and complex. For example, by the time children are four they can tell you what they usually have for breakfast, and they can also tell you what they have for breakfast on holidays, or when it’s especially hot outside. Their mental models include the fixed and variable elements of scripts for everyday experience.
The novel becomes familiar, leaving them ready and willing to respond to the next new thing. They are curious because so much of daily life entails novelty and, throughout the life span, curiosity is based on this one simple mechanism: the urge to explain the unexpected and resolve uncertainty. This also explains why, as children get older, curiosity becomes somewhat less ubiquitous. More and more of their everyday experiences are folded into schema that render breakfast, a trip to the grocery store or park, nap time, and a visit from neighbors unexceptional and unlikely to spark their curiosity. As this happens, more children begin to show specific curiosity for domains or events that grab their interest.
For instance, consider Owen at eighteen months. When his father brought him to the rooftop of their Brooklyn, New York, apartment building, he wandered around, glancing quickly at various things: a rooftop box garden, some pails, an old deck chair, and some curled sheets of tar paper. But these objects, possibly fascinating to another child, were too familiar to Owen to warrant examination. However, there was something he hadn’t seen before. A metal spout, attached to a small water tower, gushing water into a plastic tray on the floor of the rooftop. The moment he spotted it, he rushed over to it immediately, stood watching it for a moment, then crouched down, leaned in, and did what any toddler might do: he stuck his tongue out to explore the water more thoroughly. For the next eight months, he couldn’t pass a waterspout without wanting to watch it, touch it, and, most of all, lick it. For a period of time, waterspouts elicited far more exploration from Owen than many other more common daily objects and events.
But such vivid demonstration of curiosity becomes rarer as children leave toddlerhood behind. Because at the same time that curiosity narrows, it also becomes harder for the observer to see. By the time children are three or four, they are somewhat less intrepid and indiscriminate in their physical investigations. However, as physical inquiry wanes, another process for gathering information enters the scene. Children learn to ask questions. And when it comes to curiosity, language is a game changer.
The Language of Inquiry
Babies and toddlers can watch, touch, tinker, open, taste, and experiment with the physical world. But they are more limited when it comes to finding out about the unseen world: both physical (e.g., bacteria, why smoke goes up a chimney, and why heat melts ice but hardens eggs) as well as cultural (e.g., why humans poop inside and pets do not, what people mean when they say someone has passed on, and what a ghost is). Here, questions are the sine qua non of human curiosity. They allow children to ask about a vastly larger, more complex range of topics, and to ask for many more kinds of information. They ask not just what something is but what it was like before, why people view it a certain way, or what others know and think about something.
When psychologists Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes recorded three-year-olds in their homes, they found that children ask, on average, 26 questions per hour.4 Of those questions, two-thirds were to gain information.
That means that most children were asking a question every two minutes or so. But just as important, the majority of those questions were aimed at gaining information about the world (rather than, say, seeking attention or permission). In a more recent study, Michele Chouinard studied the language of four children over a period of four years.5 One of her subjects asked, on average, 104 questions per hour. That child, in other words, was asking more than 2 questions per minute. Chouinard’s young subjects ask three times as many questions aimed at getting new information as they did other kinds of questions. Children not only use questions to find out about the world, they typically want more than names of objects, or simple information. They want explanations. Drawing on the language used by children in a nursery school in Cambridge, England, during the 1920’s, Nathan Isaacs argued that, contrary to the prevalent view of children as focused only on the here and now, a closer examination of their questions showed that many children were interested in a much deeper, less concrete kind of knowledge.6 The children in his sample weren’t only asking “what, where, and when” questions but, just as often, “why” questions. He argued that young children’s why questions reflect an eagerness to understand phenomena that cannot be explained by their existing knowledge. Thus, even at three, children have some sense of when their knowledge is insufficient and use questions to fill in the gap. Their impulse to do so is quite strong as well.
Paul Harris has argued that children’s persistence in the face of incomplete or unsatisfactory answers is evidence that their questions serve an important epistemological function and reflect an underlying drive for understanding.7 They use questions in order to explain the mysteries of everyday life, and they are assertive and deliberate inquisitors as they seek intellectual satisfaction. Consider the following exchange between a three-year-old child and her mother:
Child: Why the dog poops outside?
Mother: Because that’s what animals do.
Child: Why don’t we poop outside?
Mother: Because we’re people.
Child: But you said people were animals.
Mother: Yeah, but people have houses.
Child: But this is Lucky’s house too, right?
Mother: Yes, but even so, Lucky’s a dog.
Child: But they don’t like to poop in a toilet?
Mother: I don’t know. Lucky’s never tried it.
Child: But he might like it, right?
The little girl takes six turns during this exchange, and five of those turns contain questions. Not only that, the questions are not only responsive to the mother’s answers, they are related to one another, revealing a fairly systematic search for an explanation of two discrepant ideas: (1) dogs and humans are alike in that they are both animals, but (2) they don’t poop in the same place. Her sequence of questions reveals her need for something beyond simple or discrete pieces of information. It dawns on her that something doesn’t make sense. We know from her argument that she has been told that dogs and people form some kind of conceptual group (you said people are animals). Thus, it follows that the same rules might apply. Yet in this instance, they are different. People poop in bathrooms, Lucky poops outside. She keeps delving deeper when her mother’s answers don’t fully satisfy her need for an explanation.
In sum, once children can use questions to satisfy their curiosity, a whole new world opens up to us as researchers and to them as investigators. They can ask about things beyond the here and now, they can directly seek explanations, and they can inquire about knowledge that is socially constructed.
When you put all the records and diaries of children’s questions (collected over a period of one hundred years by approximately seven different scholars) side by side and examine them, an intriguing ambiguity arises. Many of the earlier scholars noted the unusual and often surprising nature of young children’s questions: “Does God exist?”; “Why don’t we see two things out of our two eyes?” But as Paul Harris notes, those examples are much more interesting to discuss than questions like, “What are we having for dinner?” “What’s this called?” or even, “Why does the dog poop outside?” which may be more common.8 But comparing the various data in terms of whether they are grand or prosaic obscures an interesting and possibly more developmentally important question: the degree to which the child’s question gathers information for an underlying abstract idea. On this dimension, it seems that when children are as young as three they begin collecting information for fairly abstract problems.
For instance, take this description from Tizard and Hugh’s data:
[Ruth] was bending over so that her mother could wipe her bottom. In this position, her mother could not see her head:
C: Mummy, you lost me.
M: I have lost you, yeah.
C: Can you only see my bottom and legs?
M: That’s right.
C: And shoes and pants.
M:: That’s right. Stand up straight.
C: Here I am.
M: That’s nice. There she is, back again. Off you go!9
This example demonstrates two important features of young children’s questions. First, the question emerges in an unexpected situation, quite spontaneously, apropos of leaning over and realizing that the view from upside down is different. She must have also realized that when her view changed, her mother’s view also changed, and she began to wonder about it. This kind of momentary oddity is exactly what leads to brief moments of curiosity, like Ruth’s, but also bigger, more extended stretches of curiosity as well. But the second thing that’s interesting about it is that it pertains to an issue much larger than what her mother can see of her when she’s bent over. It suggests she’s thinking about the idea of different people’s perspectives. Not only have most researchers focused on children’s questions about the here and now, they’ve also tended to focus on the very concrete nature of children’s questions: how an object works, why something is classified in a certain way, and even how something came to be. But when you sift through all the different data, it becomes clear that children increasingly use questions to ask about fairly abstract problems, such as the problem of perspective.
Consider, for instance, the following exchange, which I overheard while traveling in an airplane:
A little girl, about age four, was nestled next to her mother, in the seat in front of me. She was peering out of the airplane window, far down below at the ground and said, “Mommy, there’s probably a little kid down there asking her mommy if there is a kid up here in a plane. And is her mommy going to say, ‘Yes, there is a child up there’?”
As with Ruth, this little girl seems to have suddenly realized that all the way down on the ground there might be another person, who views the situation from a very different perspective. She seems to be toying with the intriguing idea that two people can be experiencing the very same moment in ways that are both different and very much the same. The idea, or question, underlying her question is both abstract and profound. And though, in the stream of conversation, it floats right by (as I recall, her mother simply said, “Yep, that’s right Sweetie”), it does two things, one for the researcher and another for the girl. For the researcher, it suggests that seemingly fleeting moments of curiosity may indicate a more sustained and intellectually significant interest on the part of a young child. For the girl, it’s a chance to collect information on a topic she may be mulling over, however sporadically and implicitly.
Both young girls, the one looking through her legs and the one on the airplane, are pursuing puzzles, however casually, that jump out at them during regular life. But a puzzle such as the possibility for people’s simultaneous but opposite experience (the view from under one’s legs, or from an airplane) can become something more crafted and deliberate as children get older. This move toward a more deliberate and sustained pursuit of information first shows up as a sequence of questions or investigations that unfold over time. Needless to say, gathering evidence of such sustained inquiry requires tracking children’s questions in their everyday lives and over time. Luckily there are such data.
Years ago two developmental psychologists, Brian MacWhinney and Catherine Snow, began collecting all the diaries parents had kept of their children’s language and all the recordings psychologists had made of children going about their daily lives and put them into an online data bank, which they called CHILDES.10 When my students and I looked at those diaries and recordings, we found plenty of evidence that children do in fact focus in on particular things that puzzle them. When they are playing, eating dinner, and riding in the car, they ask questions, muse, and speculate about their chosen topic—death, consciousness, how one’s voice can be saved on a machine and replayed, to give just a few examples. Take Laura, for instance, who periodically mused aloud about death. In the following exchange, she has just heard that her pet bird died:
Mother: . . . and he got himself ready to die, Laura.
Mother: He took his nest down and he knew he was dying and he got himself ready.
Laura: He knew he was dying?
Father: He knew.
Laura: How did he know he was dying?
Mother: He could feel inside.
Father: A feeling in the air.
Laura: I don’t want to die.
Mother: We’re not going to.
A few minutes later, Laura returned to playing on her own with some toys, murmuring, “I wonder what it feels like to be dead.” Over the course of two years, Laura engaged in a series of questions about death and dying more than nine times, and that’s just in the periodic samples collected for this database. One can imagine that she asked at least as many during times that were not recorded. We are just beginning to investigate how common it is for children to pursue a line of inquiry over time, but the initial data suggests that it’s fairly common. That is, curiosity becomes less about a moment of surprise regarding whatever a child encounters and more about the kind of puzzles that engage a person’s interest over a matter of days, weeks, or even months. These puzzles may emerge from an interest in a set of objects (for example, dinosaurs, insects, colored yarns and threads, clocks, or objects that defy gravity) and it may emerge from an interest in something more social or cultural (for example, language, social interactions, invisibility, or immortality).
But while virtually all very young children are inquisitive, they don’t all remain so. The path that leads from the ubiquitous inquiry of three-year-olds to the selective, probing, and sustained curiosity of the ten- or twenty-year-old is an uncertain one, riddled with potential inhibitors.
The Risks and Rewards of Exploration
Whether these sequences, which unfold over a number of days, weeks, or months, lead to the more crafted and sustained curiosity of which adults are capable depends, in good part, on specific features of the environment. Here I discuss four aspects of everyday situations that play a significant role in determining how curious a person will be by the time she leaves childhood behind.
First, though curiosity rests on an appetite for the unknown, it depends, paradoxically, on a sense of safety and security. Early on, that sense of safety comes from a child’s first relationship: an ongoing and close bond with a primary caregiver.
Visiting orphanages in London during World War II, the physician John Bowlby noticed that the children, though well-fed and tended to, were listless and disengaged to such a degree that they failed to reach standard benchmarks of psychological and physical growth.11 He reasoned that this was because healthy development required more than food, sleep, and relative safety. Children also needed to be close to one constant caregiver. His observations and insights culminated in his theory of attachment, a pillar of developmental psychology. His student, Mary Ainsworth, and her colleagues took the theory a giant step further by empirically testing variations in children’s attachment to a caregiver. They observed individual children (ages nine months to three years) in a room with the mother and some novel toys that were unfamiliar to them. After a few minutes, Ainsworth and her colleagues instructed the mother to leave the room. The researchers recorded the toddlers’ reaction to this separation. Most babies cried at this separation. According to attachment theory, such distress is actually a healthy sign of attachment. When the mother returned after a very brief separation, the way that children reacted was key. Most toddlers would typically smile with joy and relief, hurry into their mother’s arms for reassurance and comfort, cuddle briefly, and then return to exploring the new toys in the room. But some babies had trouble settling down after the separation. They greeted their mother’s return with continued crying, angry looks, and other expressions of distress. Most important, though, when they returned to playing, they had trouble giving the toys their full attention, constantly looking over at or actually returning to their mother, as if for reassurance she wouldn’t leave again. This insecure attachment prevented them from fully exploring interesting and new experiences in the immediate environment. In other words, the quality of a child’s attachment has a powerful influence on the vigor and depth of her inquiry.
The connection between security and exploration lasts beyond early childhood. In one longitudinal study, Arend and his colleagues assessed the attachment security of two-year-olds.12 The researchers invited those children back to the lab when they were four and brought them into a room that held a box filled with novel toys. They found that the children who had been rated as securely attached when they were two were the ones who now most eagerly explored the box and its contents, while those two-year-olds who had been rated as insecurely attached seemed timid or reluctant to explore.
It’s not a very far stretch to imagine that as children get older the quality of their original attachment might not exert a direct influence on their curiosity, but it might also work more indirectly. As children get older, insecurity seems to limit their curiosity in two ways. Children who are, by virtue of their temperament or early attachment, uneasy in the face of novelty are less likely to ask questions, investigate the world around them, or dive into unfamiliar situations. In addition, even those with a relatively secure and easygoing approach to the world are less likely to explore when they feel scared, whether that fear is caused by angry adults or other unstable or threatening features of the immediate learning environment. One might even imagine that the pressure to “do well,” when learning is wrapped up with tests and grades, works against a child’s inclination to seek uncertainty. But in addition to a sense of security, children need to feel interest and opportunity.
A wide range of studies has shown that children are more curious when they can interact with things and topics in which they are interested. Sometimes this has to do with the inherent “interest factor” of the material: how complex, surprising, or unusual it is, or how it is intellectually framed. In one experiment, fourth grade children were put into small groups and given a topic to study over several days. In one condition, the groups of children were encouraged to focus on ambiguous and controversial material. In a second condition, children focused on learning the same topics, but conveyed in a more straightforward way. The children in the controversy condition learned more about the topic than the others. They were also more eager to give up a free period to continue studying the topic than those in the more straightforward condition. In other words, ambiguity and controversy led to more learning and more interest in learning. To explore this idea, Schulz and Bonawitz watched children learn about a new toy.13 In one condition an adult demonstrated the function of the toy, and in another condition children were left to explore the toy without any adult intervention. The children who were first shown the function of the toy explored it on their own far less than those children allowed to examine it without any guidance. In this study, by getting to the “point” of the activity, adults reduced children’s interest or motivation in exploration. This is but one example of an increasing body of evidence showing that uncertainty is key to learning.
When my students and I went into classrooms to find out where and when children were expressing curiosity, we noticed that the few places where kids lingered to observe were often the most dynamic places, the places where unexpected and irregular things could happen. Children would often wander over to the aquarium, if there was one.14 They’d stand there gazing for up to six minutes. They’d track one particular fish. Then they’d look around, behind the coral, or watch the seaweed float and change shape. These habitats offered much more irregular and changeable phenomena than elsewhere in the room. The environmental psychologist Roger Hart has written about this regarding playgrounds for children, arguing that they need natural, complicated, and messy places to play rather than the highly manufactured pristine equipment that often fills the most affluent playgrounds and recess areas.15
Some materials, objects, and environments are more interesting because they are richer and more complex. But in addition, not all children are interested in the same things. This sounds so obvious as to be trite, but it’s often disregarded: for children to develop their curiosity they need to have access to the particular things that interest them. Research has shown that children express much more curiosity when they are interacting with materials or topics in which they’ve developed some sustained interest, whether it’s bugs, machines, warfare, or clothing.
There is a third feature of the environment that exerts a tremendously strong influence on children’s curiosity: the behavior of the adults around them. Unsurprisingly, the simplest and most direct way that adults encourage or discourage children’s curiosity is by the way they respond when children ask questions, open things up, and fiddle with objects. In one study, psychologist Bruce Henderson invited children into a room with a box that had several drawers on every side, each containing an interesting and somewhat anomalous object.16 In one condition, the experimenter smiled and said mildly encouraging things to the children. In another condition, the adult said nothing and kept her face immobile. In a third condition, the experimenter looked disapproving when the child touched the box. Needless to say, children who were encouraged, even mildly, spent more time opening the drawers and explored the objects more fully. In similar studies, when the researchers assessed each child’s curiosity as a base trait, those children who seem less curious by nature were even more susceptible to the response of the adults in the room. Thus the lower a child’s intrinsic curiosity the more sensitive he or she is to disapproval. A wide range of studies show this same pattern. By the time children go to school, their curiosity waxes and wanes as a function of the feedback they get from the adults around them.
Contrary to popular contemporary conceptions of classrooms, it is not obvious which classrooms might encourage curiosity and which might not. It is not simply that kind teachers encourage curiosity and mean ones do not. In one study, we invited teachers into our lab to help us with a study about how children learn.17 We provided each teacher with the materials and a worksheet to conduct a science activity called Bouncing Raisins with a child who would be joining them in our lab. The activity involves mixing several ingredients into a beaker, dropping a raisin in, and watching while bubbles form on the surface of the raisin, causing it to rise to the surface. Unbeknown to the participating teachers, the children were in fact our paid confederates, trained to pause in the middle of the activity and drop a Skittle into the mixture. If the teacher asked them what they were doing, they were trained to answer, “I just wanted to see what would happen.” In other words, they expressed curiosity. In one condition, when we explained the activity, we said, “Please use the materials to help your student learn more about science,” and as we left them in the room with the child, we said, “Have fun learning about science.” In a second condition, we said to teachers “Please use the materials to help your student fill out the worksheet.” As we left the room we said, “Have fun filling out the worksheet.” The results showed that no matter their age, their level of teaching experience, or their gender, when teachers are encouraged to focus on learning about science, they responded encouragingly to the child’s deviation, saying things like, “Oh that’s cool. Where’d you get that idea?” But teachers who were encouraged to focus on the worksheet responded quite differently with comments like “No, no. That’s not part of the instructions,” or “Don’t do that.”
The data show that the way teachers respond to children’s curiosity depends more on their sense of the purpose of the activity than it does on their particular characteristics.
But responding to a child’s inquiry is only one way an adult might influence a child. To examine this more closely, we flipped the bouncing raisin study on its head. In this version,18 we brought children into the lab as real subjects. Each child did the bouncing raisin activity with an experimenter acting in a teacherlike capacity, guiding the child through the steps and the associated worksheet. In one condition, halfway through, the adult suddenly took a Skittle and dropped it into the liquid saying, “Let’s just put this in even though it’s not on the worksheet. I just want to see what happens.” In a second condition, the adult expressed no such curiosity, and simply paused to tidy the materials. Once they had finished the Bouncing Raisins activity, the adult explained that she had to leave the room for a few minutes to get materials for another fun activity. She said to each child, “You wait here. I’ll be back in a few minutes. While I’m gone feel free to use the materials some more. You can also draw using these colored pencils and paper. Or you can just hang out and wait. Whatever you want,” and left the room. Children who had seen the adult deviate from the task in order to experiment with the Skittle looked carefully at the ingredients, picked them up, stirred the raisin and Skittle around, and talked to themselves aloud about what had happened. Children who had not seen her deviate tended to just stand there. Some whistled, some looked at the ceiling, and one played a game with his zipper. But they did not seem curious about the materials. In other words, it is not only what adults say to children about inquiry, but it’s also a question of whether the adults themselves model curiosity.
Why is it that, though nearly all children enjoy a state of almost perpetual wonderment and active exploration before the age of five, by the time they are in sixth grade they show very little curiosity? What was once a ubiquitous and robust characteristic becomes the province of just a few. Nor does this trend turn around even for young people who to go to college.
Until very recently most of the research on the development of curiosity has focused on young children. And yet in the past ten years it has become abundantly clear that college professors are also deeply concerned with their students’ curiosity, interested in whether it is too late to spark an appetite for inquiry in the many eighteen-year-olds who appear to have lost any intrinsic curiosity. Time and again professors, upon hearing about my work, approach me to ask if there is a way to “turn curiosity on” in their college students. Needless to say, students are not incapable of learning in the formal sense of acquiring information and skills. Rather, it seems that they tend to do so only for some utilitarian goal: a good grade or a job offer. Rarely, according to my colleagues at a wide range of institutions, do their students seem to thirst for knowledge just because they feel compelled to close an information gap, explain the unexpected, or reduce their own uncertainty within a particular domain.
To learn more about whether college is cultivating the disposition and ability to ask questions, we presented first-year students with a brief and entertaining PowerPoint presentation about a complex and unfamiliar topic: the science of mindfulness.19 We explained that we needed feedback on the material for a future presentation. At the end of the presentation, we asked each subject if he or she had any questions or comments. A year later we contacted the students and said that, again, we needed some feedback on another presentation. This time the presentation was about executive functioning in childhood. Though there were individual differences between students in terms of the number of questions they asked and the quality of the questions (e.g., whether they were superficial, probed for more information, or explored a deeper implication of the ideas presented), we found no increase in either number or quality of questions between year one and year two. While it may be that it takes more than a year for college to have an impact on this dimension, it may also be that in general students don’t become more eager to ask questions or become better at it while in college. Needless to say, this doesn’t tell us much about whether students can become more curious at this stage of their development. There is more to be learned.
What Has Darwin Taught Us?
Which brings us full circle to the bug-eating Darwin, who became the question-asking Darwin. Rather than relegate him to the realm of outliers—the unique genius who saw discrepancies and puzzles where others did not—using those puzzles to fuel important investigations, we now can see that most young children engage in some version of bug eating. Almost all humans begin life with an aptitude for noticing the unexpected and pursuing unanticipated phenomena in order to resolve uncertainty. As they become more familiar with more aspects of everyday life, their novelty detection tends to zero in on topics that particularly interest them. They become more surprised by subtler details within a domain, which explains the emergence of specific interests. This explains why one child is curious about bugs, another about the interaction between people, and a third by visual patterns and why, by adulthood, though some people seem more curious than others, no one is curious about everything. Though curiosity narrows its focus, no data have yet suggested that the startling drop in curiosity during the early school years is a necessary byproduct of development. The research is clear that children are sensitive to various aspects of the environment: complexity and ambiguity, a chance to explore the particular materials that interest a given child, encouragement for unscripted inquiry, and role models who exhibit curiosity. A look at contemporary educational practice in this country suggests that very little of the system is designed to foster the development of curiosity. Quite to the contrary, most classrooms lack the kinds of variety and complexity of experience that elicit inquiry. An emphasis on acquiring certain kinds of knowledge and skills has promoted classrooms in which mastery is prized over exploration, certainty over uncertainty, and answers over questions. Which brings us to the next questions research must answer. How long-lasting is the influence of the situational factors we have identified? Can a child whose curiosity has been diminished by the classroom environment become more curious? Is there any age beyond which this is no longer possible? What would we need to do to help the majority of children acquire the habit of asking the question: Why Should This Be So?
Charles Darwin, On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 1st ed. (London: John Murray, 1859), 397–98.
Katherine Nelson, Event Knowledge: Structure and Function in Development (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986).
Susan Engel, The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015).
Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes, Young Children Learning (1984; John Wiley and Sons, 2008).
Michelle M. Chouinard, “Children’s Questions: A Mechanism for Development,” Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 72, no. 1 (2007).
Susan Isaacs, Intellectual Growth in Young Children: With an Appendix on Children’s “Why” Questions by Nathan Isaacs (New York: Routledge, 1999).
Paul Harris, Trusting What You’re Told: How Children Learn from Others (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012).
Tizard and Hughes, Young Children Learning, 127.
Brian MacWhinney, The CHILDES Project: Tools for Analyzing Talk, 3rd ed. (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000).
John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss (London: Hogarth, 1969).
Richard Arend, Frederick L. Gove, and L. Alan Sroufe, “Continuity of Individual Adaptation from Infancy to Kindergarten: A Predictive Study of Ego Resiliency and Curiosity in Preschoolers,” Child Development 50, no. 4 (1979): 950–59.
Elizabeth Bonawitz et al., “The Double-Edged Sword of Pedagogy: Instruction Limits Spontaneous Exploration and Discovery,” Cognition 120, no. 3 (2011): 322–30.
Engel, The Hungry Mind.
Roger Hart, Children’s Experience of Place (New York: Irvington, 1979).
Bruce Henderson and Shirley G. Moore, “Children’s Responses to Objects Differing in Novelty in Relation to Level of Curiosity and Adult Behavior,” Child Development (1980): 457–65.
Susan Engel and Kellie Randall, “How Teachers Respond to Children’s Inquiry,” American Educational Research Journal 46, no. 1 (2009): 183–202.
Susan Engel, “Children’s Need to Know: Curiosity in Schools,” Harvard Educational Review 81, no. 4 (2011): 625–45.
Susan Engel, Does College Change the Way Students Think? Report to the Spencer Foundation, 2016.