Encouraging Children to Explore: Five Tips to Foster Curiosity
Minds in Bloom is pleased to welcome guest blogger Natalie Hunter, who offers some tips to foster curiosity. I especially appreciate the tips under “Expect More.”
Teachers everywhere, from little red schoolhouses to the top online schools, often struggle to motivate young students to learn from various situations. The answer is not found in a formula of do’s and don’t’s but is cultivated in a relationship. Kids always learn; that’s not at issue here. The question is how to foster curiosity and enthusiasm to motivate students to answer their own questions.
Talk with Children, Not Just to Them
Real conversation grows vocabulary, interest in the world, and even the brain itself. According to Sean Brotherson of North Dakota State University, “Healthy development of a child’s brain is built on the small moments that parents and caregivers experience as they interact with a child.” In other words, talking with children is one of the best ways to foster learning.
Create opportunities for kids to discuss the world around them and how they can make a difference. As children are empowered to make decisions and express their own ideas, they discover and establish their own interests. They develop the sense that their opinions and actions count.
Encourage parents to talk with their kids at home. If adults remain friendly and don’t talk down to children, they will ask questions when they don’t understand. This creates opportunity to spur their exploratory instincts rather than timidly keep to themselves. Everything around them becomes an opportunity to grow and learn.
Don’t Praise; Discuss
It may sound strange, but praise can be the opposite of encouragement. Praise can set a false standard of achievement and inadvertently cultivate a fear of failure. This can stymie children’s efforts, making them afraid to make any mistake.
Instead of praising an achievement, it’s better to encourage effort and persistence, says a recent study by the University of Pittsburgh. This is what helps children develop a “growth mindset” instead of a “fixed mindset.”
Parents and teachers need to learn to praise the steps toward learning rather than any single achievement itself and to support children while they’re making the effort instead of only praising at the end. Just as learning to walk involves lots of falling, so does learning math, reading, or any other subject.
Take Kids to Interesting Places, Do Interesting Things
Schools and museums aren’t the only places to encourage learning. A trip to the community garden can spark discussions about how food is grown, harvested, and cooked. This can be followed by tasting unusual vegetables or different varieties of a favorite fruit. Let children compare the tastes and textures of fresh fruits and vegetables with canned produce and talk about the connection between food and nutrition.
Teachers can foster learning by participating in the activities they want students to do. If an adult is engaged, kids will pay attention. They learn science is fun because the grown-ups like science. They learn reading is great because adults like to read. They learn the farm is a great place because someone took them there to explore. Modeling participation in an activity is much more effective than simply assigning one and then watching over students as if waiting for them to do something wrong.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
Questions that don’t lead to a particular answer encourage exploration and curiosity. Instead of looking for the “right” answer, kids learn to tackle ideas creatively. Don’t fake it. If the adult isn’t really interested or curious about what’s being asked, this will be obvious to the students. Don’t be surprised when they feel insulted or misled if they pick up on hidden disinterest.
Social situations are opportunities for a different kind of learning. Help children explore solutions to problems that come up in the classroom. Let them try out ideas and see for themselves what works. If lesson plans need to change or something routine needs to be done differently, ask the students how they think it should be handled.
If the adults in their lives expect children to keep trying, they’ll do just that. If adults expect them to give up easily, that’s what will happen. Encouraging children to keep trying isn’t the same as brow-beating them. It means knowing effort will pay off.
“Try it another way” is encouraging. “That’s OK” means he should quit. “Good job” means he has reached the goal and doesn’t need to go farther.
Encouragement is an art best learned through practice. The adults in children’s lives will make mistakes, but that doesn’t have to result in permanent failure. Encouragement means adults also trip, fall, and persist.
Learning is never easy. Embracing the adventure is what it is all about. As Jason Piccone of California State University puts it: “Children who learn that they can explore successfully want to continue to explore.” Fostering learning truly is child’s and adult’s play.
Natalie Hunter grew up wanting to be a teacher and is addicted to learning and research. As a result she is grateful for the invention of the internet because it allows her to spend some time outside, rather than just poring through books in a library. She is fascinated by the different methodologies for education at large today, and particularly by the advent of online education.