Five Proven Steps to Sparking Curiosity in Young Readers and Writers

Stoking the Fire for learning in the Young and Inquisitive

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A monkey who was best friends with a man in a yellow hat had it. It is apparently (although I’m yet to see it) fatal to felines everywhere. And it went to Mars.

Curiosity

That search for answers to questions we don’t know the answers to, or perhaps we know the answers, but we just want to know more. It’s had many of its own definitions:

  • “the urge to explain the unexpected” (Jean Piaget)
  • “an optimum amount of novelty, surprisingness, complexity, change, or variety” (Daniel Berlyne)
  • “the human need to resolve uncertainty” (Susan Engel)

However you would define it, curiosity is fundamental to the development and learning of a child, and integral to their pursuit of personal growth as they get older.

Curiosity is something built within us from a young age, this idea of wanting to know more, to be an explorer on a sea voyage of discovery, and yet the aid of others is essential to making sure we don’t jump ship.

Why Is Curiosity Important?

Curiosity makes a child yearn for information and knowledge, to figure out more about the world they live in, and cultivate individual thought and creativity.

A 2002 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked at the effects of curiosity in relation to intelligence. It’s conclusions were indisputable: the more inquisitive a child, the better their academic grades, IQ scores, and reading ability:

“High 3-year-old stimulation seekers [i.e. the more curious] scored 12 points higher on total IQ at age 11 compared with low stimulation seekers and also had superior scholastic and reading ability.”

Bright eyed baby crawling on bed

It’s clear that an ever-inquisitive mind is basically in a state of mental strength-conditioning. Like a bicep being put through its paces with some curls, Arnold-presses and dead-lifts, so too does curiosity provide the mental workout necessary for the mind to develop and exercise.

Now whilst we are born with curious minds, being inquisitive at birth does not mean we stay inquisitive forever - in fact maybe not even to the end of childhood.

Susan Engel, writer of The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood, found that between the ages of 5 and 12, a child’s curiosity will tend to decrease.

Even without the knowledge of an expert, we can see this for ourselves: ever notice how much more curious toddlers at nursery versus the children at elementary school are? Relatively speaking, it’s a canyon between the two. Sure, they are both inquisitive, but toddlers are far more likely to poke, point, and munch on anything in the proximity, edible or not (for the avoidance of doubt, we are not advocating chewing on things for the sake of exploration…).

If not properly developed, a child’s capacity for curiosity can quickly wane. As an adult this descent into indifference can be rough, but for a child, this is possibly devastating to their future.

Early years spent without that inner drive can heavily impact a child’s enthusiasm to learn and (as mentioned) their overall intelligence, no matter the quality of teaching they might be receiving.

But if curiosity is a drive that comes from within, what can you as their parent, mentor or guardian do to keep those wheels turning?

So what are the Proven Steps to Sparking Curiosity in Young Readers and Writers

1. Understand the part you play

Whilst curiosity expresses itself as coming from the inside-out, the environment in which it spends its time growing (or not) will determine how strong this pursuit of learning will eventually come to be.

Kids are certainly naturally curious to begin with.

A 2007 study found that preschoolers asked on average about 107 questions per hour.

Mother and daughter playing with leaves outside

Additional research has also discovered that babies not even older than two months will indicate a preference for unfamiliar patterns over familiar ones.

Even though it’s an internal attribute, curiosity can be heavily impacted by external responses: Psychologists at Birkbeck College, London, found that the primary expression of a baby’s inquisitiveness was their pointing: put a finger in the direction of what you want, something to explore, something you’re just interested in.

This of course is hardly groundbreaking, after all if we all could only gaga and gurgle, that would most likely be our medium of choice too. However, the researchers found next that how much the babies kept pointing, how much their minds wanted to point and discover new things was built on how much their parents responded to them.

An active response, either in bringing the child what they wanted or telling them what it is, resulted in continued finger-pointing, and hence continued curiosity in the kid. And if the parent indicated no response? Well, the baby eventually stopped pointing.

Understanding the significant difference the adult can make in a child’s curiosity levels is the first and one of the most important steps in fostering the golden tenet of life-learning within them.

Equipped with this new mindset, parents, teachers and mentors alike will be able to more effectively promote a spirit of inquiry within young writers and readers, especially when combined with the techniques mentioned below.

2. Fill their environment with the seeds of creativity

This may sound obvious, but filling your child’s room (and routine) with books, educational toys and anything else that sparks their curiosity is a sure-fire way of creating an environment that motivates the pursuit of knowledge, creativity and imagination of the young reader or writer.

Child playing with a train set

The key is to surround your child’s environment with items within their physical eye-line they naturally drift towards and pick up themselves. The covers of books, the colors of toys, the images, the presence of a small multitude of them - all of these elements serve to keep your young one interested, fascinated and constantly engaged with the spark of curiosity to read and eventually write.

Indeed, a study in the early 2000’s found that consistent access to books unequivocally increases a child’s motivation to read.

But it’s not just the number of books that makes the difference, be sure to include a variety too. This allows the child to make their own decisions about what they are going to read, and actually increases the likelihood of being more enthusiastic about the act of reading itself

To take this a step further, don’t just vary the genres, but the reading material also, as well as where they can find them: newspapers, magazines, journals (all age appropriate of course) spread around the house and easily accessible.

Shelves full of books at the library

This encourages a constant state of learning over a different set of reading levels, writing styles, tones and voices, challenging the child to make the leap of understanding the prose themselves, and creating far more satisfaction when they’ve successfully done so.

If it does prove difficult to comprehend, and you are nearby (which is more likely if the material isn’t limited to your home-office), they will in all probability come ask you what it means, engaging in conversation that fills their curios-needs.

One research study showed that this increased access did lead children to read more, and vice versa, in a so-called theory that “the more the more, and the less the less”

Indeed over a decade long study it was seen that children without a huge opportunity for content and reading “seemed to develop avoidance strategies, merely tolerating reading without the cognitive involvement associated with reading for comprehension.”

3. Positive interaction creates positive reaction

Surrounding a child with books and toys is one thing, but don’t be under the false impression that just one seriously heavy-duty amazon order will do the trick.

Remember Point 1? You have your part to play.

Read aloud with your child from a young age: not only will this develop stronger bonds of attachment between you both, but it has been found to be the “single most important factor” in helping children become fluent, passionate readers.

Even when you think they might be too young to start, they’re never too young to start. Martin Phalen, the CEO of reading charity Reach Out and Read, explains in Scholastic’s The Joy and Power of Reading:

Mother and child solving a puzzle

“The brain develops faster than any other time between the ages of zero and three. Because of this, it’s important to foster literacy during the early stages of life. There’s real opportunity in providing parents with books and encouragement to read to their children regularly, sing with their children and engage their children in conversation.”

It’s important to make sure that these reading sessions are more than just reading aloud: they must be truly interactive. Funny voices, making comments, breaking the fourth wall, pointing to pictures on the page, asking questions, challenging ideas or decisions the characters have made.

In this way, a child will learn to poke and question their own environment, and develop their own thoughts in response to a book they’ve read.

This can serve to increase their desire to write, as it brings home the idea of writing as a journey of self-discovery, building the context that writing and reading isn’t merely a function of communicating “I want this”, and “I want that”, but an exploration of life itself.

4. Sometimes they need to be left to their own devices

Boy playing with toy airplanes

Interaction is essential yes, but so is allowing the individual sentiment of curiosity to naturally rise to the top.

It was found that the most enthusiastic kids of reading and writing are not those with helicopter parents, or the micromanagers, but those who took a more balanced approach.

Rather than carrying them yourself, look to let the child traverse as much of the terrain as they can themselves, safe in the knowledge that you are available as a guide or in support whenever they need it.

Overcoming a more advanced reading level on their own, or taking it upon themselves to write that short story or poem rather than their parents forcing them to do it leads to a far higher sense of satisfaction than the alternative approach.

On a chemical level, this greater degree of reward fires off greater levels of dopamine, leading to the pursuit of higher goals, and a repeat of this internal challenge and furthering of curiosity.

5. Ask the right questions

Continue to stoke the fires of inquisitiveness by demonstrating how one can explore and investigate the world and its inhabitants in an interesting and thought-provoking way.

This comes down to showing your child how to ask the right questions, questions that are interesting to them and recognize that just because they don’t want to answer pop-quiz questions anymore, doesn’t mean they need to stop asking real questions of the world when that school-bell rings.

Girl enthusiastically reading a book in the library

A child fields dozens of questions a day, a constant barrage at school that are usually of the far less interesting black or white variety that are either right or wrong.

Pursue a conversation based on the “grey questions”. These are questions with no discernible “facts” behind them - they are subjective, they are opinions and they are individual.

Off the table is “what did you do today?” as this only results in a narrative that descends into a list of lessons and school activities.

Instead look at what they’re reading or writing and ask about how it makes them feel, or whether the actions of a certain character are questionable or if they think it is justified.

You can also bring in your own interests to the conversation, commenting on something you’ve read or learnt that day and how it leads you to question particular issues.

This brings the conversation outside of school and will bring about an acknowledgement that the world extends beyond the classroom and the house you live in.

The greatest achievements of humanity have all sprung forth from this thing we call curiosity, which moulded and formed us from a young age. By encouraging an ever-present attitude of inquisitiveness in the next generation, we can ensure that the future of humanity, its ideas, beliefs and direction will be left in the best of hands.

Children dressed in superhero costumes
References

1 Worthy, J., and S. McKool. 1996. Students who say they hate to read: The importance of opportunity, choice, and access.

2 Neuman, S., and D. Celano. 2001. Access to print in low-income and middle-income communities.

LINKS & RECENT POSTS

Back to GrowMindGrow Blog Main Page
Managing Children's Screen Time in a Digital World

Managing Children's Screen Time in a Digital World

Ten Ingredients of a Successful Classroom

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Writing Prompts for Grades K-5: The Great Big List

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