Have a curious child? Here's why that's a good thing

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

While having a curious child might mean being peppered with hundreds of questions on a daily basis, new research suggests there could also be a big upside: better performance at school.

As part of a study published in the journal Pediatric Research, data from 6,200 kindergarten students from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort, was analysed. The children had been followed since their birth in 2001. Parents of kids in the study were interviewed during home visits, while the children themselves were assessed at nine months, two years old, and again when they entered kindergarten in 2006 and 2007.

And the results were surprising.

While children of lower socioeconomic status generally had lower achievement than their peers, those who were characterised as "curious" on a measure completed by their parents, performed similarly on maths and reading assessments as children from higher income families.

"Our results suggest that while higher curiosity is associated with higher academic achievement in all children, the association of curiosity with academic achievement is greater in children with low socioeconomic status," says lead researcher Dr Prachi Shah. "Curiosity is characterised by the joy of discovery and the desire for exploration and is characterised by the motivation to seek answers to the unknown." As such, she notes, promoting curiosity in children, particularly those from lower social economic areas, "may be an important, under-recognised way to address the achievement gap."

As part of the study, parents answered a questionnaire which assessed both curiosity and a concept called "effortful control", or the ability to stay focused in class. "Even if a child manifests low effortful control, they can still have more optimal academic achievement, if they have high curiosity," Dr Shah says. "Currently, most classroom interventions have focused on the cultivation of early effortful control and a child's self-regulatory capacities, but our results suggest that an alternate message, focused on the importance of curiosity, should also be considered."

The findings also highlight the importance of  a child's early environment when it comes to nurturing curiosity. Children who grow up in "financially secure conditions" says Dr Shah, tend to have more access to resources to encourage reading and maths achievement, while those in poorer communities are more likely to be raised in "less-stimulating" environments. In these circumstances, Dr Shah says, the drive for academic achievement is related to a student's motivation to learn - or their curiosity.

The findings aren't the first to link curiosity and achievement. A 2011 paper, published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, also found an association between curiosity and academic performance in a meta-analysis of over 200 studies involving around 50,000 students. "I'm a strong believer in the importance of a hungry mind for achievement, so I was just glad to finally have a good piece of evidence," said lead author Sophie von Stumm at the time. "Teachers have a great opportunity to inspire curiosity in their students, to make them engaged and independent learners. That is very important."

But parents play a role in fostering curiosity in their children, too.

According to Zero to Three, mums and dads can encourage their kids' innate curiosity and desire to understand the world in a number of different ways:

  • Model interest in the world: Wonder aloud about nature as you go on walks or trips to the park. And let your kids see you pursuing your own interests, too.
  • Follow your child's lead: Encourage your child's natural interests. If they're into sea creatures, visit the aquarium and seek out books or age-appropriate documentaries. "Children learn so much more through activities that capture their attention and imaginations,' says Zero to Three.
  • Answer questions simply and clearly and according to your child's development: The answers you provide to certain questions "How are babies made? What happens when you die?" will differ depending on your child's age." But, no matter the child's age, "always ask them first what their thoughts are before answering," the organisation advises.
  • It's okay to say you don't know the answer: Use this as an opportunity to discover the answer together.
  • Ask open-ended questions: These questions require more than a "yes" or "no" answer and encourage kids to develop their own thoughts and ideas.
  • Redirect, don't discourage.  If your little one is, for example, trying to explore the household pot plants, offer them an alternative. "Put some dirt in a plastic container for your child to play with and inspect," the organisations says. "This will also teach children problem-solving skills, creative and acceptable ways to do and get what they want."
  • Make open-ended activities part of your routine: Give your child boxes, blocks, sand, pots and pans and so on without explaining what to do with them. And let their curiosity take over ...