Fostering a love of learning and critical thinking skills in children has always been a goal for parents, but these days, it feels rather imperative.
“Looking out at our society, we are plagued by vast amounts of misinformation, conspiracy theories, science denial, and other forces that are threatening our society,” said Jal Mehta, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-author of “In Search of Deeper Learning.” “We need inquiring citizens to make good decisions about our democracy, and to take on big challenges like climate change, education, health care, poverty, and more.”
Intellectual curiosity benefits not only our society as a whole but also children as individuals in our ever-changing world.
“A child who likes to learn will have the confidence to take on new challenges and explorations while also developing persistence and the ability to learn from their mistakes,” said Elanna Yalow, chief academic officer of KinderCare Education.
“Curiosity helps a child expand their horizons and thrive in changing circumstances, promoting continuous intellectual growth,” she added. “Plus, a sense of curiosity keeps anyone, child or adult, intellectually vital and stimulated – it’s difficult to be bored when you’re curious. Curiosity also helps a person stay open-minded and less egocentric, so they’re more understanding of the perspectives of others who may not share their experiences.”
So how can parents help their children develop a love of learning and a sense of intellectual curiosity? Mehta, Yalow and other experts share their advice below.
Create space for questions and open conversations.
“All children have questions, thoughts and ideas about the world around them,” said Vivian Vasquez, a professor of education at American University. “Creating spaces for them to explore those questions from different and alternate perspectives creates a space for them to make informed decisions about what to think and how to think about different topics and social issues.”
She recommends that parents make time for talks with their kids and ask them what’s on their minds. It can be as simple as discussing what their children enjoy about the shows they watch, books they read, clothing they wear, music they listen to, toys they play with, etc.
“Researchers have found that a strong predictor of childhood flourishing is the ability of families to share ideas or talk about things with their child that really matter,” said David Grodberg, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at the behavioral health platform Brightline. “For example, creating family rituals around shared activities like playing board games or reading ― or maybe at the dinner table, listening to each other and talking about ideas and interests together.”
“If you read, if you discuss current events, if you debate what is happening in the news, they will come to see that as normal.”
– Jal Mehta, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
Parents can encourage their kids to ask questions about the world around them and then look up answers together. They can also ask their children questions.
“Model scientific questioning by asking ‘why?’ and ‘what if?’ You can even have a daily question that you and your child explore together,” Yalow advised. “Make sure your research includes more than an internet search ― books, neighbors, friends can all turn in to expert sources.”
Encourage their personal interests.
Parents should nurture their children’s interests, as they’ll learn best when they’re invested in a subject area or feel its relevance to their own lives.
“If they are interested in math or science, get them games, puzzles, anything that gives them opportunities to exercise their brains,” Mehta said. “If there are early sparks around reading, make sure that as they put down one book, there is another interesting one in their reach.”
Fostering a child’s natural curiosity is about following their lead and enhancing the experience. Offer new takes on a subject they enjoy and push them to examine different perspectives.
“Teach them how to infer,” suggested Reena B. Patel, a licensed educational psychologist, board-certified behavior analyst and author of “Winnie & Her Worries.” “Use a storybook, and before turning the page, ask the question, ‘What do you think will happen next?’”
Model a love of learning.
Adult and child psychiatrist Lea Lis believes the best way to instill a love of learning in children is for parents to model intellectual curiosity themselves. Caregivers can incorporate “why” and “how” questions into kids’ everyday lives.
“Read in front of them ― real books, not from your phone,” she advised. “Take something up that’s challenging, like learning to play the guitar or how to cook, and be a role model in that experience for them. Do it together, take a class together like a cooking class. Let them see it is hard work!”
Lis noted that her children watched her write a book, supported her as she navigated intellectual frustrations, helped her pick colors for the cover and the title, and were inspired to see the finished product in print. She believes they may be interested in writing books themselves as a result.
“[Kids] watch you like a hawk,” Mehta noted. “If you read, if you discuss current events, if you debate what is happening in the news, they will come to see that as normal. My son started a first-grade book club when he saw our adult book club. Conversely, no amount of exhortation will work if your own actions aren’t consistent with that.”
Identify their optimal learning styles.
“It is important to teach to a child’s learning style,” Patel said. “Children show interest when they see their own success. If you teach a child’s learning style, you will see an increase in children’s natural curiosity as well. They will ask more questions to learn and start to make intellectual connections.”
While there is some overlap between learning styles, different people prefer different ways of gathering, processing and retaining information. Parents should be mindful of their children’s optimal learning modalities and what tools will support their needs.
“It is likely you already have an idea of what your child’s learning style is,” Patel said. “You probably know if it’s hard for them to learn by listening. They might prefer to get up and move around for things to become clear and understandable. Or maybe they love listening to books on tape or would prefer you read to them.”
Incorporate learning into everyday life.
Parents should make learning experiential by engaging their children in the “school of life,” said Lis. They should praise their children’s curiosity and exploration of different ideas, present new experiences, and even introduce them to mentors who have expertise in areas they find interesting.
“For example, if they’re learning about the Holocaust, take them to the Holocaust Museum, or if they are learning about Egypt, then do a crafting project with hieroglyphics,” she suggested. “Make learning come to life in the real world. If they are learning Spanish, then arrange for play dates with Spanish speakers.”
Kids can test out the things they learn at home, like creating a compost pile or practicing energy-saving techniques after reading about ways to help the planet. Parents can talk to them about their choices as they test out new ideas and ask questions along the way. Push them to get creative and think outside the box.
“If you say, ‘Did you get an A?’ they’ll think that what matters is getting an A. If you say, ‘What did you learn about and why does it matter?’ they will see that you value more the intrinsic aspect of the learning.”
– Jal Mehta
“Watch or read the news together and talk about what’s going on in the world, how things can be handled differently, ideas for solutions to global issues, or discuss what comes next,” said Meredith Essalat, a school principal and author of “The Overly Honest Teacher.” “When kids don’t know the answer, don’t let them pull out their phone or tablet. Instead, have them draft an original thought and prove the internet right or wrong when you finally let them check their theory.”
Provide the materials to express ideas.
Parents can foster children’s intellectual curiosity by providing materials to express their ideas through writing and drawing ― like pens, crayons, sidewalk chalk, paper, notebooks and sketchpads. Vasquez suggested keeping a box of art and writing supplies for the kids at home.
“These materials don’t have to be expensive to be useful,” she said. “Creating through writing or art is one way for children to think through their inquiry questions and to present and re-present those inquiry questions in different ways.”
She explained that art and writing can help kids make sense of the world around them, explore questions and thoughts about particular topics, express what’s on their minds and summarize things they’ve learned.
Offer positive reinforcement.
“How you respond to school matters,” Mehta said. “If you say, ‘Did you get an A?’ they’ll think that what matters is getting an A. If you say, ‘What did you learn about and why does it matter?’ they will see that you value more the intrinsic aspect of the learning. My fourth-grade son said he was worried he wasn’t going to get an A in art, and I asked him, ‘What does it mean to get an A in art?’ He probably wants to disown me, but at least I made him think.”
Mehta emphasized the importance of focusing on the long-term goal of intellectual curiosity for life, rather than short-term goals like good grades, gold stars and other types of rewards that go away after graduation.
Positive reinforcement may involve praising the time children spent researching something or their inquisitiveness about the world with comments like “Great question!” or “I’m so glad you asked that.” This encourages them to keep asking questions without fear of judgment.
“If children keep questioning, they continue to push our society’s and worldly boundaries, therefore developing critical thinking skills and changing outcomes for the better,” Patel said. “We do not want children to take what everyone says at face value. We want them to cross-reference and check the facts. Yes, it is hard to always answer their ‘why’ questions, but you will not be disappointed when they grow and pick careers that make positive impacts in this world.”