Curiosity is a Curious Thing!

Every day at the museum, we witness joyous exploration as youngsters immediately dash onto the fire engine near the museum’s entrance. Kids don helmets and firefighting jackets and immediately lose themselves in the sheer joy of role-playing the life of a firefighter.

They’re curious! We’re all born with natural curiosity. As a child, everything is new and we have so much to learn about the world, and ultimately, our place in it. While fostering and sustaining a desire to learn new things is at the core of curiosity, we’re learning how curiosity is more nuanced than we might think.

According to a 2018 “State of Curiosity” report published by researchers in Germany and Virginia with funding from Merck KGaA, Inc., there are four aspects that define curiosity and people’s ability to innovate in the workplace.

  • Joyous Exploration: gaining joy from recognizing and discovering new knowledge — bliss from learning and evolving
  • Deprivation Sensitivity: acknowledging gaps in knowledge and taking steps to reduce those gaps
  • Openness to People’s Ideas: valuing different perspectives and intentionally seeking out diverse ways of thinking and working
  • Stress Tolerance: handling the anxiety and discomfort that comes from the uncertainty of learning something new

Curiosity isn’t just about seeking out the new and unknown, it’s so much more. It can be disruptive in a workplace, classroom, or even a playground — where bold ideas challenge the status quo. It can be humbling — when we’re faced with acknowledging what we don’t know and fear losing face with colleagues, friends, and little playmates. It can be uncomfortable as we step into the abyss of uncertainty and lose intellectual control. This is challenging whether you’re in the boardroom, classroom, or playroom.

The great news for all parents is that studies show curiosity can be nurtured and advanced. Kids are information seekers. One study found that between the ages of 2 and 5, kids ask nearly 40,000 questions. But as they get older, this appetite for “wanting to know” can diminish.

“What begins as a robust trait becomes more fragile over time,” says Susan Engel, a professor of psychology at Williams College and author of The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. “It’s shaped by experiences with parents, teachers, peers and other learning environments,” — like museums.

“Our goal is to foster open-ended learning and discovery,” said Bridget Moore, Exhibit and Graphic Designer at Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose. “Everything we do is to help kids learn how to investigate the world and ask questions. There is no right or wrong way to interact with our exhibits. Children often engage with our spaces in ways that we may not have originally intended, but that isn’t wrong. These surprises keep us sharp and challenge some of our prescribed ideas that help us remain open and curious — we’re all learners.”

Engels suggests some ways that adults can foster curiosity in children.

  • Don’t fret the messes. Take a deep breath and imagine a future artist, engineer or scientist.
  • Try to celebrate the hard work behind your child’s achievement as much as the achievement by praising the process.

Model curiosity. Harvard child psychologist and author Paul Harris writes that “Mothers who asked a lot of questions had children who also asked a lot of questions …”

Orville Wright, of the famed Wright brothers, was told by a friend that he and Wilbur were great examples of how far someone could go without any special advantages — to which Orville responded, “to say we had no special advantages … the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity.”