Creative thinkers are filled with curiosity. They want to know how things work – and how to make them work better. They want to know why things break and fall apart and run down – and how to fix them. They want to know about light, color, line, tone, and rhythm – and how to create art and music. They want to know more about what it means to be human – and how to express it.
Young children are also filled with curiosity, and they’re constantly seeking to satisfy it by looking, listening, smelling, biting, tasting, grabbing, throwing, tearing, pulling, pushing, poking, climbing, digging, shaking, dropping, squishing, smashing, stomping, sliding, rolling, and reaching.
They’re also FAQs – Frequent Askers of Questions.
As a parent and a teacher, I know that it’s impossible to answer all the questions children ask! And I know that children sometimes ask questions just to get attention, and I know that they ask out-of-the-blue questions (“Do fish have dreams?” “How do they make light-up sneakers?” “Why do leaves fall off trees?”) when you’re talking to another child, or battling a migraine, or tying someone’s shoelaces, or all three at once. Been there!
Here’s the thing, though. Every time we put off dealing with a child’s question, we make it less likely that they will continue to ask questions. (In behavioral terms, we’re extinguishing question-asking behavior.)
So what do we do with our little FAQs? I’m not suggesting we drop everything and give detailed explanations every time a child asks a question. But if our goal is to keep children curious, we need to a) give them the tools to answer their own questions; b) show interest in the answers they find: and c) encourage them to ask even more questions.
In a letter to the New York Times from January 19, 1988, Donald Sheff told this story: A friend once asked Isidor I. Rabi, a Nobel prize winner in physics, “Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant children in your neighborhood?” Rabi responded: “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference–asking good questions– made me become a scientist!”
Frequent Askers of Questions can be exasperating and inconvenient, but they can grow up to be very creative thinkers. So encourage children to keep their instinctive curiosity and become lifelong FAQs.
Give Them Tools: Are they curious about trucks? Find a book you can read together, with information and detailed pictures of backhoes, dump trucks, cement mixers and other wonderful large vehicles. Showing children how to look up information for themselves is one of the best things we can do for them.
Show interest: If they find out, say, that chickens are descended from dinosaurs, this deserves more than “Oh, that’s cool.” Ask the child how he learned that fact. Ask how scientists figured it out. Ask what else those scientists are working on. Have a discussion.
Encourage more questions: Be a role model of intellectual and imaginative curiosity. About those chickens, you might say, “I wonder if chickens know that they’re related to dinosaurs!” Or “I wonder what they’ll change into a hundred million years from now!”
Questions are good, whether they lead to answers, solutions, art, poetry, or more questions. We can reinforce children’s questioning behavior by saying things like:
“That’s a great question!”
“I’m glad you asked about that!”
“It’s good to ask questions – it helps you learn.”
“I was wondering that too!”
“I never thought about that – let’s look it up!”
This is an excerpt from my book “Teaching Creativity” (Whitmore Books, 2010), available in Kindle and paperback versions here.