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A typical Sunday in my house goes something like this: urge the kids to finish their pancakes while frantically searching for a lost shin guard. Arrive at the hockey game with seconds to spare. Scarf down lunch, drive to swimming lessons, then off to play dates (which often involve iPads or Wii). Finally, there’s dinner, homework, showers. Storytime. Lights out.
It turns out I’d be better off trading in some of these planned activities for unstructured play, or some of the screen time for nature time. In my frenzied attempt to raise active, well-rounded kids, I had forgotten a key component of personal growth: curiosity.
“Curiosity and a love of learning go hand in hand,” explains Andrea Russell, the project lead at the Natural Curiosity initiative at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study at OISE/University of Toronto. “It’s innate in all of us from the day we’re born. Babies express interest through touching, feeling, putting something to their mouths and trying to taste it.
At around one and a half or two, they start asking all those ‘why’ questions.” It’s important to keep kids querying as they grow and to foster their critical-thinking skills. Here’s how.
One of the most successful strategies parents can use to spark curiosity is to head outdoors. “Pay close attention to the questions coming from your children,” says Russell.
“If they’re curious about snowflakes, see if you can capture some. Wonder out loud, ‘Are they all different-looking? Why do you think that is?'” Hold back on immediately answering your child’s inquiries; instead, ask them what they themselves notice or wonder about.
Prioritize unstructured play
Downtime is vital for children. “It’s difficult for your mind to even be curious if you’re constantly bombarded with stimuli,” says Greg Beiles, head of the Toronto Heschel School. Freedom to explore is equally important. “If parents say, ‘Don’t play in the yard, you’ll get dirty,’ or ‘That’s not for children,’ it sends the message that the world isn’t a good or safe place to discover,” Beiles explains.
Choose the right toys
When my kids were little, their grandparents would buy them elaborate holiday gifts, but they were most interested in playing with the boxes. Mark Fettes, the associate director of the Imaginative Education Research Group at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, says providing toys with no obvious function-wooden blocks, say-is an excellent way to spark kids’ imaginations.
Fettes is also keen on painting and drawing. “Engage children in thinking through the relationship between what they can produce and the world around them. If your child draws something that’s hard to recognize but he says, ‘That’s a flower and a dog chasing a ball,’ respond in a way that encourages conversation.” (For example, “Where’s the dog going?”)
While it’s easy to get our kids to eat their veggies by promising ice cream later, we can’t bribe them to be inquisitive. But it’s worth encouraging. According to Beiles, curious children are generally optimistic, adventurous and kind, plus they tend to think of the world as a safe place, not a dangerous one. Now that’s worth nurturing.