Nurturing curiosity and invention
From a blog by Child and Family Blog
In December 2020, Gitanjali Rao, a 15-year-old inventor from Colorado, was named Kid of the Year by Newsweek. Showered with accolades, children like Rao are often treated as if they are unicorns, completely different than others their age. But that need not be the case. Virtually everyone begins life with the necessary building blocks to construct new ideas. However, by age five, only some children are still on a path to become adept at such thinking, while most leave it farther and farther behind. But such a fate is not inevitable.
What would it take to help all children be able and eager to pursue ideas?
The answer lies in two processes that begin during the early years: inquiry and invention. If you have ever watched three-year-olds at play, you have seen how children first pursue ideas. It usually begins with a problem: A child wants to fashion a tent out of blankets and pillows, understand why some bugs fly and others do not, or figure out how far the stars extend in the sky. Parents and teachers can fan the flames of children’s natural drive to think things through. To do so, adults should give children plenty of opportunities to solve the problems that grab them, spend time talking with them about the intellectual puzzles that haunt them, and guide them to test their speculations and revise their ideas. Parents and teachers should also be willing to talk with children about things that are unfamiliar, unknown, and perhaps even uncomfortable. By building on children’s powerful drive to inquire, invent, and mull over complex problems, adults can help them become avid, supple, and astute thinkers.
Babies are born curious, equipped with antenna for detecting novelty. Watching visual patterns or images projected onto a screen, babies look longer at the one they have never seen before. They absorb the new phenomena, looking and listening until they see something that is no longer surprising. But they quickly go beyond using just their ears and eyes. Soon enough, babies expand their investigative repertoire to include touching, grasping, licking, and mouthing. By two-and-a-half years, they have acquired an explosively more powerful tool for investigating the world: questions. Toddlers can ask about items around them, but also about the past, the future, and the unseen. Since so much of their daily lives brings them face to face with new sights and sounds, their novelty detectors go off all day long, leading to a day crammed with investigation.
By their third year, humans have learned a dazzling array of information and skills. Three-year-olds talk in full sentences; can carry on complex conversations; refer to the past and the future; and can tell intricate stories that include characters, plots, and surprise endings. Curiosity is the psychological foundation that explains the vast terrain of knowledge and skills acquired, apparently effortlessly, by all typically developing children.
But the endless barrage of surprises and mysteries does not last forever. By the time children are three, they have a huge working knowledge of their everyday routines and environments. They know what will be on the breakfast table, the kinds of things their family members typically do and say, and what will happen on a trip to the grocery store. The everyday world becomes the familiar background to more distinctive events and objects, which call out for further explanation and mastery.
At this point, children are ready to be somewhat choosier. They begin to play a more active role in deciding what aspects of daily life they can skim over and which to zero in on. Most children develop specific interests. One becomes fascinated with bugs, another intent on watching to see what makes people laugh, and a third absorbed by small gadgets. But not all children focus on objects or creatures. Some collect information about the invisible or ungraspable, for instance, God, death, or infinity. Children often ask many questions about such topics across relatively long periods.
Spend 15 minutes watching four-year-olds at play and you quickly notice that they don’t spend all their time investigating. Just as often, they are devising new objects out of various small items (e.g., string, silverware, blocks), planning imaginary scenarios, or mapping out the rules for new games. In other words, they are busy inventing.
While the developmental picture of invention is complex, it points to one clear conclusion: When children invent, whether a fort, a story, or a new game, they use most of the tools required for more sophisticated problem solving; they use or combine familiar elements in new ways, thinking of different ways to achieve a goal, imagining future outcomes, and revising their plans.
We now have evidence that between the ages of five and six, children begin to understand the idea of ideas. When experimenters asked children to explain what an idea is, four-year-olds cast it in concrete terms: a plan of action or an object they made. But by the time children are six, most understand that an idea is a product of the mind and that there are many kinds of ideas.
The skills required to come up with illuminating explanations of puzzling phenomena and novel solutions to knotty problems are within reach of most children. But this capacity is not inevitable, nor is it simply the natural result of learning to spell, add, or write book reports. Helping children become capable of and interested in developing ideas requires concerted effort from adults. When children gather information to answer their own questions (however unacademic or odd those questions may seem), mull over perplexing mysteries, speculate, outline probable or impossible outcomes, or consider alternative perspectives, they are practicing the skills essential to forming ideas. If parents and teachers learn to deliberately foster curiosity and invention, many more children than Gitanjali Rao will be on the path to innovation.
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