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Kids with Intermediate Knowledge of a Topic Are Most Curious About It

Curious preschooler


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Key Takeaways

  • A new study finds that children with an intermediate level of knowledge of a topic are the most curious about it.
  • It’s important to let kids’ natural curiosity drive their interest.
  • Children with little knowledge of a topic or extensive insight into a topic show less curiosity in that area.

Young children are often described as curious and inquisitive about themselves and the world around them. A new study offers information on what fuels that curiosity.  

Published in Psychological Science, the study found that the amount of knowledge a child has about a topic is what makes them curious to want to learn more. Kids with an intermediate amount of knowledge about a subject are more curious about it than if they had no prior knowledge or even extensive knowledge about the topic.

About the Study

Researchers at Rutgers University conducted two experiments during the study and had a total of 100 participants, ages 3 to 5. There were 50 children from local daycares and preschools that took part in the first experiment. There were also 50 kids in the second experiment, who provided responses online.  For each of the experiments, the instructions were the same.

For the first part of each experiment, children were asked a variety of questions about a subject. Their responses allowed researchers to determine the level of knowledge each child had about the topic.

The second part of the experiment consisted of children reading choose-your-own-adventure books. The books had characters performing normal everyday activities. However, when it was time to choose the adventure, the options consisted of the topics that children discussed in the first part of the experiment.

Researchers were then able to compare the amount of knowledge a child had about a topic, which they learned in the first part of the experiment, with their curiosity about that topic. Researchers gauged curiosity by the choices children made in the final portion of each experiment.

The first experiment of 50 children did not have enough factors to be conclusive. It gave the impression that children who had little information about a topic were the most interested in it. More research and tweaks were needed in order to derive conclusive results.

Those changes were applied to the second experiment of 50 children. These findings gave a conclusive result. Children who had an intermediate understanding of a topic, as opposed to no knowledge of it or an extensive amount of knowledge, were the ones who were most curious about a subject.

Jenny Wang, PhD

Just like scientists, when children know just enough about something to find it interesting, but (have) not yet solved everything, they are the most motivated to explore and discover more about it.

— Jenny Wang, PhD

Interestingly, age did not factor into driving curiosity. While the study did have two different experiment dynamics, the findings still provided insight into drivers of children’s exploration.

“This tells us that it is not a simple linear relationship between how much we know and how much something is interesting. Just like scientists, when children know just enough about something to find it interesting, but (have) not yet solved everything, they are the most motivated to explore and discover more about it,” explains Jenny Wang, PhD, assistant professor in psychology and cognitive science at Rutgers University and the lead author of the study.

Fueling Kids' Natural Curiosity

The study results shed light on the choices that young children make, and perhaps why they make those choices. Children possess a desire to learn more that comes from a natural tendency that we all have.

Felice Martin, LPC

What happens is that when a child or a person is interested in a subject matter, it piques their level of curiosity. So, for example, from a neuroscience perspective, what happens is that there’s a spark.

— Felice Martin, LPC

“What happens is that when a child or a person is interested in a subject matter, it piques their level of curiosity. So, for example, from a neuroscience perspective, what happens is that there’s a spark. It’s almost like if you imagine a spark plug. And that spark plug is just fired up and ready to learn and ready to gain more insight on the subject matter that they’re interested in,” explains Felice Martin, LPC, a psychotherapist, licensed professional counselor, neurocoach, and neuroleader at Behavioral Health Associates of Georgia LLC.

Igniting that spark already present in a child is the way to help them grow and excel. Once their interest has been piqued, the next step is to provide stimulation for them.

“For parents and educators, our findings suggest that children are active drivers of their own learning, and what they find interesting may be determined by how much they already know. Being sensitive to what children know and do not know and providing a rich learning environment for the child may be beneficial to their learning,” Dr. Wang notes.

Meanwhile, Martin notes that access to experiences for children is key. And, when it comes to finding the right topics to get children interested and excited, it’s best to let their curiosity lead the way.

“I always say (provide) exposure. And remember neurons that fire together wire together. If I am firing those neurons of reading...that’s going to feed that urge and that desire for more,” she advises.

What This Means For You

Paying attention to children and what piques their interest is an ideal way to provide them a beneficial learning environment. As the study notes, let their curiosity lead the way. Then, provide them with opportunities and exposure to take their learning to the next level.

       

 

 

 

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  1. Wang J, Yang Y, Macias C, Bonawitz E. Children with more uncertainty in their intuitive theories seek domain-relevant information. Psychol Sci. 2021;32(7):1147-1156. doi:10.1177/0956797621994230

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