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How to Motivate a Curious Preschooler

They need to know a little bit...but not too much.

Trying to teach anything to a preschooler can be a difficult task. Push them too much and they resist. Leave them to their own devices and they find something more interesting to do. But according to research recently published in the journal Psychological Science, preschool children have a Goldilocks learning zone: they will find something interesting if they have just enough information to spur their curiosity, but not so much information that the subject becomes boring. So, for parents of curious kids, the amount of knowledge and uncertainty they offer needs to be just right in order for their kids to pursue more information about it.

“The implication of our research is that as children develop their own understanding of different situations, their interest may change as a result,” explains lead author Dr. Jenny Wang, assistant professor of cognitive psychology and lab director at the Cognition and Learning Center at Rutgers University. It all points to new methods for parents to motivate their curious kids.

Knowledge Plus Uncertainty Equals Learning

In a series of experiments, Wang and her team showed 100 preschoolers situations with multiple undecided outcomes, and let them decide which situations to resolve. “We found that children whose intuitive theories were at immature stages were more likely to seek information to resolve uncertainty about an outcome in the related domains,” researchers write in the study. “But children with more mature knowledge were not.”

Put simply: kids who knew less about the situations and outcomes wanted to learn more. For preschoolers, it seems a knowledge gap can be deeply motivating. But that’s not a lesson simply for teachers.

Researchers found similar results across various settings, indicating that curiosity-driven learning happens both in structured learning environments like preschool, as well as in more home and social settings. “We did not constrain the scenarios in the study to school environments,” says Wang. “In fact, many of the stories and questions in the study involve everyday situations that children experience outside of school as well.”

While this particular study did not focus on unstructured play, it is possible to draw some lines to what researchers have found in the past when studying exploratory activities. “That previous work suggested that children tend to explore more when there is more uncertainty in the toy or game,” says Wang. “Our finding extends this previous research and highlights that children’s developing and changing understanding of the world shapes their uncertainty and influences what they find interesting.”

How to Motivate Curious Kids

One tool parents can utilize to motivate curious kids is to ask open-ended questions, essentially exploiting their knowledge gap and its motivating qualities. Question asking during parent-child interaction has been shown to be beneficial for children’s learning in general. And quite frankly, it can provide an endless supply of entertainment for parents.

On its own merit, reading to preschoolers is a highly beneficial use of time. Sprinkling in open-ended questions just sweetens the deal. “Specific to our study, engaging children while reading books is a fabulous way for parents to get a sense of which aspect of the world is their child trying to figure out, which may, in turn, inform parents on what types of books and activities will catch their child’s interests,” Wang says

As often as a child’s answers to open-ended questions are funny, they’re also wrong. But jumping in to correct them isn’t typically great for their curiosity, motivation, and learning. It helps to know when to provide a complete answer to a preschooler or correct them when they are wrong, and when to let them struggle through the process of exploration.

While Wang notes that this study does not directly provide an answer to the impact of parental feedback on children’s curiosity and learning, “being able to actively think about and provide an explanation for the world in itself is an important skill for young children,” she says. “Pedagogy can be a double-edged sword, in that parental feedback may help children find the right answer more efficiently but discourage them from exploring.”  

Sure, it can take more work on the front end to cultivate a preschooler’s curiosity than it does to satiate it. But in the long run, parents keep their child’s brain busier when they create an environment where they can be an active participants in figuring out how the world around them operates.