Curiosity Is Essential to Children’s Learning (And It Didn’t Kill the Cat!)

By Allison Wedell Schumacher

Curiosity Is Essential to Children’s Learning (and It Didn’t Kill the Cat!)My daughter didn’t go through the terrible twos. She went through what her dad and I referred to as the thespian threes. Because EVERYTHING. WAS. SO. DRAMATIC. I’d have been at the end of my rope had it not been for the patient and gentle advice of Mary Schumacher-Hoerner, associate professor of Early Childhood Education and director of the Child and Family Development Center at San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico. Mary also happens to be my sister-in-law.

Recently, I got curious about curiosity (see what I did there?), its role in young children’s learning, and how to encourage it as much as possible. So who better to ask than my early childhood specialist sister-in-law? She had so much great insight into the topic that I’ll need to save some for another blog. For now, here are a few excerpts from our interview.

What is the importance of curiosity as it applies to learning, especially in young children?
“Curiosity is the motivator for children to explore their world, which is how they learn about it. My colleague, Judy, loves to tell about the infant who does not yet crawl. A parent puts the infant on her belly. To us it looks like she can do little and is not engaged. But she is using the senses that she’s developed up to that point to explore the world. You’ll see her tongue darting in and out. At some point, she is going to lick the carpet. Why? Because she is curious about this stuff underneath her and wants to know about it. She licks it and learns that it’s rough and that it isn’t the same as her bottle. It seems like a small, insignificant activity, but this is an important developmental learning exchange.”

Are there some traits that adults could potentially mistake for a lack of curiosity?
“I think what we describe as shyness or a slow-to-warm personality can be misinterpreted. My daughter is an example of a child who took a lot of time before engaging in a material or activity. As a very young child, two to three years old, she would first stand on the perimeter of an activity, observing the action. You might have thought that she wasn’t interested or curious enough to get into an activity or material. But if you waited, you would have seen that her way of doing things was to observe and calculate possible reactions. Once she did begin to engage with others, she already had an idea of what she was going to do.”

What are the dangers of such a mistake?
“I think there are a few pitfalls for assuming that children lack curiosity. First of all, I have seen parents and teachers decide that it is their role to ‘entertain’ children, by scheduling and over-scheduling. They take control. Children become dependent on the adult and are not active agents in their own learning.

“When we assume children lack curiosity, it forms our image of the child. And when we believe that children lack curiosity, or lack motivation, then it’s hard to think of the children as active agents in their own learning. And of course, this message can get passed on to the children themselves. If we assume children are not capable of being curious or we don’t honor their attempts at exploration, then they assume it of themselves, too. I don’t want that. We want children who view themselves as strong, capable, and independent.”

Anything else you want to tell me about encouraging curiosity?
“Boredom is okay. I just read Lin Manuel-Miranda (certified genius and creator of my current obsession: the musical Hamilton) talk about the long periods of time that he was alone because his parents worked so much. He said he was grateful for this time, actually, because in that boredom and unstructured time, he created and explored and, apparently, became a genius!

“Go ahead and expose kids to new things. Take walks, explore new outdoor environments, go to the library, go to museums, and try new things. Get open-ended materials and don’t be afraid to make a mess.

“Curiosity did not kill the cat. The cat can be curious, but it’s the owner that needs to make sure the cat has a safe, yet open and interesting environment to explore.”

Allison Wedell SchumacherAllison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon and Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at,, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.

Suggested Resources
Ollie Outside by Michael Oberschneider
Dream On! by Cheri J. Meiners
Move, Play, and Learn with Smart Steps by Gill Connell, Wendy Pirie, and Cheryl McCarthy

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