Eight Ways to Follow a Child’s Curiosities

painting birdhouse

“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

I really wanted a birdhouse.  I’m not sure why exactly, but I impulsively and enthusiastically bought an unfinished birdhouse, and for whatever other reason, I then tucked it away in the back of closet. The mind works in odd ways.

In any case, about a week ago, my daughter became especially fascinated by some birds she saw on one of our walks.  The observation led to further curiosities about birds in our books, birdhouses, naming birds in various toys, and spotting birds in the sky.  Following one of our bird chats, I offered  up that we could make our very own birdhouse.  What I didn’t completely anticipate was the unbounded enthusiasm you often see when someone has earned an Olympic gold medal!  And what I experienced in that short, beautiful moment is that my child was thrilled that I had not only listened to her, but that I also intended to help her pursue her interests and follow her curiosities.

Seeing the enthusiasm, I quickly pulled out the birdhouse, paint, and brushes.  I’ve been unprepared for these impulsive moments in the past, and was relieved that the table was already covered in vinyl and the brushes and paints were ready to go.  With toddlers, the whole mood can shift with the wind, so within minutes Project Birdhouse was underway.  Any preconceived ideas I had for my darling birdhouse flew out the window and I opened myself up to my toddler’s ideas.  Thankfully, she allowed me painting rights, and the two of us painted the whole house (under her direction!) in about 15 minutes.

I somehow convinced her toddler impatience that we had to let it dry before filling it with seeds, and the next day it was outside attracting birds.

Eight ways to support a child’s curiosities

  • Listen closely and carefully to what your child is saying.
  • Don’t interrupt the child with your own interpretations.  Rather, reiterate what they are seeing and experiencing.
  • Follow the child’s lead.
  • Explore the child’s curiosity in multiple ways.
  • Ask questions about the process of discovery.
  • Encourage risk-taking and experimentation.
  • Be flexible and ready to change your agenda to accommodate growing interests.
  • When possible, have a stockpile of self-serve materials (i.e. books, craft supplies, toys, videos) ready that will support your child’s interests.

If your child is interested in…:

  • Doctors, newborn babies, hospitals: Visit a large nearby hospital.  Many hospitals are open to the public and allow visitors.  You might be able to see newborn babies in the nursery, and it’s educational to look for scrubs, wheelchairs, gurneys, stethoscopes, etc.  Also, consider purchasing an inexpensive doctor kit.
  • Airplanes: Take a trip to the airport.  If you’re in a car, look for a road that loops around the back of the airport that will allow you to  watch planes taking off.  And if you happen to have an aviation museum near your home like this one your child will love the hands-on experience of climbing into a cockpit and “flying” helicopters.
  • Cooking: Cook together, and set up a mini-kitchen for your little chef.  Have your child climb up on a step stool so that he or she can see all of the action.  Depending on your child’s ability and age, he or she can pour flour into a batter, mix scrambled eggs, spread jam on toast, pull husks off of corn, etc.  A mini-kitchen can be as simple as fashioning a stove out of a low cabinet that’s repainted and covered with little kitchen accessories.  Here’s a smart and simple DIY kitchen idea.

Be the "Guide on the Side"

Aleksandra and Max

In the world of education, sage on the stage is a phrase that’s sometimes used to describe the all-too-familiar scene of the knowledgable teacher delivering lectures to passive students who memorize information for the sake of spitting it back out again on testing day.  This method of teaching assumes that the child is an empty vessel, waiting to be filled with information, and doesn’t give the child much opportunity to think for themselves.  As you can probably imagine, the problem with this type of instruction is that while the learner may appear to “know” information, he or she doesn’t really learn all that much.

In order to really understand something, humans need the motivation to generate knowledge and meaning through their own experiences, rather than regurgitate information that’s been fed to them.  Back to the world of education, this active form of learning is often referred to as constructivism, a learning theory supported by instructors (or parents) who act as facilitators rather than teachers.  You’ll know a constructivist environment when you see discussion, analysis, prediction, problem solving and posing, active learners, and facilitators who ask open-ended questions.

Huh?  But I’m a parent, not a teacher!

Right!  But there’s a world of research on how constructivist learning environments can foster creative thinking skills, skills that are critical for children to embody in order to thrive in this ever-changing world, and we have the perfect opportunity to steal some good ideas from the world of education and put them to work in our own homes.

Putting it into action

  • Take a step back. If you find yourself on the “teaching soapbox,” find opportunities to be the guide on the side, rather than the sage on the stage.
  • Be an active listener. Listen to your child, and respond to what they’re interested in.  If they aren’t yet talking, follow their gaze and respond with descriptive dialogue about the object/s they’re looking at.  For example, “I see you’re looking at the big, red ball.  Would you like me to bring it to you?  What do you think about it?  Oh, you’re feeling it.  It’s soft, isn’t it?”
  • Ask open-ended questions such as “tell me about this picture,” “what do you think will happen now?” or “I wonder what we could make with this play dough?”  This will empower your child to think independently, come up with novel conclusions, and express his or her ideas.
  • Follow their lead. If your child takes an interest in the birds outside the window, paint a birdhouse together, watch videos of different kinds of birds singing on YouTube, buy a bag of birdseed to feed some birds, make bird noises together, find books about birds at the library, etc.

References:

Wikipedia: Constructivism

Jacqueline G. Brooks and Martin G. Brooks, In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1999)

Alison King, From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side. 1993. College Teaching. v41 no1 p30-35.

Exploring Glue

gluing-feather

Who doesn’t love playing with glue?  I have a strong memory of covering both my hands in glue with my best friend at summer camp, and then seeing the look of horror on our counselor’s face when we mischievously started peeling off our own “skin.”  I’m not advocating for that kind of behavior here, but my point is that there are endless possibilities for creating and playing with glue:  it can be used as an adhesive or a paint, it can be squeezed or dripped, and it has a delightful (and for some, disgusting) sticky quality that is fun to touch…and sometimes peel.  There are lots of recipes out there for home-made glue, but I love good old-fashioned Elmer’s School Glue.  It’s non-toxic, inexpensive, and works really well.

Exploration Connections:

  • When playing with glue, children can learn about viscosity, and how one object can adhere to another, sometimes permanently.
  • Children will also make choices about which objects they want to use, where to place them, and how many to include on the paper, helping them experience decision-making skills and autonomy in a lovely way (rather than throwing an “I want THAT cookie” fit in the grocery store).

Time:

Set-up: 5 minutes (after materials are gathered and/or purchased)

Activity:  5+ minutes, depending on the child’s ability, interest, distractions, etc.

Materials:

  1. Paper
  2. Glue
  3. Disposable Bowls
  4. Small objects for gluing (i.e. feathers, pom-poms, leaves, macaroni)

Activity:

  1. Squeeze enough glue into a disposable bowl to fill its bottom.  (After the glue dries, you can use the bowl again for another gluing activity.  Hoorah for recycling!)
  2. On your own paper, show your child how to dip an object in the glue and place it on the paper.  Hold your paper sideways or upside-down (depending on the weight of the object) to demonstrate that the glue is holding the object in place.  Next, encourage them to try, and ask them what they’re doing and/or comment on their process by saying things like, “You’re dipping the noodle in the glue and dripping glue on the paper.  And now you’re placing it on the blue paper.”
  3. Alternatively, give your child a small glue bottle and show them how to squeeze it on the paper.  They can then place the objects on the small dot or pile of glue.  This is a great option for kids who don’t want to touch the glue, and also helps children understand the physics of squeezing a bottle to release a liquid.

Another idea for the preschool crowd: Writing with glue as a preschooler

Creativity in the Garden

avocado pits small

Spring is here (!!!), and for us that means it’s time play outside and start a garden.

Children learn through play, and for them “play” is “work.”  So this is a great opportunity to let them “play” while learning about seeds, digging holes, packing mulch, and watering.  All you need are some play clothes, a few plants, a pot or bit of land, soil, and a trowel or two.  Not to fret if you don’t have land — this activity can be easily adapted to an indoor space (such a kitchen) or patio with a few pots and a small bit of dirt.

You can start with the following simple instructions, and then go from there…make garden art, build a musical fence, play with the hose, build a birdhouse, look for snails, or collect leaves.  The options are endless.  More inspiration on gardening with kids can be found here: http://www.thekidsgarden.co.uk/

Creativity Connections:

  • Gardens can be a place to gain problem-solving skills. For example, children can explore how deep they need to dig holes, how much water it takes to fill a watering can, and they can make decisions about where they want to plant seeds or plants.
  • Ask the child problem-solving questions such as, “What shall we plant in this large hole?  The strawberries, the sage, or the tomatoes?”
  • Ask the child invention-building questions such as, “What do you suppose we could do with this trowel?”

Time:

  • If you’re planting a pot or two, once you’ve gathered your materials, this activity could be done in 1/2 hour. Children who enjoy the sandbox, may linger over the joys of digging dirt and could use more time.  For a larger garden space, give yourself at least an hour…possibly more. Attention spans can be short, but once outside, time can go by quickly with all of the distractions of bugs, dirt, digging, water, and mud.

Materials:

  1. Planting pots or  a clear spot of earth
  2. Soil
  3. Plants: veggies, herbs and small flowers are great for small hands
  4. Seeds
  5. Trowels:  one adult size and one child size.  Spoons can work too.
  6. Gardener’s knee pad (not necessary, but really helpful) — get two if you can!
  7. Spray bottle: not really necessary for gardening, but little gardeners adore playing with these
  8. Watering can or hose. Small watering cans are easy to find in drugstores as part of sandbox kits this time of year.
  9. Play clothes

Directions:

  1. Talk with your child about what you’re planning to do:  You can choose the plants together or have them ready on “planting day.”
  2. Show your child the tools you’ll be using, and explain how you’ll use them (i.e. dig holes, put plants in the ground, water the plants).
  3. As you’re placing seeds or plants in the dirt, explain the process to your child so that they hear what they’re doing while actually doing it.  This helps solidify their learning.  Also, be sure to ask them what they’re doing, to get their take on it.
  4. Be prepared for a MESS!  It’s inevitable, but also part of the fun.
  5. After the plants and/or seeds are in place, don’t forget to water them.
  6. Once you’re done, recap the gardening process with your child by reminding them of what you just accomplished and asking them what they did, and encourage your child to play in the garden.

Dirt-free Alternative:

If you don’t have a garden, can’t stand the sight of dirt, or you’re facing a rainy day, plant some seeds indoors.  We eat a lot of avocados around here, and a fun, simple activity is “planting” avocado pits.  Check out these simple instructions.  All you need is an avocado pit, 3 toothpicks, a glass, water, and A LOT of patience.  So simple!   Be sure to plant a few just in case they don’t all “pop.”  Ours were planted three weeks ago, and we’re still waiting for them to sprout!