The Cultivation of Curiosity

by Head of Early Childhood Beth O'Brien
I spend a lot of time thinking about your children, about our Early Childhood program and about the mission of our school. I think about how what we do here in these early years influences each child’s experience across the divisions and beyond the fields that surround Grace House.
There is one phrase from our Country School mission that I want to talk about this evening and that is we value the imagination and curiosity of children. Specifically, I want to talk about the word curiosity and its role in how we teach and why we teach the way we do at New Canaan Country School.

Curiosity is the human impulse to resolve uncertainty. A definition taken from William’s College Professor, Susan Engle’s book A Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. Professor Engle talks about the importance of schools fostering curiosity and that curiosity should be central to classroom learning.

An article in Harvard Business Review, entitled Curiosity is as Important as Intelligence and conversations I had throughout the summer supported Professor Engle’s charge. As I talked with friends and family members about the types of people who were succeeding in their workplaces, when I asked them what dispositions those folks had that made them successful, curiosity was always at the top of their list.

It makes sense. According to the Harvard Business Review article, people who are curious are more inquisitive, open to new experiences, find novelty compelling, generate original ideas, and embrace intellectual challenges.

Professor Engle’s research revealed that “between the ages of 3 and 11 children either develop an appetite for knowledge and habit of inquiry or they don’t.” Speaking on behalf of the educators in the room, I want to assure you that at Country School, children develop a deep desire for knowledge and inquiry during their time here on our campus.

What we know as educators and what we observe as parents is that children are driven by a desire to understand and make sense of their world. They are determined to figure out how things work. It is this energy, this inner drive, this motivation that we harness as educators. It is from this place that we support children in seeing themselves as the primary directors of their own learning.

Our goal in these foundational years is to promote agency. What I mean by agency is the child’s ability to act upon the world, to explore, to make choices. We do this by designing spaces with inviting materials, by offering lessons that capture the children’s imagination and spark their desire to know. We give children time during the day to initiate, to advocate and to choose.

We nurture curiosity by encouraging children’s questions. We ask them what they wonder about. What theories they have. What topics they want to research.
We devote time to exploring and considering possibilities because we know curiosity takes time to be fully satisfied.

We value time for play because we know curiosity flourishes when children are given time to tinker, invent, design and create in a social context.

We support Professor Engle’s belief that the Curious Classroom is one where books are in abundance, materials are engaging and animals are plentiful and accessible for children to observe and study.

We recognize, embrace and share with you that modeling is essential. Children watch us closely. They take snapshots in their mind of what we say and what we do.
It is imperative that we as teachers and parents, model what a curious mind looks like. Ask questions, read, wonder aloud.

We know curiosity is vital to intellectual achievement. The more curious we are, the more we research. The more we inquire, the more we understand.

I share these thoughts with you as a precursor to the words and images you will hear and see in the classrooms this evening. Listen and look for the moments when curiosity is promoted and encouraged. Envision how the cultivation of curiosity in your child today supports the intrinsic, self-motivated, life-long learner of tomorrow. 
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