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Ellen Galinsky


Give the Gift of Curiosity for the Holidays -- Lessons From Laura Schulz

Posted: 12/19/11 05:25 PM ET

Have you ever noticed that your toddler spends more time playing with the gift-wrapping than the present that was wrapped inside? Or that your older children lose interest in a new toy if that toy has just one way to play with it, and instead gravitate back to materials, like blocks, crayons, miniature animals or iPads where the possibilities are endless?

It is holiday season and so for blogs I have been writing on the researchers and neuroscientists who have genuinely inspired me in my 11-year journey to create Mind in the Making, I am sharing the story of Laura Schulz of MIT. Her studies help explain what curiosity is and thus how to promote children's curiosity in the gifts we give them.

I am not sure about other parents, but I didn't think too much about curiosity except to assume that my children were naturally curious. They wondered about everything that was new and were bursting with endless questions: "What's that?" And, "Why, why, why." Interestingly, however, the research on children's curiosity reveals that is it far more complex than this.

Laura Schulz has been being curious about curiosity throughout her career and finds not surprisingly, that children -- in fact all of us -- are curious about what's new. But there are other drivers of curiosity. Schulz explains:

We often seem to be curious about things that aren't particularly novel -- they just puzzle us.

Her quest to understand curiosity has led to new insights:

I think there are two different things that can provoke curiosity. The simplest one is a violation of your prior beliefs. You go [into an experience] with a certain expectation that "this is the way the world is," and then you see some evidence that's inconsistent with that.

When this happens, Schulz says:

You have to do something with that evidence. You can deny it. You can try to explain it away. You could realize that your beliefs are wrong and that they have to change. But one way or another, you need more information to figure out what to do.

Children also become curious when they have two competing expectations or theories. Schulz elaborates:

The other time you might be curious is if you see evidence that fails to distinguish [among] competing beliefs. There are many things that might be true, and the evidence just doesn't determine which one is the case.

In scientific terms, when people are trying to understand how things work, they are typically trying to understand causal relationships -- what causes something to happen. A toddler might be trying to understand what happens if she pushes her rubber duck underwater in the bathtub. Does it always rise back up to the surface? Yes, it does. That kind of evidence, in scientific terms, is "unconfounded" -- there's a clear and consistent cause and effect. When Schulz talks about "competing beliefs" where "many things might be true," she's talking about "confounded evidence" -- it's not clear exactly what the causes are.

Schulz and one of her graduate students, Elizabeth Baraff Bonawitz, created a study to further explore the question of when children remain curious. They designed a red jack-in-the-box toy that has two levers, one on each side. When both levers are pushed at the exact same time, two toys -- a straw puppet and a duck -- pop up. This toy demonstrates a "confounded" experience: there's no way to determine how the toy works simply by looking at it. Maybe it takes both levers to make the toy work or maybe it doesn't.

In the experiment, an experimenter shows preschool-aged children this toy. The experimenter says to each child, "You push down your lever and I'll push down my lever at the same time." They count to three and each pushes one of the levers. Both the puppet and the duck pop up. Although they repeat this action several times, the child can't figure out from this process which lever controls which pop-up toy.

A second group of children is introduced to the toy in a different way. After the experimenter and the child push down the levers at the same time, they each take turns. The child can easily see which lever controls the duck and which lever controls the puppet. Then, as Schulz explains:

We take that jack-in-the-box away. We bring it right back out along with a brand-new box that the children have never played with before.

Normally, children would be drawn to the new yellow toy because children are curious about what's new. But that didn't happen for one of the groups of children in the experiment.

The researchers found that the children who knew how the old red jack-in-the-box worked (that is, they had unambiguous or unconfounded information) went to play with the new box. But the children who didn't know how it worked (they had ambiguous or confounded information) kept playing with it, as you will see in this video of the experiment.

There are some very important lessons for me in this study by Laura Schulz. The first is to give children gifts that puzzle them, that intrigue them, that make them want to find out more. Rather than toys with just one way to use them, give them toys that can be used in many ways--that's why the classic toys (like materials to use in building and creating or exploring) remain classic.

But the second lesson is far more important. It's how we respond to children when they ask us their endless questions -- "What's that?" or "Why, why, why."

Often we are so busy -- especially during the holiday season -- that we want to slough off their questions or tell what we think so we can finish everything on our to-do lists. But if we want our children to remain curious, we will find times when we can stop, notice what they are curious about and then ask them questions to keep them curious and wanting to explore. For example, we might say:

Why do you think that rubber duck always pops up when you push it underwater in the bathtub? Do you think if you put a washcloth on top of it, it would stay underwater? Do you think your empty shampoo bottle would float? Do you think it would float if we filled it with water?

Or with older children, we might say:

Why do you think your friend seemed unhappy at the holiday party? Was it something that might have happened to her? Was it something that happened between you? What might make things better for him?

It is by remaining curious that children learn, whether about the natural world or about people. And that is a gift that lasts long after the holidays are over!


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