Children can reintroduce us to the world, if we remain open to that possibility. Sharing a child’s lens of exploration, curiosity, excitement and discovery can be one of our most pleasurable experiences. What makes us often too hasty to fully embrace those experiences? To get our hands dirty, our clothes possibly wrinkled or muddy, even to endure a few scrapes and discomfort?

Curiosity nourishes children’s development. By hindering or blocking that inquisitive nature, the light normally ignited in a child can sadly be diminished, if not altogether extinguished. Starting with birth, we’re all drawn to new things to explore, to discover, to understand. Our curiosity expands to question and wonder about the world around us, and that’s how we learn. This exploration is the fuel of development, taking shape in different ways.

Children are innately very curious beings. The exploring toddler tries the light switch repeatedly, discovering by cause and effect that he can turn light on and off. Water play opens new horizons for the preschool child, who learns by pouring water into bottles of different shapes, spilling it over surfaces. Early on, a child discovers tastes — the tanginess of a lemon, the sweetness of honey — as well as the heat of the stove and the cold of ice.

When a child remains curious, she continues her exploration and discovery, sustaining the cycle of learning. By experiencing this joy, she will revisit her discovery over and over, because pleasure ensures repetition. This eventually leads to a child’s mastery, in turn building confidence, fueling the desire to continue exploring, discovering and learning. This willingness to learn more is driven by curiosity, with the joy derived from uncovering and understanding. Children love sharing their discoveries with others, whether a parent, teacher, or their peers, for positive reinforcement from those they respect and love. It’s this affirmation from others that helps support children through their ongoing struggles, continuing to build self-confidence. For example, at a later time, when this same child is frustrated with some simple writing exercises, he can rise above the challenge by telling himself: “I can’t get this, but I’m the one who knows all about ______ (his earlier discovery).”

Unfortunately, curiosity dissolves for too many children. As one child psychiatrist said: “Curiosity dimmed is a future denied. Our potential — emotional, social and cognitive — is expressed through the quantity and quality of our experiences. And the less-curious child will make fewer new friends, join fewer social groups, read fewer books, and take fewer hikes. The less-curious child is harder to teach because he is harder to inspire, enthuse and motivate.” As parents and teachers, we commonly crush a curious child’s joyful exploration through fear, disapproval, and our failure to be present.

If a child’s world is chaotic, fraught with stress, fear will extinguish his curiosity. Children then tend to cling to what’s familiar, unwilling to explore outside their comfort zone or try anything new. Families impacted by conflict, domestic violence, abuse and neglect, poverty, drugs, and distress can certainly erase any hope of developing their children’s curiosity. Just as fear crushes a child’s joy in exploration and discovery, so does disapproval: “Don’t go there. Don’t climb. Don’t touch. Don’t get dirty. Don’t open those. Don’t. Don’t.” Children are the barometers of our fear, attitudes and disapproval, and they behave accordingly. When we react negatively to their dirty clothes, their muddy hands, their messes, their love of creativity will fade.

The presence of a caring, connected parent or teacher offers both a safe, secure emotional place from which to explore, as well as someone with whom the child can share the excitement of the discovery of his exploration. Each child has a unique set of skills and abilities. His preferences in how he explores new situations will depend largely on those. Temperament plays a critical role in how a child’s curiosity unfolds — whether he experiences discovery through running, climbing, digging, or mentally evaluating the scientific basis of his exploration. “How” he’s curious depends on his individual temperament. One may be more active, while another prefers observing; one may prefer digging in the soil, while another prefers quietly listening to music.

As parents and teachers, we have a responsibility not only to recognize the individual differences in our children, but to ensure we acknowledge the value of those unique qualities. We owe it to our children to teach to their particular learning styles, supporting and appreciating their progress in every area. Although educators are pressured to focus on measuring academic progress, which unfortunately trickles down into the early childhood arena, we must ensure that early childhood provides an environment in which curiosity can flourish through exploration and discovery.

We can nurture each child’s love of uncovering new challenges, fueling curiosity and, thus, self-esteem. If we let them, children can reintroduce us to the wonders of the world. By sharing their discoveries with us, we experience the joys of rediscovery ... and in so doing, we will also learn.

“The future belongs to the curious. The ones who are not afraid to try it, explore it, poke at it, question it and turn it inside out.” — Anonymous