We hear a lot about how important the first five years are for children’s brain development, and it’s a time when children’s curiosity is at a lifetime high, so it’s the perfect time to embrace their curious minds by extending these interests and keeping those little minds active and absorbed, and a new study out of Queensland explores this in further detail.

Researchers look at curiosity and longer-term interests

Griffith University researchers  recently concluded a three-year study investigating the progression of curiosity into enduring interests and its role in fostering a continuous learning culture. The study involved 57 children aged four to five from south east Queensland, participating in two-week enrichment programs covering 15 diverse topics. This research sheds light on the developmental journey of young children as they cultivate interest in various subjects.

This research looked into how young children start to take an interest in different subjects and how this interest affects their learning. The study aimed to find out the best ways to spark interest in children, how interest fits into their learning, and what effects it has.

To tackle this, the study, led by Ellie Christoffina van Aswegen, introduced special programs filled with topics aimed at getting children excited about learning. These programs included a variety of subjects not typically taught to young children but are essential for a well-rounded education. This approach is based on the idea that children should be exposed to a wide range of knowledge to help them understand new information better and build on what they already know.

The chosen subjects ranged from plants and animals to famous artworks and space exploration, divided into three sets. The first set included topics like reptiles and continents; the second set covered the human body and insects; and the third set introduced children to religions and dinosaurs, among others. These topics were selected to broaden the children’s knowledge and provide a solid foundation for further learning.

The enrichment programs were delivered with a mixed approach of direct instruction, explicit instruction, play-based learning, group reading, and take-home activity booklets.

The underlying principle of the study was that a broad knowledge base is crucial for children’s learning because it helps them connect new information with what they already know, making it easier for them to understand and learn new things.

 

Shapes
These children from our Ormeau Village campus are exploring shapes even while they're on bush kinder!


Defining curiosity and interest

The study reviews the nuanced distinction between curiosity and interest in children, drawing on insights from Renninger and Hidi. It suggests that curiosity is the spark ignited by a specific question, a momentary engagement, as Dewey describes, that captures a child’s attention briefly. In contrast, interest is portrayed as a deeper, more sustained engagement with a subject, driven by a desire to gather extensive information and maintain engagement over time.

The research looks into the dynamics of how curiosity evolves into interest. Initially, a child’s curiosity prompts a flurry of questions about a topic. This questioning phase deepens their interest as they uncover new knowledge, fueling a continuous cycle of inquiry and discovery. Interest is described as encompassing three interconnected facets: actions, thoughts, and emotions. Together, these elements foster a rich learning environment in early childhood, where knowledge acquisition is intertwined with emotional engagement.

Researchers highlight the critical role of emotional connections and perceived competence in sustaining interest. When children develop a strong emotional attachment to a topic, their eagerness to explore and learn intensifies. Similarly, feeling adept in a certain area enhances their interest, propelling them to pursue further learning.

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Educators provide experiences, both organised and child-led to explore concepts of which children have shown an interest

Observations on children's learning

One example mentioned in the study was  building on children’s interests of flowers. Educators led a two-minute activity during which the children pretended to be flowers. Two children showed some disengagement towards the end of the activity. Comments made by the researcher and thoughts on possible reasons for disengagement were included in notes. Each component of the session was similarly identified and analysed providing a snapshot of engagement during the session.

Before and after participating in a two-week program focused on flowers, children’s knowledge about flowers and their parts, such as stems, leaves, and roots, was evaluated. Initially, although all children were familiar with the concept of a flower, many lacked knowledge of its basic parts. However, by the end of the program, there was a significant increase in the number of children who could accurately illustrate these parts on a flower diagram. For instance, the ability to draw a stem improved from three to 17 children.

Similarly, the program enhanced children’s recognition of different types of flowers. Prior to the program, only a few children could name any flowers. Following the program, a substantial improvement was noted in their ability to identify common flowers like roses and dandelions. For example, the number of children identifying a rose increased from two to 16.

Observations of the children’s play and interactions during the program indicated a deep engagement with the topic of flowers. Activities ranged from drawing and painting flowers to hands-on exploration and pretend gardening activities. This engagement suggested a high level of cognitive involvement with the flower program.

The researchers observed data on the behavioural and emotive component of interest through video,  notes, and feedback provided by both the early childhood teacher and the classroom educators.

Feedback from parents provided through a post-program questionnaire offered additional insights into the children’s growing interest in flowers. Parents reported behaviors indicating an increased awareness and curiosity about flowers in their environment, such as noticing or wanting to pick flowers. This parental feedback supported the observations made during the program, confirming a heightened interest and engagement with the subject of flowers among the children.

How social interactions support learning

The researchers concluded that social interaction was key to developing interest. Social interaction, between teacher and child, their peers and at home, formed the basis of developing interest in the various topics of the enrichment program. 

Each component of the program was delivered through images, interesting facts, stories, music, and drama. Researchers found engagement increased as the teacher showed more enthusiasm and modelled curiosity. The study noted that it became clear that the teacher didn’t know all the answers to children’s questions as their interest took them in a variety of directions, and the teacher became a learning partner motivated to research the topic further. The children also motivated each other to learn more, creating art, playing games, bouncing ideas off each other, solving problems and exploring nature together. Familial involvement was identified as another factor impacting curiosity and interest development in a positive way, such as parents working with children to collect or observe flowers or plants in nature to support their learning and working on take-home activity books together. The children brought in their completed take-home activity booklets, to share with the class as well as any ‘treasures’ they had found such as a feather, a flower, a leaf, etc. which stimulated conversation.

Exploring children's emotional connection to topics

The study also examined how children emotionally connected with different subjects, aiming to spark feelings of wonder and awe. This approach occasionally led to feelings of empathy and compassion, or simply brought about joy and delight. Certain subjects allowed children to marvel at the wonders of nature, feel empathy towards animals, or experience the simple pleasure of discovering delightful things.

The study did not shy away from challenging emotions, such as the sadness children felt watching a whale get untangled from fishing nets. Children were provided a supportive environment to discuss their feelings, helping them expand their emotional vocabulary. This is important because understanding different emotions can assist children in managing their feelings better, as they learn various strategies for emotional regulation. Additionally, engaging in music, art, drama (role-play), and free play allowed children to further process their emotions, aiding their emotional growth.

The research also revealed a strong connection between emotional and cognitive engagement. Children became more inquisitive and sought additional information on topics that touched them emotionally.

At Little Scholars, our educational program, The Collective, is based on the premise that children are most successful at learning when curriculum experiences account for children’s interests, strengths, and individual needs. The Collective encompass all aspects of Little Scholars, including a collaborative approach with our children, families, educators, and community.

Our weekly programs, which can be seen in our studios, are responsive to the evolving interests and needs of the children and allow for flexibility and extended periods of play and research to test theories.

 

 

References: 

Renninger, K.A., & Hidi, S. (2017). The Power of Interest for Motivation and Engagement (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315771045

Harackiewicz, Judith M., Jessi L. Smith, and Stacy J. Priniski. (2016) Interest matters: The importance of promoting interest in education. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2372732216655542

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