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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Making curiosity happen

By Jessica Pierson Russo

I’ve been thinking about curiosity and how to spark it. My colleague Anne Stevenson recently asked why the innate skill of asking questions tends to drop off as we move through school and into careers. This prompted me to look a bit more deeply into how we can more intentionally develop curiosity as a skill in our youth programs.

A study published in Neuron last fall about the science of curiosity confirmed that when people are curious, they:
  • Learn more
  • Remember better
  • Absorb incidental material (the boring stuff) better than they ordinarily would
An article by Todd Kashdan in Experience Life magazine summarizes other research showing that curiosity is a leading contributor to better health, intelligence, relationships, and happiness; and while the research does not directly support the claim, it does suggest that curiosity also helps us find meaning as it relates to our interests and passions.

We create the most effective learning experiences when we stimulate learner curiosity. But what do we do when curiosity seems stagnant? Is curiosity a skill that can be learned and strengthened?

As it turns out, the answer is yes – but it takes effort to make the continual development of curiosity a priority in our lives. Kashdan has a few ideas for invigorating innate curiosity.

Build knowledge

The more we learn about something, the more we tend to want to grow that understanding. Questions about what we have just learned naturally come up, and with them, a desire to find answers.

Thrive on uncertainty

For experiences such as sport-games or movies, not knowing the outcome means we are more likely to enjoy watching. Similarly, uncertainty can be a powerful motivator for learning. And while we wouldn’t choose to fill our lives with the more stressful situations of uncertainty (will I get the job, where will I get my next meal), it is worth making sure that our lives have an element of surprise—take the path less traveled, try that new dish, meet someone new—rather than completely rely on routine and familiarity, in order to nurture curiosity.


My colleague Cathy Jordan blogged about the importance of play; she described the “fun activities” as a critical part of the school day within a kindergarten classroom (though not just for kindergarteners). And in Whole Brain Teaching, fun is the backbone of a brain-based learning movement that shows how people learn more efficiently when they’re having fun.

As learners in a formal setting, we often don’t have the authority or permission to incorporate fun and play into the experience. But as facilitators, we can make sure that our youth have the opportunity to experience learning in a way that maximizes interest.

See the extraordinary in the ordinary

This strategy forces you to see things in a new way. Think of a mundane or boring topic or task, and then force yourself to look for something novel or unexpected. Kashdan cites a study that shows that subjects who have experienced this process of discovery were more likely to do their “boring tasks” without being prompted. But I can see how this strategy would not only change the task or topic into something more worthy of effort or thought and therefore less dreadful, but it would also, if employed as a regular habit, serve to strengthen one’s ability to create interest where there seemingly is none.

I can think of other strategies that may be useful in strengthening curiosity as a skill—for instance, nurturing failure as a welcome part of the creative process. Failure should be taught as a good thing (rather than something to be avoided at all costs) in relation to learning and building curiosity. But the main strategy that I would advocate for in building curiosity is teaching it intentionally as a necessary life skill that we can develop. Each of us tends to exercise these strategies, at least unconsciously, at one point or another. But when we use them intentionally, we begin to create valuable habits that ultimately result in stronger minds and better learning experiences.

How can we make curiosity itself a topic of learning in our youth programs? What are the barriers to developing and maintaining curiosity? What are other strategies you can think of that would help learners develop curiosity as a skill?

-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator

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  1. Very young children have an innate curiosity. It seems to me that this quality is often severely curtailed by various factors: negative home situation, inferior or jaded teachers, peer pressure and so on.

    The trick is often to nurture and encourage this curiosity if it hasn't been curtailed; if it is, there has to be a way first to restore it.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Mike! That's a good point about the various barriers that exist to curiosity--all those moments in life that tend to break our spirit make it difficult to care about gaining new knowledge or skills (unless they directly relate to the problem). But I also think that learning can help to build us back up again, even in the face of difficult situations at home, school, work, etc. When any of us (not just youth) have the opportunity to dig in to something that allows us to experience the joy that comes with learning, it can help to renew a sense of life and discovery. Do you agree?

    2. I absolutely do!

  2. Jessica - our colleague in the U of MN College of Design, Brad Hokanson, teaches a creative problem solving course for grad students and measures creativity before and after the course. He would definitely agree that creativity can be "taught." I am fascinated by what strategies would be important for strengthening curiosity as a skill in younger children vs. older adolescents and adults. Any thoughts? - Cathy Jordan

    1. Oh, I like that question, Cathy! The thing that comes first to mind as having a different influence depending on age is "play." I think because as we get older, we play less, making an intentional effort to incorporate play into our daily lives may have a greater impact (or maybe just feel like a greater impact) on people who tend to play the least as a normal habit. But I'm not a psychologist, and I could be wrong about that. The second thing that comes to mind is that age may not play as big a role as personality. Some of us are just a little more lazy than others. I include myself as someone with lazy tendencies. And so for me, I think building my knowledge is something I need to intentionally work on (it takes some effort to get myself to seek out new learning opportunities), whereas some of the other strategies I tend to do more naturally anyway.

  3. Great thought-provoking post!

    I think one of the biggest disservices of our contemporary education system is teaching children early and often that what matters most is not the journey of inquiry and curiosity, but the end result: the grade, the test, the status. Our education system is not set up to foster creativity and passion for questioning and discovery.

    The ridiculous thing about this of course is that kids are usually by nature very curious - talk to most 4 year olds while you're outside on a walk and they'll have eight thousand questions about everything they can see, smell, hear, touch or imagine. Somewhere in the process of teaching kids, they lose the most important part of learning - curiosity. It's one of the most disheartening things about our education system today.

    The result? We end up in the position you're talking about - having to re-learn and re-teach something that comes naturally when we're young instead of cultivating it in the first place.

    So I'm curious, what ideas do you have for institutional changes in schools or education policies to better foster creativity and curiosity throughout childhood, adolescence and into adulthood?


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