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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?

    1. Since someone else posted this year, I don't feel so bad for responding to this a couple of years later...

      One idea that comes to mind is allowing teachers more flexibility in how they teach. I witnessed 2 Kindergarten teachers ousting a third for using play in her teaching rather than a more academic approach. This third teacher saw similar results from her students as the other two in terms of their reading ability and other skill attainment, but her students also seemed much more enthusiastic about school and seemed to retain more of their natural curiosity and ability to think creatively by the end of the year.

      I understand why we have standardized test, and I don't disagree with the concept; however, they tend to make teachers teach in ways they might not ordinarily. Their focus ends up being less about helping young people learn and more about helping them "play the game of school." There is definitely an element of reality in the idea of "playing the game"--young people need to be able to navigate the rules and regulations of society, and school does help them prepare for this. But in the mean time, they can also be encouraged to continually tap their curiosity, think creatively, and love learning. I think teachers can be encouraged and trained to do both.

  4. Hello there, I am Mumbai, India based Pro Photographer and have been teaching various students the basics of Photography as an art form. The issue I face regularly is youngsters do not have curiosity. I have been conducting tours to places in our city where they have not been at all. However whatever they see, they do not react the way any curious person reacts.
    I read all of the above comments made by professionals and experienced individuals. However I was not able to get a concrete answer to this issue.
    What I was thinking was, giving them a tough assignment so that they need to inquire, communicate with locals to get information about the place, people etc. Will this work?

  5. Hello, Shekhar. I like your idea of giving them a challenge, and I do think that could work. Another thing to consider--how well do you know these youngsters? Perhaps getting to know their interests as well as experiences could help you tap into photography subjects that would intrigue them. I know if I'm even having a bad day, I'm less likely to care enough to be curious; if their life experiences have jaded them in any way, this can affect how they see the world. If at all possible, allow them to choose what they photograph. This makes it much more logistically difficult for you, but is the best way to engage them. Show them how to ask questions about what they see--inspire them to capture those questions with the camera. Help them see the most mundane thing in a new way through the lens of the camera. Maybe you could start with some mini-challenges, such as, "help me see this sidewalk in a new way." Maybe challenging them to see something new in the everyday things will help them tap their curiosity. You could also consider asking them questions that they have to find the answer to with their camera. "what is beautiful about this sidewalk? What is ugly? What do you see that expresses richness? What expresses sadness?" Your enthusiasm is likely to carry forward to them, too, so modeling for them that curiosity is also a good idea.

  6. Thanks Jessica, for your advice. The idea you shared about seeing what is good or ugly in the 'sidewalk'...this is what I actually did during early years of my photography career. I started from my backyard and went on to places where there was nothing interesting to photograph.
    I did try this with the students during my recent photo tour. However it is a game of patience and I'll see the results in couple of months now.
    I really thank you for taking out time to answer my query. Your post has encouraged me to continue on the path I have chosen.

  7. Hi , i am Aleena. A good blog post regarding the curiosity in kids. Children are naturally curious. Nurturing children's curiosity is hard work. The best way for parents and teachers to encourage children's curiosity is to stay curious themselves. Also i would like to share another blog which i read about the curious learners about the kids, it was an informative blog. Check out here for more :


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