Along with motivation, curiosity is the one of the best and most direct paths to learning new things. Encouraging curiosity in children is a crucial role parents need to play in developing their child's intellect. Children will stay curious as long as they are allowed to explore, discover and ask questions. It's that easy!
If your child is non-verbal and unable to ask questions remember that there are many ways to be curious. Never assume that a child cannot learn just because he can't articulate a question. Every child's level of curiosity will be unique.
Young children tend to show their curiosity in various capacities. Children with good communication skills may be verbally inquisitive and their constant questioning, the "whys" and "why not's", can drive you nuts! This is when parents need to practice patience.
Other children on the spectrum explore their world more quietly because their ability to communicate is challenged. But as parents pay careful attention, they are able to notice what catches their child's fancy and build on it.
Your autistic child, verbal or not, may be curious about many things on her own but depending on where she falls on the autism spectrum this exploration may become hyper-focused, excessive, repetitive and cause her to escape from the world around her. Sometimes this is a coping skill kids on the autism spectrum will use when sensory overload occurs.
In situations such as these it is important to remember that curiosity and exploration becomes much more functional when it is interactive. Steering your child's curious mind in a positive direction by joining in with him will not only expand his cognitive intellect but his ability to socialize as well.
Regardless of your child's abilities, discovery and learning is most pleasurable when it is shared with someone else. A young child's learning is reinforced when it is experienced with a loving caretaker who offers a positive comment or gesture.
When exploration is pleasurable it reinforces additional attempts to learn new things and prepares a child to become an active life long learner. Repeated curiosity ensures mastery of new skills, builds confidence and increases self-esteem along the way, which leads to a sense of security for more exploration.
If you want to reinforce curiosity in your child in order to encourage an internal motivation for life-long learning, here are some helpful tips:
1 - Be patient with questions. "What for?" "How come?" and "Why?" can seem like a broken record at times but this is a sign that your child is internally motivated to understand his world and how it works. Providing a quick and simple answer will often satisfy your inquisitive one. Sometimes, it is effective to turn the tables and ask your verbal child, "What do you think?"
When the timing is not favorable for a litany of questions to be asked, such as bedtime, it is time to set some boundaries with a reply such as, "Our time for questions is over and we need to keep the others for tomorrow. It's time for sleep now."
2 - Give your child voice. If your child is non-verbal or challenged with language why not bring the questions to her. As you and your child experience your day together, find opportunities to formulate questions that will make her think - questions that you think she might ask if she were more able to. After a short pause, verbalize possible answers to your question.
Any simple task or even a common household item such as a window screen provides an opportunity for posing questions that will stimulate brain cells to make vital connections. "Why do houses have screens?" "What would happen if they didn't have them?" etc
3 - Create new adventures from everyday experiences. Make being outside an enticing learning experience. A walk in the park can be transformed into a treasure hunt or scientific laboratory that is ripe for promoting new learning. A child who explores their natural environment benefits from using all five of their senses, which stimulates brain development in more ways than one.
4 - Develop questioning conversations when the timing is good for you. Take advantage of breaks in your busy schedule or quiet opportunities for discussion, like driving in the car, to formulate your own inquires that stimulate your child to think. Conversations such as this, that are scheduled on your time clock, will allow you to give your full attention to your child and how his brain thinks or his body responds.
If your child is stumped by your questions let him know it's all right by responding, "That's OK, let me tell you what I think." Once you share your information in a respectful way your child may have something to add. If your child is nonverbal and unable to contribute you are still stimulating connections in his brain simply by trying to engage him.
5 - Revitalize your curious side. The more you share your own inquiring mind with your child, the more it will spark their interest. Try making your inquisitiveness contagious. A good time to do this is when you are reading a story together by asking aloud, "What do you think will happen next?" or "I wonder how this story will end?" When doing daily chores invite your child to problem solve with you by asking for their input. "What do you think would happen if we never took the trash out?"
6 - Ask, "What If?" or "What else?" Asking your child to take their thinking one step further will certainly help develop and expand their brain's capacity for learning. Asking, "What would the birds do if it snowed today?" could lead your child to respond in many ways. Any answer should be validated and followed up with "What else might happen?" In prodding your child to establish new ways of thinking, you are modeling a joy of discovery. Just remember, the focus is not about getting the correct answer but more about engaging them in a conversation.
Do you still need to be convinced of the benefits that come from engaging in the inquiry process with your child? Once you realize the power of stimulating your child's curiosity and all the brain cell connections that it makes, you can trust that it is rewiring your child's brain in a positive way.
If a young child's curiosity is encouraged in an open and enjoyable manner learning will always be seen as something pleasant. What better gift can a parent provide!
About the Author
Connie Hammer, MSW, parent educator, consultant and coach, guides parents of young children recently diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder to uncover abilities and change possibilities. Visit her website http://www.parentcoachingforautism.com to get your FREE resources - a parenting ecourse, Parenting a Child with Autism - 3 Secrets to Thrive and a weekly parenting tip newsletter, The Spectrum.