During a presentation for a parent’s group, I was once asked what preschoolers need most to prepare them academically.

I’m sure some would have loved tips on building early readers or how to get a jump start on math skills (both important, to be sure), but what I really believe young children need goes beyond even those basic skills.“Honestly,” I said, If I had to pick one thing, it would be for them to simply keep their curiosity. Everything else will follow.”

Albert Einstein’s name is synonymous with genius. The man was brilliant, but what set him apart was not just his ability to master the theories of his day, but to take them one step further. To see what had not been seen and to wonder about what could not yet be known. Einstein himself once said,“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

Curiosity and creativity are often inextricably intertwined. It is the ability to ask, “Why?” and “What if?” It is the ability to think creatively beyond the bounds of what is known, and it is the driving force behind every innovation and advancement in every discipline and at each of their intersections.

It is commonly said that children are naturally curious. Sometimes, however, that fountain of curiosity becomes blocked with our focus on making sure they have the answers rather than the process of getting them. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman cover this in The Creativity Crisis:

“Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 question a day. Why, why, why — sometimes parents just wish it’d stop. Tragically, it does stop. By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking. It’s no coincidence that this same time is when student motivation and engagement plummet. They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.”

We do our children a great service by engaging them in constructing knowledge rather than passively receiving it. Nurturing curiosity and teaching with inquiry put the focus on lighting the fire, rather than just the filling of the pail as William Butler Yeates explained, and it’s that fire that drives real learning, real innovation, and real creativity.

So how can you light the fire of curiosity? Here are a few ideas:

Ask questions.

Continue to encourage children to wonder why. Model by wondering aloud yourself, and engaging children in discussions that explore new ideas even when you don’t know the answers yourself.

Ask what they think about the things they see, the stories they read, and the events that unfold around them. It is necessary to give children directions and instruction, but it is vital to engage them in discussion. (Read more about How to Talk When You Teach.)

Even seemingly trivial questions create a pattern of wonder. “How do you think those window washers will get back down?” “Why do you think the bus was late today?” “What would happen if we….”


The first step is to wonder, but the next is to act. Explore new ideas. Whether it’s tweaking your favorite recipe or creating art from science, provide opportunities to act on natural curiosities and observe its outcome.

Exploration often begins the cycle again, creating new questions and ideas for new exploration. (See this cycle in action in the videos of TinkerLab’s DrawBot.) Expose children to new ideas and they will create new questions.

Support passions.

If your child is curious about animals, feed that passion with experiences, resources and discussions. Don’t wait for the animal science unit to come around in the school curriculum. Show that you value learning that is intrinsically motivated, not just motivated by a due date.

Allow for failure.

Curiosity is fostered when children know they are safe to make mistakes. As Thomas Edison said, “Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.” And he would know. His process to invent the lightbulb led to thousands of supposed disappointments. But instead of seeing a series of individual failures, he recognized the process leading him, step by step, closer to his goal.

Teach children to analyze and learn from mistakes, not to be punished for them. Renowned physicist Dr. Michio Kaku worries that an emphasis only on facts and figures and right and wrong answers is “crushing curiosity right out of the next generation.”

Encourage open-ended play.

Play is a natural conduit for creative curiosity. Allow children time to play. Outdoor play creates a perfect format for exploring nature as well as cultivating rich imaginative play. Indoors, provide children with creative toys that can be used in a variety of ways. Constructive toys like unit blocks, Legos, and marble tracks are a great start. So are props for dramatic play and true art experiences.

Don’t underestimate the value of loose parts and “beautiful junk” as well. Sometimes a cardboard box is the best creative toy money can’t buy.

Preserving a passionate curiosity in our young learners will likely do more to promote academic accomplishments than will an active pursuit of academics in and of themselves. Teach how to wonder, how to explore, how to passionately pursue, how to learn from failure, and how to play (with people, with objects, with ideas). The rest will follow.