By Kayla Craig
Kids ask amazing—and often perplexing—questions about, well, everything. As grown-ups, we often feel the pressure to have all the answers, whether our kids are wondering about why dandelions are yellow or why the sun sets later in the summer.
The seemingly endless amount of kid-questions can leave parents scratching their heads and scrambling for answers. But instead of pulling out just the right answer to their curiosities, what if parents sat in wonder with the youngest among us instead? Because asking questions—not just gathering facts—is an important part of learning.
Embracing the wonder of nature
Young children seem to be innately curious about nature. They haven’t yet learned not to ask all those why. how, and what if questions. Spend much time with a preschooler or elementary-aged child and you’ll experience how questions will bubble up seemingly out of nowhere—especially as they explore the outdoors.
“Curiosity and wondering is natural in kids. Every human being is born with this innate curiosity and wonder and need to know about the world and how the world works. We are all born with that. The hard part is making sure the kids don’t lose that,” said Jorge Cham, co-creator and executive producer of “Elinor Wonders Why,” a PBS show that encourages young children to follow their curiosity, ask questions when they don’t understand, and find answers using science inquiry skills.
My kindergartener hammers me with questions every time we take a neighborhood walk with quandaries like: Why are there worms after the rain? What if rain was made out of lemonade? Why are lemons sour? Instead of finding these questions a distraction, I wonder what would happen if I allowed myself to enter into wonder alongside my children when curiosity calls. What a relief that I don’t have to be an expert. My job as a parent is not to be a walking search engine, but to simply empower my children to embrace questions and to create family rhythms where we can wonder and learn together.
“As parents, time is short. You’re trying to get places. Your kids are curious,” Cham said. “If your kid comes up to you with a question, you don’t have to have an answer. You can reflect it back on them. Let them take the lead. Think through it and see what kind of things you can observe together.” What would it look like to not reply with ‘Hurry up!’ when your son stops to examine and wonder about an ant hill? What if you slowed down, took a minute to explore and observe, and let yourself wonder with him?
How can grown-ups welcome wonder into everyday routines with their kids this summer? To find out, we talked to both Cham and Daniel Whiteson, who is also a co-creator and executive producer of “Elinor Wonders Why.” (They’re both parents, too!) Here are six simple ways to incorporate wonder into your family life:
Remember there are no silly questions. “It’s sort of our job to wonder. I’m a scientist and, every day, my job is driven by asking questions about the universe and wondering how it might work. The questions never end,” Whiteson said. “We don’t want kids to think you ask questions and then you grow up and the question stage is done. It can continue forever—and hopefully it’s a lifetime of learning.”
Ask questions together. “If your kid comes up and has a question, you don’t have to have an answer. See what kind of things you can observe together.” So the next time your child asks questions, reply with something like: “That’s a great question, what do you think? What do you think about finding the answer together? What are things we can observe?”
Model being a lifelong learner to your children by following your own curiosity. Cham put it this way: “In our everyday lives, we have so much pressure to get things done and be here and do this and that. Sometimes we forget to follow our curiosity and own interests. Think about what motivates you and what you’re passionate about—you might find yourself going down a rabbit hole following your curiosity—a journey to your whole self.”
Life is full of structured opportunities, but downtime and independent play has its benefits, too. Cham and Whiteson agree that weekends and school holidays are ideal times for embracing unstructured play, making space for downtime, and letting your children even become a bit . . . bored. Finding something fun to do will engage their creativity.
“It’s good and useful to plan ahead a little bit to leave some time in your kids’ schedule for them to be a little bit bored, so they can follow their own thinking and curiosity,” Cham said. “Leaving room in your schedule for idle time is good.” Cham’s own parents provided resources (think books or magazines, tools and trinkets) to aid in his own curiosity and wonder, but left him plenty of time to tinker, something that he is grateful for today as a scientist and creator.
Embrace everyday questions. Talk it out! Whether you’re folding laundry, sharing a meal, or heading outside, pay attention to the questions nestled in the seemingly ordinary moments of life. Cham and Whiteson think of curiosity like a muscle that can be strengthened every day. Name your own observations and then ask your children to do the same. “Everyone is a scientist at some level—we’re all asking questions,” Cham said. “It’s a skill that is important in everyday lives.”
Empower problem-solving. “We want to encourage curiosity in kids because it helps them figure out who they are,” Whiteson said. “One of the biggest challenges in life is figuring out what excites you, what gives you passion.”
He encourages parents to provide kids with books, magazines, shows, and tools—and then give them space to ask, explore, and learn. “This kind of wondering and curiosity is really important to encourage kids to know themselves.”
Before jumping in with answers to your children’s curious questions, give them space to figure it out themselves. “We want to give kids power. If they have a curious thought or something they wonder, they can be active about finding the answers themselves,” Cham said. “There’s a lot they can do on their own to make observations, think things through, and ask people.” #
Kayla Craig is author of To Light Their Way: A Collection of Prayers & Liturgies for Parents. She’s also a mom to four curious and messy young kids.