Research from the University of Michigan suggests encouraging curiosity is essential for children’s development and learning.

By encouraging questions and allowing children to ask about things that naturally interest them, learning could be accelerated – especially for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Researchers from the University of Michigan CS Mott Children’s Hospital and the Centre for Human Growth and Development investigated curiosity in 6,200 children as part of the US Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. They gauged levels of curiosity when the children were babies, toddlers and preschoolers, using parent visits and questionnaires.

They then went on to test reading, maths and behaviour in kindergarten, where they found the most curious children performed best. Disadvantaged children in particular had the strongest connection between curiosity and performance.

Furthermore, the researchers found that when it came to good school performance, the ability to stay focused and not be distracted was not as important as curiosity – the ability to ask questions.

Dr Prachi Shah, assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan, said: “Promoting curiosity in children, especially those from environments of economic disadvantage, may be an important, under-recognised gap.

“Promoting curiosity is a foundation for early learning that we should we should be emphasising more when we look at academic achievement.”

Children are born curious, as asking questions is one of the critical ways humans adapt to learn. In 2007, researchers measuring questions asked by children found that those aged 14 months to five years asked an average of 107 questions an hour.

However, research from Susan Engel, author of The Hungry Mind and a leading international authority on curiosity in children, found that questioning drops significantly once children start school. Her team found that the youngest child in an American suburban elementary school asked between two and five questions in a two-hour period. As the children got older they stopped asking altogether. In two-hour stretches in fifth grade (year 6), some 10 and 11-year-olds failed to ask their teacher a single question.

Engel said: “When you visit schools in many parts of the world, it can be difficult to remember they are full of active, intellectual children, because no one is talking about their inner mental lives.

“How well they behave and how well they perform seem much more important to many people in the educational communities. Often educational bureaucracies have shunted curiosity to the side.”

It is not surprising that high performing students studied by American researchers in 2013 were found to be less curious, because they saw curiosity as a risk to their results. Any questions asked were aimed at improving their results, whereas questions asked by more curious students were aimed at understanding a topic more deeply.

Encouraging curiosity in school

Though teachers who encourage and enhance curiosity do exist, Engel says, these approaches are usually down to an individual rather than a systematic school-wide approach.

Ilminster Avenue nursery school in Bristol, UK took the radical step last year of removing most of its toys for two-year-olds and replacing them with cardboard boxes, tin cans, pots and pans, old phones, kettles, computers, plumbing supplies, and anything else that could be used creatively.

Matt Caldwell, Ilminster’s headteacher, says the children took to the new items immediately, making slides for building blocks with guttering; dens and spaceships with the boxes and having conversations with imaginary people on old phones. Most haven’t asked for the toys back, and sceptical parents have been convinced due to the increase in creativity and conversation seen in the children.

“What children love is to copy what adults are doing with objects. What people and objects do makes them curious about their world,” he says.

Importance of curiosity at school

Headteacher Matt Caldwell has replaced most toys in his nursery with cardboard boxes and other real-life objects.

“School kills curiosity. When do children get to ask questions about things that interest them? As soon as they are at primary school they have to shut up and learn. It’s not the fault of teachers. They have so many targets to meet.”

Meanwhile, Paul Howard-Jones, professor of neuroscience and education at Bristol university, suggests that children should be prompted and encouraged to ask questions by the teacher and that schools need to find time for questions during the day.

“There is not enough time in schools for creativity and following up on creativity,” he says.

Off the back of this latest research, teachers who concentrate on developing focus and good behaviour now need to take on board that developing curiosity could be even more important.