The Case for Curiosity

Oh, the THINKS you can think up if only you try! –Dr. Seuss

For many years I have kept a list of invention ideas. I am not a builder by any means. I possess no engineering knowhow, and likely little aptitude for design. I could not make a single one of the things on my invention list, though I’ve been told by others that some of them are brilliant. The only tools these hands are any good at using for invention are words, my only final product, writing.

But I am good at wondering, at dreaming, at imagining possibilities. I am curious about the world, and learning about the things I am curious about frequently only makes me more curious. Today I watched a squirrel climb the elm in front of my house; I marveled at how the how the elm’s bark and the squirrel’s fur were nearly the same color. I wondered if in other parts of the country where trees were different colors, if they had less squirrels because they lacked appropriate camouflage. I wondered about how the squirrel moved up and down the tree so quickly—did he use his claws to help his paws to grasp the bark, did his bushy tail help him balance? I was curious about what the squirrel was thinking as he went up and down that tree beyond my window. Was he searching for food, or was there some other reason for his movements?

These days it would take me little effort to find out more about squirrels; I have the Internet at my fingertips, and knowledge is gained much more easily than when I was young as a result. It is a tool I frequently take advantage of when a question crosses my mind. And the question that has been crossing my mind recently is this—are some people just born more curious than others, or is curiosity a trait that must be nurtured?

As a teacher, a parent, and simply as a curious person myself, this question seems somehow important. I watch my small son bang things together, learn to separate blocks by size, learn to balance things carefully on top of other things, and think, here is a curious soul, one clearly born that way. Yet, as a teacher, I all too frequently feel despair when students resist research, and, when given freedom to choose a topic of interest to them (as long as it is narrow enough for the size of the essay), can’t think of a single thing they would be interested in learning more about. What has happened in the intervening years to make these students so lacking in curiosity? Is it simply fate? The way they were born? And, if not, is there a way to bring it back?

In an article from the April 2014 issue of the Atlantic, author Hanna Rosin writes of how the loss of free play and the rise of overly protective parents leads to children who become not only less confident adults, but also ones who are less creative. Does this mean that children who are allowed to indulge their curiosity about the world and how things in it work by pushing boundaries or taking risks, building new spaces for themselves to play in,  and using objects in unconventional ways (tarp and tree limb fort? Snow shovel turned sled? ), will perhaps become adults more inclined to retain a curious nature?

Am I, as a parent, responsible for my son’s future sense of wonder?  Will he too, someday watch a squirrel and be curious as to what it is thinking, or about how those eyes process shapes or even color? Will he stare at a night sky and wonder how far the star light has traveled, how far it is traveling even now, if the fact that he is seeing the light means that some part of him, perhaps his soul, is also traveling? What will be the thinks he will think, if only he’ll try?

One thought on “The Case for Curiosity

  1. While I don’t think you are responsible for your son’s future sense of wonder, you can definitely foster it (or squelch it, but obviously that is not your style). Let’s hear it for free play!

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