Wednesday Wisdom

May 24, 2023

Wonder and Curiosity

By Dr Cassie Rhodes

Wonder and Curiosity


Last week’s Wednesday Wisdom focused on the new frontiers presented by artificial intelligence and how its potential influence is proving to be unsettling for children and adults alike. This week, I wanted to go back to beautiful basics and remind us all about some of the most fundamental aspects of learning and of innovation.

What quality or characteristic might save the world in the end? I would suggest curiosity. What do we need to protect us from the onslaught of social media, fake news or pernicious and toxic influencers? A sense of awe and wonder about the world around us. Guess which humans already demonstrate the kind of curiosity we need to see in all learners: babies. Toddlers too, often demonstrate the kind of ‘passionate curiosity’ that Einstein said made him special and generated his ideas. Early years teachers are the masters of developing and cultivating curiosity in young learners through patient scaffolding of conversations and tasks, attuning to a child’s natural interests and using language and questioning to open up their thinking. All of us can learn from them!

Curiosity matters because it leads to deep thinking. Once something captures our attention, we are transfixed, we ask questions, we ponder, we try things and then we re-evaluate how we think. Curiosity can ignite intellectual thought, awaken new perspectives and lead us into a state of flow and even deeper engagement. Curiosity is mindful and far from superficial. Indeed, curious learners are often deep learners too. Intellectual curiosity is one thing, but recently I have been talking and writing about the importance of being curious about our own and others’ emotions. Professor Marc Brackett refers to being an ‘emotion scientist’ as opposed to ‘judge’ as a key framework around which we can develop children’s emotional literacy. As an emotion scientist, you have to be brave and sometimes ask others how they are feeling. You have to avoid rushing to judgement or assumptions about people. Emotion scientists are likely to enjoy better relationships as they grow and develop, and to be more resilient too.

In the teen years, curiosity is rife; often about things that might make us feel worried and unsettled as parents! But curiosity about everything at that age is developmentally normal and to be welcomed. How we respond to our teens’ curiosity matters. If we shut it down, expect it to deepen and for young people to search up answers online (often not the best source of information). If we welcome their curiosity and attempt to open up conversation about what they already know, we offer a psychological safety net and safe place where dialogue can prosper. In modelling intellectual curiosity, we can also demonstrate the sort of intellectual humility that will allow our children to develop into great thinkers and able debaters: “I am not sure, but I am wondering if….”, “I might be wrong, but it strikes me that…”. These sentence starters also introduce the importance of remaining cognitively flexible whilst curious. If we are curious thinkers, we should be open to different perspectives, to changing our minds and to learning from others with whom we might empathise.

If you are looking for a way of developing your child’s curiosity, pay attention and attune to what catches their interest. What do they stop to look at or touch when you are out for a walk? What theme are they always drawn to in books or programmes? What do they ask a lot of questions about? What do they become absorbed in? As adults, we also have hobbies, interests and things we are very inquisitive about. Whatever those are, I think it is nice to share them with our children and to demonstrate that we are still open to learning new things and value curiosity. Show them it is ok to not know something and to be uncertain about things; being steeped in intellectual uncertainty is incredibly beneficial for them as they grow and develop in their own learning. It is in the discomfort that we enter that ‘stretch zone’ where meaningful thinking takes place and insight occurs. Whatever questions our children ask, thank them for asking them and comment on how interesting those questions are. You and I don’t need to know all the answers.


Last week, our Head of Research at Tooled Up Education interviewed Dr Marina Bazhydai from Lancaster University, a developmental scientist who specialises in understanding the development of wonder, curiosity and creativity in children and young people.

Firstly, it was striking that Dr Bazhydai refers to children as “young anthropologists”; not just independent learners, but also curious explorers of their environment and the people around them. From a very young age, babies investigate the social world, constructing knowledge through play and interactions with others. They are actively learning all the time, and even though they cannot yet verbalise these new understandings of the world, they are capable of demonstrating them in other ways.

In one of Dr Bazhydai’s most recent studies, she and her team found that from as young as 12 months old, babies are capable of distinguishing knowledgeable people in their environment from those who are less knowledgeable, and will look to them for more information when presented with a question that they do not know the answer to. How fascinating is that? Dr Bazhydai was able to discover this by the use of a non-intrusive head mounted camera that follows the infant’s gaze to see what and who they are looking at and for how long. It’s truly remarkable to think that before babies can even speak, they are able to process this amount of information about their surroundings and the people around them and actively and selectively participate in the transmission of knowledge.

More recent work by Dr Bazhydai and her team found that even younger infants (11 months) have the capacity to seek knowledge through social learning and social referencing, by actively soliciting information from adults who are likely to be knowledgeable and are likely to help them resolve any uncertainty. We all knew that babies were curious but did we know just how knowledge-hungry they are?

Although people often conflate the terms ‘curiosity’ and ‘wonder’, the two are actually quite different. Whilst curiosity refers to information seeking and active exploration, wonder has an emotional and reflective component. Wonder is an elusive state, which is difficult to define and therefore also challenging to measure. It has been described by Dr Bazhydai as a “rewarding mental state of pondering upon their discoveries with astonishment and excitement about embarking on further deeper enquiry into the phenomenon”. Studies have shown that it is associated with a desire to resolve uncertainty and a certain self-belief in one’s own curiosity and the importance of curiosity generally.

Currently, research into wonder tends to focus on slightly older children. Whilst we can speculate about what babies are thinking there is (as of yet) no way of measuring wonder in children so young. We do know that wonder in children is the quest for knowledge, that ability to seek to expand and enrich our understanding of new dimensions. Dr Bazhydai and colleagues define the concept of wonder as “probing the space of the possible and pushing the boundaries of what is known”. It’s strongly associated with dedicating time and space to reflect upon our experiences. So, how do we even begin to explore the concept of wonder in children? We know it is a thing, but how do we capture it?

Well, Dr Bazhydai and colleagues have found a way. Working with over 700 children in the Netherlands and 400 children in the United Kingdom, they have developed a tool (brilliantly) called the Wonder Chart; the first validated measure to map children’s experiences of wonder. It consists of ten different questions connected with carefully constructed vignettes (sometimes supported by pictures), in which particular situations and people’s responses are described. It also asks children directly about wonder; whether they know what it means, how often they experience it and what elicits it. The chart is designed to map out how children differ in their proneness to wonder, what evokes their wonder and the emotions that accompany it.

The same team is also seeking to evaluate how classroom activities and teachers’ interactions with primary aged children can be ‘more or less wonder-full, more or less hospitable to wonder, and more or less wonder-inviting and wonder-promoting’. This has led to the development of a questionnaire for teachers to find out to what extent wonder-promoting features are present in their classrooms and how frequently and openly they encourage imaginative exploration, along with a set of teaching strategies and school policy recommendations designed to stimulate wonder in children. These include being sensitive to children’s wonder, being a wonder role model by demonstrating one’s own wonder and fascination, stimulating them to explore and experiment, encouraging their meaning making with regard to lesson content, encouraging imagination, drawing children’s attention to the fascinating aspects of familiar objects or phenomena, facilitating contemplation, and creating an enriched environment. Food for thought for the classroom and beyond!


Parents might think that pricey ‘educational’ toys or even books are an optimal way of cultivating intellectual curiosity. But there is plenty of source material in the natural world to ignite interest. Dr Bahzydai recommends thinking about what captures your child’s interest first and foremost and then allowing them to lead you down that yellow brick road to further knowledge.

They might be naturally curious about space, for example. Ask them what they know about it, what they like learning about and what else they would like to know. Suggest you learn together. Where can we find out more? Who might know things about this topic? Fun facts about any topic that children can relay to family and friends are always good to share. Where they don’t have information, we can help them get comfortable with not knowing everything and the joy of trying to find out. Scaffold children’s natural curiosity by providing opportunities for varied exploration, but try not to interfere too much. Give them the space and time to guide their own learning and interests and try to resist quickly showing them the ‘right’ way to do things. Too much explicit teaching can inhibit exploration and creativity. We should aim to allow our children to innovate, think deeply and come up with creative solutions to problems. Encourage question asking, expose them to counter-intuitive evidence, probe further interest by asking follow up questions and encourage them to share their interests with others.

Dr Bazhydai notes that “playfulness, open-mindedness, thinking ‘outside the box’ describe a desirable and highly regarded state that children naturally engage in and most adults desperately crave.” Indeed, curiosity and creativity are prized possessions in the adult workplace and new research outlines the many benefits that curious minds add to professional settings. It turns out that curious employees are less likely to exhibit confirmation bias or stereotype others and are therefore less likely to make errors in decision-making. They are more likely to ask colleagues for input, are more innovative (in both creative and non-creative sectors), are less likely to be involved in conflict with others, share information more openly, listen more closely and tend to work well as part of a team. Why wouldn’t we want to cultivate it?

I think it is also always worth helping children to dwell on how curiosity can make them feel. It can be thrilling and exciting to uncover or discover things, but it can also feel puzzling when we can’t figure things out immediately and that is good too! Curious learners sometimes have to wait and see. Curious learners will make mistakes as they explore, take wrong turns and reach conclusions that might have to be reconsidered. It might feel uncomfortable and frustrating at times (a state that the Ancient Greeks referred to as ‘aporia’ – απορια-, meaning ‘without a path’). Great teachers know that this is actually an essential experience on the way to insight and understanding, especially with regard to new knowledge and we should strive to help our children recognise growth in the discomfort.

Sometimes, particularly in teens seeking independence and new experiences, curiosity can be associated with increased levels of risk. To mitigate this, it’s our job at home to build connectedness, maintain open communication and have supportive conversations to help them to manage impulses and make informed decisions. A week or so ago, I hosted a webinar with Fiona Spargo-Mabbs OBE and Asha Fowells from drugs education charity, The DSM Foundation. It might feel empowering to learn that data from NHS Digital shows that parents are the number one source of information for young people on both drugs and alcohol, with teachers not far behind. It’s reassuring to know that, in the main, young people do turn to trusted authority figures when curious about these new experiences.

We know that with this particular kind of curiosity, having clear, balanced expectations of behaviour (neither too strict, nor too lenient – both of which increase risk) and a strong set of family values, whilst still being flexible and responsive as children grow, are all protective factors. So too is our own curiosity! We should take an interest in our teens’ opinions and listen carefully to what they say. We should also avoid lecturing or focusing on threats or punishment. Drugs and alcohol may hold some appeal to our children and it’s important not to dismiss this. Our job is to help them weigh up the risks against what they might perceive to be the benefits. Nudge them to identify tricky situations and encourage them to take their time when thinking through decisions that involve risk, especially when they might feel tempted to find out what all the fuss is about. Provide honest and fact-based answers to any questions they have, and if you aren’t sure of the answer, cultivate that curiosity by looking them up together.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

Having read this week’s Wednesday Wisdom, do you now want to foster your child’s curiosity? Luckily, the Tooled Up library is packed with resources to stimulate their natural exploratory instincts. For example, why not:

Learn more about curiosity, wonder and creativity in babies and children in our interview with Dr Marina Bazhydai?

Find out how to ask questions that lead to higher order thinking?

Discover how to develop children’s interest in science?

Explore how to promote curiosity about other people’s feelings and become an ‘emotion scientist’ (for younger children and older children and teens)?

Identify how to manage teen curiosity about drugs and alcohol and support them with their decision-making?

Help them to work through and manage feelings of uncertainty and embrace them as steps on the journey to knowledge?