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What Drives Preschoolers' Curiosity to Learn?

THURSDAY, July 1, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- Want to hold a preschooler's interest in learning something new? Give them just enough information to make them want to know more, a new study suggests.

This creates the perfect mix of uncertainty and curiosity in children, said researchers from Rutgers University, in New Jersey.

"There is an infinite amount of information in the real world," said lead study author Jenny Wang, an assistant professor of cognitive psychology at Rutgers. "Yet despite having to learn so much in such a short amount of time, young children seem to learn happily and effectively. We wanted to understand what drives their curiosity."

In a series of experiments, Wang and her colleagues measured how much children aged 3 to 5 knew about different "knowledge domains," using in-person and online storybooks that the researchers designed.

The investigators assessed the kids' ability to understand and comprehend a specific topic, such as contagion. They asked how children's current knowledge level predicts their interest in learning more about it, including whether someone will get sick after playing with a sneezing friend.

"Intuitively, curiosity seems to belong to those who know the most, like scientists, and those who know the least, like babies," said Wang, who directs the Rutgers Cognition and Learning Center. "But what we found here is quite surprising: It was children in the middle who showed the most interest in learning more about contagion, compared to children who knew too little or too much."

Children are not simply drawn to information by its novelty, the researchers found. They are naturally curious, but the difficult question is how to harness this natural curiosity, Wang said in a university news release.

"Ultimately, findings like this will help parents and educators better support children when they actively explore and learn about the world," Wang said.

The findings were published June 28 in the journal Psychological Science.

More information

Scholastic offers more thoughts on why young children are curious.

SOURCE: Rutgers University, news release, June 29, 2021

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