Here's a short piece I recently wrote about curiosity, and how it applies to kids' experiences at summer camp:  


You’ve heard about curiosity killing the cat.  And about Pandora, whose curiosity released evil into the world.  But the more I think about it, the more I believe that curiosity is one of the most positive human characteristics—one we should try to develop in our children, and in ourselves.

Think about the powerful role it can play in the classroom, motivating students to learn, to pay attention, and to work hard.  Think about the powerful role it can play in parenting, allowing us to look beyond our child’s actions to what’s actually motivating their behavior, so we can be more effective in the discipline process (which is all about teaching). 

Recently I became curious about curiosity and decided to see what science has to say about the subject.  The Carnegie-Mellon researcher George Loewenstein defines “curiosity” pretty simply:  it’s when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”.[1] In this gap, the want motivates us to seek, to persist, and to learn.  We feel an eagerness and an inquisitiveness mixed together to know more, and we typically keep chasing it down to quell that drive.  Some people have compared it to an itch we need to scratch.   

What I found most interesting is that curiosity activates the learning centers, the memory centers, and the reward centers of the brain.[2]  When these different areas of the brain are active, we can learn more and remember more, then be chemically rewarded for our spirit of inquiry.  Basically, the anticipation we feel between wanting to know and starting to know makes us more receptive to learning and causes us to feel pleasure in the chase. 

I’m curious about how you might feel about your kids and curiosity these days.  When are they most curious?  Does school invoke their curiosity?  Or squash it?  Do they have the time or inclination for a spirit of inquiry? 

I’ll tell you that when I’m observing kids and counselors at camp, I see curiosity continually emerging.  Being in an environment away from their typical lives, away from technology, and immersed in nature that is always changing and even unpredictable, kids have the time, space, and natural inclination to explore and discover.  Further, kids at camp curiously anticipate, on a daily basis, what wildlife they’ll see, what goofy things their counselors have planned, what challenges lie ahead, etc.  

Since we know that curiosity makes us better able to learn, I wonder if this environment, where curiosity runs wild, is part of why kids learn so much more about themselves, and their social and emotional intelligence can take significant leaps in the weeks they’re at camp. 

The research on curiosity supports this speculation.  Studies show that when the “curiosity switch” gets flipped on, a person’s brain becomes more receptive—not only to learning about the subject the person was initially curious about, but to learning in general.  So when kids at camp become curious about how to, for example, bait a hook or sail a boat, their brains become more capable of learning all kinds of other important lessons regarding relationships and resilience and even self-understanding.  (Sneaky, huh?)

Watch for ways right now to incite curiosity in your kids as they think about camp this summer.  Ask them questions about their camp counselors, activities, and friends.  The anticipation of wondering and sitting in that gap between what they know and what they want to know will give them pleasure as they count down the days until it’s time to go to camp.  Then the real learning can begin.  

[1] Loewenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. "Psychological Bulletin," 116(1), 75-98. 

[2] Gruber, M. J., Gelman, B. D., & Ranganath, C. (2014). States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit. Neuron.