According to a recent Independent UK article, curious children ask an average of 73 questions per day. Half of those questions many parents struggle to answer, often turning to Google or making something up on the spot. All this questioning begs a question: why do children ask so many questions, and how can parents and teachers help them harness this curiosity for optimal learning?
Why do kids ask so many questions?
Around age four, girls and boys alike seem to catch the curiosity bug, showering their parents with questions day and night.
“As children grow up it’s natural to be curious about the world around them,” said child psychologist Sam Wass, who was interviewed for the Independent piece. “As parents it’s easy to forget just how much of our children’s knowledge comes from what we tell them. But it can be tough to address the trickier topics–such as money and bedtime.”
Researchers at the University of Belgrade found that there are three types of questions most children ask: cognitive, social, and operational questions.
Cognitive questions, which children ask to get new information and satisfy their curiosity, can be classified as “questions about oneself and others, questions about the world around us, and questions about various activities.”
Social questions arise from children’s needs which only interpersonal contact and interaction can satisfy.
“Their purpose is interaction and they are classified as questions the purpose of which is to draw attention and make contact, validation questions, questions requiring confirmation, questions expressing disagreement, and questions referring to playing games,” writes Tanja Č. Glišić, who led the research.
Operational questions have been classified as either requests for help or requests for permission, while their basic function is “to provide a child with the necessary conditions for their activities.”
“Our classification shows that children ask questions for at least three essentially different reasons: to get information about something; to make contact with adults for the sake of the interaction itself and for what it offers (confirmation, consolation, attention, etc.); and to get the necessary permission or help to be able to act in accordance with their needs and wishes.”
As we can see, the story’s a bit more complex than trying to exhaust their caregivers night and day.
How do kids ask questions?
Children are clever, and quickly learn who to turn to for answers.
A 2012 study found that age and the ease of distinguishing between reliable and unreliable sources influence children’s ability to effectively question those sources to solve problems.
For the study, children aged 3 to 5 years old were introduced to a knowledgeable informant contrasted with an informant who always gave inaccurate answers or one who always indicated ignorance. Children were generally better at determining which informant to question when a knowledgeable informant was contrasted with an ignorant informant than when a knowledgeable informant was contrasted with an inaccurate informant.
In some cases, age also influenced the ability to determine who to question and what to ask, with older children often showing better judgment.
“In both experiments, the strongest predictor of accuracy was whether children had acquired sufficient information; successful problem solving required integrating knowledge of who to question, what to ask, and how much information to ask for,” the authors of the study wrote.
The fact that kids think carefully about who to ask and how raises a point about the significance of questions as manifestations of children’s interests and needs.
“Children’s questions should be given due attention and children themselves should be encouraged to ask as many different questions as they like,” says Glišić.
How can we help kids ask the right questions?
“Although children ask questions from a very early age, it does not mean that they automatically know how to pose questions that are useful for their learning,” says Birbili Maria at the School of Early Childhood Education in Thessaloniki, Greece. In her 2017 book, Supporting young children to ask productive questions, published by Early Childhood Australia, Maria explores how we can get curious kids on the right track.
“Any parent can confirm that most preschoolers ask what feels like innumerable questions each day, especially ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions,” she writes. “At the same time, studies of classroom talk suggest that the frequency and the quality of children’s questions drop as soon as they begin in an early childhood setting. The way educators treat children’s questions influences whether children will continue to pose questions in the classroom.”
It’s essential to support kids in asking questions that are useful for their learning, Maria says.
“When children ask real questions, that is, questions that stem from their desire to understand the world around them, their mind is more open to connections and learning feels meaningful.”
Part of that requires letting kids do some of the work themselves.
“When children are able to pose questions and explore the answers, they feel motivated to exercise their sense of agency and build their independence skills.”
The book includes practical strategies for improving children’s questioning skills in meaningful ways.
Taken together, the research suggests that questions are extremely important for childhood education. Even if your answers aren’t always on point, it will aid your child’s learning to let them ask as many questions as possible. Eventually, they’ll be finding the answers themselves.