“Why are we still at home?” Fostering children’s questions during COVID-19

Mom, why do penguins have wings?

Because they were born with them.

But, why do they have them, if they can’t fly?

Because their wings help them swim.

Why?

Because they’re like flippers in the water.

Why are they like flippers?

They just are.

This type of conversation is nothing new to parents of young children. The constant “why’s” of childhood can be exasperating, as children repeatedly push for more and more information. But despite the challenging nature of these moments, these “why” questions are actually quite important for children’s learning: They show adults what children want to learn (Callanan & Oakes, 1992), reveal what they are naturally curious about, and help them gain information about the world around them. In the example above, the child learned that penguins’ wings are not meant to help them fly at all, but to help them swim. In this case, the child’s causal questions, aimed at gaining explanations, were persistent: She wanted specific information and was unsatisfied with her mother’s initially circular answer.

Research suggests that children demonstrate these persistent questioning behaviors often, sometimes even coming up with their own answers and explanations when parents don’t give a satisfying answer (Kurkul & Corriveau, 2018). Even infants do this. Although babies can’t ask verbal questions, they use pointing gestures to request information from adults (Kovacs et al., 2014). Infants are also persistent — they continue pointing when an adult provides an unsatisfying answer to their nonverbal query (Lucca & Wilbourn, 2019).

Although asking questions is commonplace in childhood, the “new normal” brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic may affect children’s inquiries. As many news outlets and school announcements remind us, we are currently living in “unprecedented times” in the wake of the virus. How does a worldwide pandemic affect children’s questions?

The research is clear: Children ask questions about the world and persist in asking their questions when they aren’t satisfied with the answers. Why? Because children are curious and know that adults can provide them with rich information. Children’s questions become even more incredible when we open our eyes to the complexities that allow questions to flow so seamlessly from their mouths: They must identify where they need information, come up with a question to address the gap in their knowledge, and direct their query to an appropriate, knowledgeable person.

Although asking questions is commonplace in childhood, the “new normal” brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic may affect children’s inquiries. As many news outlets and school announcements remind us, we are currently living in “unprecedented times” in the wake of the virus. How does a worldwide pandemic affect children’s questions?

During stay-at-home orders, children may have fewer experiences with other children and adults. Research suggests that as preschoolers develop, they become more skilled at directing their questions to appropriate people (Choi et al., 2018). For example, they learn over time that some questions will be answered better by adults than by children. Without practice asking questions and evaluating responses from different children and adults, children may not be as well prepared to ask and answer questions.

Additionally, children are missing out on many of the stimulating experiences they had before the pandemic, experiences that prompt curiosity and questions. For example, one study found that children asked fewer questions when viewing replicas or drawings of animals than when viewing live animals in a zoo (Chouinard et al., 2007). Questions about penguins’ wings, for example, might just not get asked. Television or videos don’t promote that much inquiry, either: Young children do not learn as much from television as they do from live interactions (Anderson & Pempek, 2005). Nor do electronic toys or tablets seem to spur children’s questions as often as real interactions do (Neale et al., 2020).

How can we expose children to objects and events to stimulate their questions during quarantines? Here are several ideas you can try:

  1. Demonstrate how to ask questions. Even during a pandemic, children mimic what they see. Parents who ask questions have children who ask more questions. Instead of asking simple yes/no questions, try asking open-ended questions that use why and These are questions that get children thinking. Kids learn words more successfully when the words are presented as parts of questions rather than as statements.
  2. Curiosity spurs questions. Look at what your child is looking at. If you ask them a question, they might then ask you one. On a walk or in a park, ask questions about what you see. There is so much to query, for example, why do leaves fall off trees? Even watching a snow plow salt the roads can spark children’s curiosity. Why does salt make the snow melt? These experiences can elicit genuine, causal questions from children. Sometimes, children just need to be given the opportunity to ask. And we need to have the impetus to use the web to find the answers.
  3. Parents’ attention enables questions. Preliminary research in our lab suggests that children are more likely to ask questions when their parents are undistracted than when the adults are using their cell phones. It’s difficult to separate work and home during the pandemic, but try to reserve some time each day that is off limits for phones. Putting your phone away can signal to children that you are available, listening, and ready to respond to their questions.

Children are curious. They want to know.  And digital babysitting leaves that thirst for knowledge unsatiated. Although the pandemic certainly raises obstacles to some of the experiences that typically stimulate children’s questions, parents have the power to increase children’s inquiry, even at home.

Header photo: Tinuke Bernard. Unsplash.

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