Curiosity helps young children learn

This study won’t come as a surprise to many of you, as it shows that curious children are better able to grasp basic math and reading. The effect is small but significant. And there is more to this insight, there is also a link with socio-economic status, as the researchers found that for children from poorer communities, curiosity is even more important for higher academic achievement than for children from more well-off backgrounds, and may serve as a potential target of intervention to close the achievement gap associated with poverty.

The researchers in fact suggest that curiosity should also be targeted next to the present executive function hype.

From the press release:

Curious children are better able to grasp basic math and reading. This is according to a group of researchers from the University of Michigan, led by Prachi Shah. The study in the journal Pediatric Research, which is published by Springer Nature, is the first to investigate a possible link between curiosity and early academic success among young children.

Children who have developed a wide range of socio-emotional skills are generally more successful when they start school. These skills include invention, imagination, persistence, attentiveness to tasks, as well as the ability to form relationships and manage feelings. According to Shah, most current early learning interventions focus on improving a child’s effortful control which includes their ability to concentrate or control impulses. Very few interventions aim to cultivate curiosity in young children – a trait that Shah describes as the joy of discovery, and the motivation to seek answers to the unknown.

Data for the current study were drawn from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort. This nationally representative population-based study sponsored by the US Department of Education has followed thousands of children since their birth in 2001. Their parents were interviewed during home visits and the children were assessed when they were nine months and two years old, and again when they entered preschool and kindergarten. In 2006 and 2007, the reading and math skills and behavior of 6200 of these children then in kindergarten were measured.

“Our results suggest that after controlling for other factors associated with higher achievement, curiosity continues to make a small but meaningful contribution to academic achievement,” explains Shah.

This trait was found to be as important as effortful control in promoting reading and math academic achievement at kindergarten age. This was especially true for children who showed an eagerness to learn new things. The relationship between a child’s curiosity and academic achievement was not related to a child’s gender or levels of effortful control.

“These findings suggest that even if a child manifests low effortful control, high curiosity may be associated with more optimal academic achievement,” adds Shah. “Currently, most classroom interventions have focused on the cultivation of early effortful control and a child’s self-regulatory capacities, but our results suggest that an alternate message, focused on the importance of curiosity, should also be considered.”

The researchers explain that fostering curiosity may be especially important for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

“Our results suggest that while higher curiosity is associated with higher academic achievement in all children, the association of curiosity with academic achievement is greater in children with low socioeconomic status,” says Shah. She adds that children growing up in financially securer conditions tend to have greater access to resources to encourage reading and math academic achievement, whereas those from poorer communities grow up in less stimulating environments.

“In such situations, the drive for academic achievement is related to a child’s motivation to learn, and therefore his or her curiosity,” explains Shah. “Our results suggest that the promotion of curiosity may be a valuable intervention target to foster early academic achievement, with particular advantage for children in poverty.”

Abstract of the study:


Although children’s curiosity is thought to be important for early learning, the association of curiosity with early academic achievement has not been tested. We hypothesized that greater curiosity would be associated with greater kindergarten academic achievement in reading and math.


Sample included 6200 children in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort. Measures at kindergarten included direct assessments of reading and math, and a parent-report behavioral questionnaire from which we derived measures of curiosity and effortful control. Multivariate linear regression examined associations of curiosity with kindergarten reading and math academic achievement, adjusting for effortful control and confounders. We also tested for moderation by effortful control, sex, and socioeconomic status (SES).


In adjusted models, greater curiosity was associated with greater kindergarten reading and math academic achievement: breading = 0.11, p < 0.001; bmath = 0.12, p < 0.001. This association was not moderated by effortful control or sex, but was moderated by SES (preading = 0.01; pmath = 0.005). The association of curiosity with academic achievement was greater for children with low SES (breading = 0.18, p < 0.001; bmath = 0.20, p < 0.001), versus high SES (breading = 0.08, p = 0.004; bmath = 0.07, p < 0.001).


Curiosity may be an important, yet under-recognized contributor to academic achievement. Fostering curiosity may optimize academic achievement at kindergarten, especially for children with low SES.

2 thoughts on “Curiosity helps young children learn

  1. “Elk kind, letterlijk elk kind, heeft in zich honderd maal meer werkdrift, honderd maal meer lust om zich uit te sloven, dan honderd van de allergeraffineerdste commandeerpedagogen er ooit in kunnen brengen. Ik wil het kind dan ook niet ”sparen”. Ik wil het niet “verwekelijken”, ik wil het laten werken, harder dan ooit iemand maar kan hebben gewild. Maar het werk moet passen bij de kinderaard, het moet mogelijk zijn voor het kind. (Uit “het Grijze kind” van Theo Thijssen, blz. 39). Hier meer:

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