How to Encourage Curiosity and Passion for Learning in Your Student

June 19, 2019

Parents often wonder how to help their children reach their fullest potential. Here’s how you can encourage your child to pursue their passions and find inspiration in the world around them.

While some parents feel confident in their ability to provide everything their gifted child needs to succeed, most parents are a little less sure. It’s normal, and natural, to worry about providing the best opportunities for your children.

But just how do you do that? What are the “best opportunities” for a gifted child?

How do you encourage them to discover ideas and topics they’re passionate about?

How do you do this without going insane yourself, trying to stay ahead of the brilliant child you’re raising?

We can’t give you all the answers for every student, but in our experience working with thousands of the brightest students all over the globe, there’s only one place to start.

Let students discover what they love on their own terms.

Really. Let your kids figure stuff out for themselves. You can’t force them to love programming, any more than you can force them to love baseball or soccer. They have to discover the educational activity or sport that they love the most all on their own.

That means: let your kids play.

Let them tinker.

Let them explore the world around them and its many mysteries. Give them the space to discover things they find interesting, and then guide them to the resources they’ll need to cultivate their passions more fully.

That doesn’t mean you have to set up a schedule for their entire summer or winter break to be sure they’re exposed to the maximum number of arts or STEM educational opportunities possible.

Instead, there are countless ways you can show your child that learning is fun, and there are always things to learn from the world around them. You also don’t need to break the bank to do it! The first step is simply asking questions. You know your child best, so wait until they’re truly intrigued with a topic before investing the time and resources to help them pursue it in depth.

Not sure where to begin? Try the ordinary.  

For students in elementary and middle school, it may be easier to encourage them to just get up and try out new stuff. Activities like music, dance, or sports offer many benefits, as do after-school programs that help young learners to begin exploring ideas from math and physics. But while getting kids away from video games is a common goal, it can sometimes be hard to keep activities interesting enough. (As we’ll discuss later, though, video games aren’t always bad.)  

Sure, imagination, some mud and some sticks might be enough to play with for a while, but what else can you do to help stimulate your child’s mind?

Fortunately, for younger kids in particular, the question “But why does it work that way?” can be a never-ending source of enrichment. Taking apart a broken machine, growing a plant from seed, or looking up information together can be a fun bonding moment for you and your child; it’s also a great way to teach your child how to think critically about researching solutions. Learning to observe, find reliable information, and evaluate sources are skills that will help your child not just in school, but throughout their life.

Another good strategy is the often-recommended kitchen-helper tactic. Cooking something together and modifying the recipe—say, making two batches of cookies instead of one—is a great way to get little ones working with fractions, and basic cooking skills are also a generally important life skill. Gifted learners will crave more depth than just converting quarter-cups to tablespoons, though. And that’s where “But why?” comes in.

And, as anyone who’s ever met a toddler knows, the “But why?” question sometimes generates surprising insights. Researchers at MIT, for example, recently published findings about why it’s nearly impossible to break a dry spaghetti noodle into only two pieces, a question with a surprisingly long and respectable academic pedigree.

Think about that. Someone’s kid got into MIT and studied what shapes they could break spaghetti into, and what that tells us about the physics of long, thin objects. That student’s research was prompted by asking “But why?” at some point in their life about spaghetti noodles.

Don’t like spaghetti? That’s okay—pets are another great source of inspiration. Not all families can keep pets, but you can still encourage animal-based curiosity!

fence lizard with top of head visible to investigate for their third parietal eye

That lizard your child found in the yard yesterday? Lizards have three eyes! No joke, they really do. Encourage kids to look closely at the world around them, and to be inquisitive about anything and everything.

Kids are more immersed in technology than ever before—but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Even if your child has zero interest in hands-on activities, hates lizards, and only wants to play computer games, you can still have curiosity-developing discussions about what they care about.

Want to encourage story telling and critical thinking? Ask your kids about the storylines of their favorite games. Have them tell you why they like those storylines, and then invite them to imagine a different ending. For older kids, ask them what they’d change to make the game better, and have them explain why those changes are a good idea. How far you take this depends on your child, but imagining how to turn a favorite game into The Best Game Ever can be a lot of fun all on its own.

Or, for those of you who enjoy finding faults (come on, we all do it), watch a TV show with your kid and pay attention to the ways that characters use their cell phones or computers or other technology; you might find that it’s a little…um…fanciful. Sure, you don’t have to turn everything into a carefully structured teaching moment.  But being able to laugh at two people “hacking” from the same keyboard on a TV show is a lighthearted way to illustrate that not everything you see on TV is true, anyway.

Teenagers, too, can get excited about exploring the ways that stories can represent the world. For example, Dr. Thomas Beasley, the Assistant Campus Director for Language Arts at AoPS Academy Bellevue, likes using Skyrim’s Creation Kit to craft digital role-playing games set in ancient Greece. Dr. Beasley noted, “in order to craft the best and most immersive game, students needed to do more than just research the world of ancient Greece. They also had to think carefully about how to balance their creative impulses against the constraints imposed by the game software. And on top of that, they had to tell a meaningful story within the medium of a role-playing game. Several interesting problems rolled into one!”

While parents don’t need to invent an innovative programming and writing course like Dr. Beasley’s, it goes to show that video games can present amazing opportunities to encourage deep thinking and creative problem solving.

Games like Minecraft can get addictive for some kids, but others find that the constraints of world-building games can really help them explore advanced concepts. Did you know it’s possible to build discrete, functioning computers within Minecraft? It’s also something of a hobby for some Minecraft players to recreate entire copies of their favorite Pokemon games within the game.

If your child shows an enthusiasm for this type of video gaming, one of the best things you can do is teach them how to recognize their passions—and to describe those passions in ways that help other people appreciate their value. “I like copying other games in Minecraft” probably won’t help them get into Stanford, but saying “I recreated the core mechanics of a game published on one platform within another” just might.

Give your child the space to discover what interests them, then provide them with resources to pursue those interests further.

No two children are alike, and there’s no single path that will guarantee that your child gets into MIT, Harvard, or Yale.

Rather than focusing on the exact number of programming bootcamps your kid should attend before applying to Yale’s Class of 2032, give them space to discover what interests them. Even high school students faced with college applications this fall stand to benefit more from cultivating a genuine curiosity about a subject or a passion for learning than from stressing about a solid-but-not-perfect test score.

As a parent wanting to provide your gifted child with the best possible opportunities, you can also help your child by relaxing a little yourself. It’s okay if you don’t always know how to help your child with a particularly difficult homework question, for example. (Richard Rusczyk talks about how to cope with that exact problem in more depth here).

Try to keep both yourself, and your gifted student, focused on what excites them about learning. There’s time to pursue perfection later—but a passion for learning will help drive your child further in life than any test score.

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