In need of a mental jump-start, a little creative inspiration to get your mind’s wheels spinning? Look no further than our latest Citizen Kid, Naomi.
Though she’s only 17 and still in high school, Naomi is already an accomplished scientist and advocate for clean air. As a girl, Naomi saw her father and brother suffering from chronic allergies and wanted to do something to help them. Starting in the sixth grade, outside of school, she researched the relationship between our environmental and physical well-being. She collected air samples and lung health measurements to create a model that demonstrated how air quality affects the respiration of people with asthma. Her work was groundbreaking and earned her national recognition.
What’s more inspiring is the clear and articulate manner in which Naomi explains her research. This young woman knows her stuff, and her excitement for science shines bright in her eyes. Several times in the uplifting video, Naomi says the word “curious.” She was curious about air quality, and science in general, and she even volunteers time at a science museum where she excites other children to be curious too.
While we parents often worry about our kids learning discrete information like the alphabet and multiplication tables — things required for success in school — we often neglect more fundamental attitudes toward learning, like curiosity, which are necessary for success in life. Perhaps that’s because curiosity seems a harder thing to put your finger on, while it’s clear whether or not a child can count to ten. But take a look at the video above, and you can see how Naomi was raised in an environment that values curious, active thinking. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when it comes to feeding your own children’s curiosity:
1. Recognize that there is a difference between knowing facts and truly understanding them.
Understanding means you really get something, inside and out. You can make connections between different ideas, and, as Naomi’s science teacher says, take the concepts further by applying them in practical situations.
2. Try to encourage understanding over knowledge by asking why and how questions.
And the ever important, “So what’s the big deal?” It’s important to not just know a fact, but to know why that information is important or significant.
3. When you don’t know something, be honest and say, “I don’t know,” and then make a plan of how you can fill the gaps in your understanding.
Knowing what you don’t know is important, because it shows where you need to focus. Naomi’s study of lung health went beyond what existed before it. She didn’t simply accept what was out there; she asked what else there was to learn, what more could be done, and then she designed a study to further her understanding.
4. Expose your kids to a variety of different subjects, from art to history and science.
Naomi’s mother, Sonal, brought her kids to science centers and museums at an early age. “When they are young, their minds are like cotton,” she says. “They absorb a lot of things.” So give them many great experiences to suck up. My wife and I take our five-year-old son, Felix, to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and The New York Hall of Science, as well as art museums and even, now that he has a longer attention span, dance and puppet shows.
5. Help your children see that the concepts they are encountering in school really matter!
Remember, for every subject your child encounters in school, there are people using those skills out in the real world.
6. Don’t shy away from explaining complex ideas, even to your little ones.
As Naomi herself says, you can explain science to kids in simple terms. This morning, for example, Felix asked what time it would be in California. (I have no idea why.) He then wanted to know why there were different times all over the Earth. I used a sock ball to demonstrate how, since the Earth is a sphere, the sun’s light does not hit every part of its surface in the same way at the same time. “What if the Earth was a flat square?” he asked. We spread out the socks flat on the floor and saw that yes, the sun would then hit all points concurrently. We were actually on our way out the door for school when he asked this, but I stopped to take the time to explain it to him. Look for these kind of teachable moments, which are often (if not always) unplanned.
7. Approach the world with an open and curious mind yourself.
For a model of how to do that, look no further than Naomi. (And if you need more tips, check out this piece on Jonathan Mugan’s book The Curiosity Cycle, which provides even more strategies.) Ask questions! Be excited to learn new things! Always approach the world with an open mind and smile. This won’t just help your children, it’ll help you too. Curious people, I think, are happier ones.