Trust (not "fun") is essential for children's curiosity

My favorite scene of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood can be found in week 1, episode 1 (1967). Mister Rogers goes to visit Mrs. Russellite (Barbara Russell) who wants to share her collection of lamp shades. I have watched and re-watched this scene more times than I can count. I have transcribed it to study the specifics of what is said. I have dreamed of it many times over many years. And now I have found a moment to write about it.

The scene itself is full of specific moves that a parent or educator could make with children exploring any ordinary material. Fred Rogers notices, nods, says “hmm hmm” and “oh.” He listens, smiles, and wonders aloud as Barbara puts various lamp shades on her head. “You’ve done it for years, you say?” “Were these all ones that your mother didn’t need anymore?” And my favorite line: “Most people don’t wear lamp shades, but that’s just your hobby, isn’t it?” Fred and Barbara are just talking, it seems. They are noticing and wondering aloud.

In a recent post on curiosity for the Fred Rogers Center, Hedda Sharapan highlights what we can learn from Fred about encouraging curiosity: model wondering and ask questions about familiar, everyday things.

These are consistent threads of practice from Fred throughout Neighborhood episodes and are particularly noticeable in his voice-over comments during Picture-Picture segments. In How to Make Ice Cream, we hear “Oh, my,” “What’s that?” “Why are all those pipes so white?” “I didn’t know that.” In How to Make Paper, we hear “Look at it swirling,” “Oh, it seems so wet,” “So it has to dry, I guess,” “Hmmm,” “That’s fun to watch.”

Something else, though, exists underneath this approach for nurturing wondering and curiosity. It is both invisible and essential—a deeply held trust in children and their interest in learning.

When Fred and Barbara talk slowly about lamp shades, they are trusting children to notice and care about the lamp shades along with them. They are not enticing or sparking or grabbing anyone’s attention. They are not telling children they should be interested in the lamp shades. They trust that children will be interested because everything (even an ordinary lamp shade) is inherently interesting.

There is no need to lure children into an experience of learning by manufacturing something “fun.” There are no gimmicks required to ignite children’s curiosity. No need for the fancy, shiny object. The curiosity is already there. The noticing and wondering itself is fun. A collection of lamp shades will do. A box of buttons. A cardboard tube and an old milk carton. A pair of wooden shoes. The turn of a minute passing on a clock.

Fred Rogers reminds us: “The temptation to do something faster, louder and flashier is one I don’t ever want to succumb to. People might look at it as vintage, but this has always been a program where the insides are much more important than the wrapping. Children’s attention can be grabbed by the wrapping, to be sure, but it’s the steady, trusting, solid message that endures” (Philadephia Inquirer TV Week, 8 March 1998, p. 5).

Some might say: “Okay, this sounds good, but it’s not practical.” “My students wouldn’t care about lamp shades.” “How could I possibly get my students to focus only on a button?” “Children are used to more choices and a faster pace.” “I wish I could trust children to motivate their own learning, but if I did, they would just ask me what they are supposed to do next.”

To me, statements like these are enough to warrant a significant shift in our approach to learning with children. When we see children who need constant stimulation, who engage in learning more “easily” when it is manufactured as a game, who need lots of external choices, who want to know what they need to do to be “done” before they begin, who feel entitled to be entertained as motivation for learning, these are warning signs—flashing sirens that indicate children have not had enough opportunities to be trusted in their own learning.

In The Power of Boredom, Mark A. Hawkins explains that when there is a focus on entertaining students with what is “exciting and fun, the worse the level of engagement gets. It is a never ending and deflating battle. […] We’ve all been sitting in a pot of hot water, slowly increasing the distractions and diversions in our lives, and we haven’t realized that we’re beginning to burn” (2016, p. viii).

I am more convinced than ever that not only is a learning approach based in trust relevant, it is of utmost urgency if we want all children to know how to find and follow their own questions as curious citizens in our world.

For me, a learning approach based in trust exists in the overlapping space of two key ideas: 1) understanding of the depth of meaningful curiosity and 2) belief that motivation for learning must grow from the inside.

In Curious, Ian Leslie writes: “The rewards of curiosity have never been higher, but our ideas about how curiosity works are muddled and misguided. We romanticize the natural curiosity of children and worry that it will be contaminated by knowledge, when the opposite is true. We confuse the practice of curiosity with the ease of access to information and forget that real curiosity requires the exercise of effort. We focus on the goals of learning rather than valuing learning for itself. Epistemic curiosity is in danger of becoming the province of cognitive elites, with far too many of us losing or never learning the capacity to think deeply about a subject or a person. In a world where vast inequalities in access to information are finally being leveled, a new divide is emerging—between the curious and the incurious” (2014, p. xxii).

Now, let’s hold this idea of curiosity for a moment. But let’s hold it far, far away from external stimuli for learning, far away from anything that tries to “motivate” children to learn in this way, far away from grades or rubrics, away from certification systems or awards, away from competitions or incentivized skill-acquisition programs, away from anything with too much focus on how well a child is learning, away from gimmicks or promises of “fun,” away from self-regulation systems, away from anything that directly or indirectly teaches children that the rewards of learning happen outside of learning itself.

This idea isn’t new. Alfie Kohn first wrote about how external motivations are counter-productive for learning back in 1993 in Punished by Rewards. Writing recently, he says: “Working with people to help them do a job better, learn more effectively, or acquire good values takes time, thought, effort, and courage. Doing things to people, such as offering them a reward for jumping through someone’s hoops, is relatively undemanding for the rewarder, which may help to explain why carrots and sticks remain stubbornly popular despite decades of research demonstrating their failure” (“Rewards Are Still Bad News (25 Years Later),New York Times, 28 October 2018).

When learning experiences are curated so children can automatically engage, can easily stay on task, have their interest consistently sparked by something flashy, play inside gaming flow with immediate and addictive feedback loops, or experience tasks that are perfectly differentiated for them, then children never have an opportunity to feel or find their own motivations for learning. They never get the practice they need to know what it means to daydream, sit in silence, wonder, not know, create their own stories and pathways of thought, or find and follow what matters most to them.

Let’s now think back to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Think back to that collection of lamp shades. That box of buttons. Watching a milk carton fill up with water. Following light cast from a flashlight upon the kitchen wall. Feeding the fish. Sitting in silence after hearing some beautiful music. Two coins in a small coin purse. A piece of string. Nothing fancy. Nothing too much. Always enough. And always trusting that children are enough.

Far from being outdated, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and approaches for engaging in slow noticing and wondering are needed for our children (and ourselves) now more than ever. We need less sparking of curiosity and more trusting of curiosity. We need less fixing of learning and more allowing of learning. We need fewer innovative solutions and more lamp shade moments. Children don’t need manufactured fun. They need our trust, our trust in what they already know and who they already are. With trust (and some ordinary objects and open-ended space), children can practice and learn how to find and follow their own questions grown from inside themselves.

Melissa A. Butler is Director of Children’s Innovation Project and Founder of reimagining project. She is a writer, educator, and noticer of small things. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA.

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