How Curiosity And Confidence Are Important For Exploratory Play

children playing in the woods

Babies learn that they can have an effect on the world from a very early age. It is fascinating to watch how babies and children use play to explore and learn about their environment. However, have you noticed that even from a young age some babies are more exploratory than others?

We know that all babies go through the same stages of development but it is important to remember that – all babies develop at a slightly different pace. Some babies are happy to watch the world go by while others engage with the world as soon as they are mobile. Parents can support exploratory play in young children by smiling encouragement. Babies and children who are shown that the world is not such a scary place soon develop confidence.

The development of curiosity and confidence

Here is an example of how a parent encouraged confidence and exploration in 9 month old, Sam. I was doing some research where I would visit parents and babies at home; each time I would bring a new toy. Sam was a little timid of one particular toy and would approach and then retreat from it. He looked to his mum for reassurance and got a smiling, encouraging facial expression which gave him greater confidence to move nearer to the toy and then start to play with it.

Parent’s facial expressions can have a great influence on a baby’s and child’s confidence and consequently on exploratory behaviour. If you want to see a more extreme example of a parent encouraging exploratory play, have a look at the visual cliff experiment https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6cqNhHrMJA

It is the parents’ facial expressions, either smiling encouragement or showing fear, which influence whether their little ones continue crawling towards them or stop.

How to encourage curiosity and exploratory play

Research has shown that parents can encourage exploratory play in children in many ways. Hands-on experience is important for learning and we can expand a child’s knowledge of the world through ‘science’ experiments. Here’s a fun experiment with a raisin:  let your child drop the raisin into a glass of fizzy drink and watch what happens. While watching the raisin, encourage your child to think about why it is bouncing up and down in the glass. The air bubbles in the drink attach to the wrinkles on the raisin and lift it to the surface then when they burst the raisin sinks.

girl playing

A visit to the woods can give children plenty of opportunity for play. Again parents can stimulate curiosity and exploratory play in their children through their behaviour and facial expressions.

A visit to a museum where there are hands-on exhibitions is another excellent way to encourage exploratory play. Or how about some science experiments at home? My eldest grandson did some experiments with me using a ‘Horrible Science’ kit. He was completely absorbed with our ‘Creepy Crystals’ experiment and pleaded with me to let him stay longer and do more experiments!

boy with microscope

Sometimes we don’t know the answer to our child’s (or grandchild’s) question. This motivates us to search for the answer. It is good to be curious, even as adults, as this leads to creativity and innovation. Stimulating children’s curiosity and exploratory play benefits parents as well. Research has shown that play is an essential component of health even for adults.

DR Julie Coultas

Dr. Julie Coultas is an evolutionary social psychologist with a particular interest in childhood social development and play. She is an honorary research fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sussex. She has been the developmental expert for an international toy company for over 10 years. Julie has advised parents and parents-to-be on the developmental aspects of play. She has also worked on UK government education projects and Swedish Research Council cultural evolution projects. Her research and teaching focus on: social influence, social learning, social development, and the emotions and development.

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