Curiosity is one of the many precious gifts that children bring into our lives. When your child was younger curiosity led to ongoing “experiments” (Will this bounce if I throw it?) that helped your child develop a foundational understanding of the world.
Now that they are older and more verbal they can wonder about even more things - and they can ask you about all those things. As parents of young children we can get weary of their ongoing questions. The concept of the “teachable moment” can help us see the beauty and harness the power of the constant stream of questions coming from our young children.
A powerful concept used by early childhood teachers is the idea of the “teachable moment”. This idea is that information and lessons are learned most easily when they are presented in response to a child’s curiosity. An important quality of the teachable moment is that it is (for the most part) unplanned. When we meet a child’s curiosity with patience and skill we are often astonished at what they can understand!
Finding a “teachable moment” is like finding a goldmine!
It can look something like this: You are planning to wash the car with your child, and they notice something stuck to the side of the bucket. They ask “What is this?” It is a Chrysalis!
Here are some ways to make the most of the teachable moment that has presented itself:
- Investigate together: before answering, pull out a magnifying glass and both take a good look. You might notice everything you can about the chrysalis together and wonder together about it.
- Give the information you have: After being in wonder together for a while, tell them what it is! This is a great time to add additional interesting information, such as talking about the life cycle of the butterfly. Try to avoid giving them a lecture about the thing, but instead give them enough information to ignite their curiosity further.
- Follow your/their inspiration: A moment like this can inspire all kinds of projects and impromptu creations. See if you can embody the information or bring it into an activity to do together. You might take some time to pretend you are butterflies being born out of eggs, going through all the stages! Your child might want to photograph or draw the chrysalis.
- Research: If they now have lots of questions about butterflies, you might do some research and see what kind of butterfly might come out of that particular chrysalis. This might lead you to investigate books at the library about butterflies and moths, or to plan a visit to the nearest butterfly house.
One simple moment of curiosity can fuel a great deal of learning.
Maybe it’s you!
You might be the one to initiate the teachable moment! Maybe it was you who saw the chrysalis - that works as well. You can bring the child over explaining that something really amazing is happening! Watch for signs of interest, and follow the same steps as above.
Another way the teachable moment can look is this: You are having a conversation with another adult and a word comes up that your child doesn’t know. “What is unprecedented?” They ask.
This is an amazing time to expand their vocabulary! Give them a definition they can understand and a chance to hear it in a few sentences! No pressure on them, just a clear answer. Try to use the same word over the next few days and draw their attention to it again.
Flexibility and patience
You may notice that taking advantage of the teachable moment requires a few things from you: flexibility and patience. If the goldmine of a teachable moment appears, you may have to slow down your walk, take longer to do that chore, or skip the thing you had planned to do. The trade off is a child who maintains curiosity, knows you are helping them discover the world and has an amazing warehouse of knowledge.
Sometimes, you really can’t stop right at that moment. The teachable moment is not entirely lost! In this case, you can ask a child to wait on that question, and you can get back to it later. Make a practice of always getting back to their questions as soon as possible. This builds trust and keeps the momentum of the teachable moment going. It can be handy to have a “research list” hung up somewhere they can see it. You can list there all the questions you two will need to research together.
Young children are in a deep process of discovery. They are learning so much and working hard to make sense of all they are learning. When a child asks a question, they deserve a clear and correct answer. They also deserve an age-appropriate answer. It is a deep practice to find a clear, concise, age-appropriate answer for things that we find tricky to talk about! Here are some tips:
- Stick with answering the actual question that they have asked. You can ask them questions to get clear on exactly what they are asking. Wait for the next question rather than assume you know where their curiosity will lead.
- If you aren’t sure how to explain something, let them know. You can let them know that they have asked a really profound question, and that you’ll have to think about it to give them a good answer.
- Avoid giving “joke” answers. Particularly when the joke is meant for the other adults in the room.