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The Intellectual Lives of Children

How to nurture your young child's ideas and support their curiosities.
Susan Engel

It’s easy to dismiss a young child’s obsession with dinosaurs or jumping in puddles or even repeated questions about death as trivial, but developmental psychologist Susan Engel says it’s critical to take notice. These moments hold clues to children’s intellectual lives, and it’s up to parents and educators to foster their ideas and interests. “The best way to encourage your children to develop the capacity to think about ideas, to pursue ideas, is to notice the ideas that they're interested in working on, and to be able to fan the flames of that early interest,” Engel says.

In this episode of the EdCast, Engel shares why it’s important to nurture young children’s ideas — and how to start doing that.


  • Notice when your young child has ideas. Engel insists it’s as simple as paying attention to young children and being interested in talking about their ideas when they have them by following up with easy questions like “How did you get that idea?” “How would that work?” “Tell me more about X,” or “What would happen if…?”
  • Be comfortable with not having answers. Grownups don’t need to know the answers to all the questions children ask. Try to provide interesting, satisfying information or be okay with saying, "Let’s figure it out together,” or “I don’t know the answer so let’s think about it,” or “What do you think it could be?”
  • Don’t panic when a child chooses a topic of interest like death or religion. Engel says many young children are interested in big life questions of uncertainty just like adults. Children sometimes embrace rich intellectual topics that can stir anxiety, even though it doesn’t mean there is something wrong.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Adults often dismiss preschoolers' thoughts as trivial. Developmental psychologist Susan Engel thinks we need to pay closer attention to young children's interests, and what they think about. She spent decades exploring children's curiosity and how they learn to pursue ideas. She says there's so much more happening when young children obsess about dinosaurs or puddles or death. It's our job as parents and teachers to help nurture those interests, but adults often miss it, even though it doesn't take much to encourage a child's interest. I wanted to know more about why it's vital for grownups to recognize preschoolers' intellectual lives.

Susan Engel: Years ago, when I was doing some research on curiosity, and we asked kindergarten moms and dads about the qualities that describe their children, they all said, "Oh, he's so curious," or, "He loves to learn new things." So on the surface, I think plenty of parents really do appreciate that their children have lively minds and they're eager for their children's lively minds to be nurtured and encouraged, certainly at school. And I guess the thing that I've noticed is that it becomes a little bit of a throwaway. Like, she's curious, oh yes, lively minded. And we notice when our kid says something really cute or really unexpected, or they use a word in an interesting way, or... It's not unusual for a parent of a three to five-year-old to be amazed by their child's very detailed memory of something from the past.

But it's very superficial, that appreciation, in the sense that it doesn't carry over to an interest in what their children are really pondering about, what kinds of intellectual puzzles they're working on. And that takes a different kind of attention from parents. It's important because the best way to encourage your children to develop the capacity to think about ideas, to pursue ideas, is to notice the ideas that they're interested in working on, and to be able to fan the flames of that early interest. And you want to give them some feedback and input that will nudge them in that direction.

Jill Anderson: So we're going to obviously talk about that a little bit later, a little bit more in depth about how we can notice things and feed those ideas a bit more, but I'm curious if teachers have a different problem. So I'm wondering if you've seen different things in teachers than parents, and what that might look like.

Susan Engel: I have, because of course, most moms and dads only have at any one time, one or maybe two, if they have twins, two four-year-olds or five-year-olds who are asking a million questions, and tinkering with a million objects in the house, and interrupting to ponder the puzzles that they're pondering. A teacher has anywhere from 12 to 30 in the room. So it's very understandable that teachers might actually not even notice all the interesting things that their students say, and the things that their students are worrying about. It's partly a time pressure, but that's not the only reason. I think the other thing is that teachers increasingly are so focused, and often through no wish of their own, but the whole society and the educational establishment. They're so worried about teaching their students the specific skills they think they need to learn that there's really no time left or space left in the classroom for helping kids pursue the things they want to pursue.

And by pursue, I mean think about the things they want to think about. So if there's a lot of pressure on you as a teacher to get your students to learn how to sound out words, or do certain things with numbers, or to get to another whole topic, learn how to stand in line, or not push, or raise your hand when you want to speak? Those are a lot of important demands that are placed on teachers. And it leaves little room in the day for the kind of open-ended exchange that might support their intellectual lives. I noticed an increasing emphasis on teaching children how to behave in classrooms. Now, that varies a lot from one classroom to another, because some kids come to, let's say kindergarten, there are many classrooms in this country where teachers feel that they're getting students who don't know how to listen for 10 minutes at a time, who talk out of turn.

And here I'm partly using the language of the teachers, not my own language. Or who don't know how to follow the rules of the classroom. And they put so much energy into that, and they're so attentive to whether kids are learning how to conform or be compliant, to be honest, that again, there's not much space left mentally for letting kids pursue the things they want to pursue. And I should say there, also letting kids think about the things they want to think about and explore the ideas they want to explore, it can lead to some uncharted territory or uncomfortable conversations, or literally to some mess if kids are trying something out in the middle of the classroom with some materials. So it can feel risky to teachers.

Jill Anderson: I completely understand that. I think it's something I've experienced and witnessed in my own child's classroom, getting them to follow the rules, and listen, and conform. It makes me think about critical thinking and how there's so much emphasis on this, and that by the time a student is a teenager, we want them to be critical thinkers, and we want them to have ideas, explain their ideas, but we don't really nurture that in younger ages. How would schools look different if we were paying more attention to children's ideas and critical thinking from a young age?

Susan Engel: We do expect teenagers to do two things, to engage in this thing, we call it critical thinking, which I think means identifying some kind of logic or lack of logic in an argument, and using evidence. And we also expect teenagers to identify an idea when they come across it, let's say in a text, or in a teacher's lecture, or in some other setting. And to come up with their own, that's what they're supposed to do when they write papers, right? Is develop an idea. And I guess I think those two things are related, critical thinking and the pursuit of ideas, but we tend to pay more attention to the part called critical thinking, and less attention to helping kids develop their own ideas. And that starts with this really basic thing, which is, it's hard to develop a good idea about something you have no interest in, and every grownup should be able to relate to that.

If and when I ever have a good idea, it's because it's something I was so interested in that I wanted to acquire new information and new material. And I was incredibly alert to any situation in a book or in life where I got material to help me with that idea. It might've been an idea about psychological behavior. It might've been an idea about the science of cakes. I happen to love cooking. So I use cooking examples a lot when I talk about this stuff. But I can't have a good idea about cars, because I'm not interested in them, and I haven't learned anything about them, and I don't pay attention. And the same is true about children. In order to learn how to pursue an idea, you need to be pursuing an idea that you care about.

So to expect teenagers, to be good at this thing we give them no chance to do seems totally crazy to me. And big surprise, it turns out by the time kids get to college, not many of them know how to pursue their own ideas. They are good at critiquing other people's ideas, and I think actually that's what people often mean when they talk about critical thinking. How good are you at summing up somebody else's idea, and summarizing it, and finding its flaws, but that's not quite the same. It's connected to it, but it's not quite the same as having your own idea. In my most idealistic moments, I think we would have a really different society if more kids started earlier in their lives pursuing ideas. And that's not just about freedom, that's also about guidance. It's not just let them do it. It's help them do it, and give them situations that foster or provoke them to come up with their own ideas. I think that there's a complete mismatch between what we look for in high school and college, and what we're helping children do before they get there.

Jill Anderson: I think that's a really good point, because it's true. When you get older and you're expected to have ideas, explain how you have them, and even be able to argue in favor of your ideas. But I don't think there's the time or effort, even as a parent, speaking as a parent to really nurture that in a child. You're always rushing to the next thing, or probably trying to do some of the things that you mentioned, like manage the classroom as a whole.

Susan Engel: Right. Or get kids to master skills that are important, reading skills or math skills. But at the end of the day, nothing's more important than the ability to build an idea or really think thoroughly about somebody else's idea.

Jill Anderson: How would it look in a classroom if a teacher pursued ideas, and how might it look at home? Because maybe it is more realistic to practice this at home with your young child than in the classroom.

Susan Engel: It has to be both, because for kids, I'm going to guess here, like yours and mine, they're going to have chances to pursue their ideas at home. They're going to hear other people pursuing ideas. They're going to hear the word idea. They're going to be surrounded by parents, or aunts and uncles, or grandparents who say things like, "Oh, that's a good idea," or, "Where'd you get that idea?" Or, "Why don't you try that a little more?" It's not always the word idea. Sometimes it's about inventing something, or putting something together, or just puzzling through a question. So those kids probably are going to be fine wherever they're in school. You might be frustrated that your kid's school doesn't do more of that. But there are lots of kids who are not going to get this kind of conversation at home, or this kind of support for their intellectual lives.

And it's essential that the schools provide it for them. It's probably the most essential thing a school can do. So I do think it's really important to do both, for parents to foster and encourage it and for schools to foster and encourage it. The remarkable thing about it is it's both really simple and quite challenging. So the simple is that if you are interested in your child's intellectual life, if you're interested in what they think about and how they reason, and what things interest them, and if you at least periodically invite them to pursue an idea more fully, like, "How did you get that idea? Huh, so how would that work? So you think you could make a flying machine because you think cars take too long. Tell me more about the flying machine." And then you say, "Well, what would happen if it were raining?"

You really get into the conversation. You're doing a lot to foster the pursuit of ideas. I tell a story in my new book about a child, I think she was three and a half. And she said, "What happens to people after they die?" And her dad, who's an extremely literate, educated person said to her, "Well, a lot of different people have different ideas about that." And in that simple little sentence, he was just pointing out to her that it is an idea, and that it's a different idea for different people. So it was very powerful, that moment, for them. So that's the simple part, that it just has to do with paying attention and being interested in talking about ideas. The reason it's so challenging is a lot of grownups don't really know how to think about their own ideas. That's true, not only at home for parents, but it's true for teachers.

So part of this is helping teachers understand why and how this is so important, and then showing them examples of it in their classroom. So it doesn't always look like an intellectual conversation at the snack table. That can happen, and it's great, but it may involve giving children more chances to solve problems, like invent things. How would we get out of the classroom without holding hands or standing in line? I can imagine that being an interesting problem for a class to solve, and letting kids figure out the solution. The interesting thing about that example, though it just popped into my head right now, it's about a problem that kids might really want to solve. For a kid to solve a problem, to do a good job of solving a problem, to really use their mental capacity and to grow intellectually, the problem has to be a problem to them.

It has to be something that's meaningful and worth solving, whether it's a concrete problem, like how to keep the rain from falling on your head, or whether it's an abstract problem, like how to make things more fair for more people. Or whether it's explaining something, like what happens after you die. Those are all problems that require some kind of an intellectual solution. And if teachers had more help identifying where that was happening in the classroom and what it looked like in all those varieties, then it would be not so hard to just encourage it and support it. So it's less about a new curriculum or a new lesson plan, and more about an orientation towards what can be going on in the classroom, and what should be going on in the classroom.

Jill Anderson: So that is part of the challenge here, is just being able to stop and recognize it. Because kids say a lot, and they like to raise their hand a lot and it's not often related to whatever you're working on or focusing on. And so it's pausing in those moments.

Susan Engel: It's pausing in those moments and then being comfortable with uncertainty and speculation. So, I don't know whether you're like this, but a lot of grownups want to know the answers to the things their children ask. And that's great, and a lot of the time it's great to know the answer, and you give your child nearly interesting, satisfying information. But it's okay some of the time to say, let's figure that out together. Or I don't know the answer let's think it through, or what do you think it could be? And that's an old kind of trope among a certain kind of parents. Always say, well, what do you think? And that can be tiresome and unsatisfying to a child. But if your child is trying to think something through that's really complex or uncertain, it's okay to be uncertain too. And to show them what it's like to try to get some more certainty.

Let's think that through together, I'm not really sure. Or like that dad has said, well, different people have different ideas about that. It's not a very fancy answer. It's just a very thoughtful answer. And then partly just to go back to what you said, you mentioned this, it's just listening a little differently some of the time, not all of the time. Everybody has to cook, and do laundry, and tie their other child's shoe, and argue with their spouse. I mean, there are other things going on in life. You can't do this all the time, but you could try to do it a little bit of the time. At the dinner table. The lunch and dinner table is the greatest time for intellectual exchange. And so is leisure. Lying around on the couch and doing nothing. That's a great time to just talk.

Jill Anderson: And so anyone who spent time with three, four five-year-olds know that they tend to have a lot of different obsessions. Is there a way to distinguish maybe an intellectual interest over a worry because parents tend to get a little nervous when their kid brings up death, and starts talking about that repeatedly. That's my kid's intellectual pursuit.

Susan Engel: I love hearing that. I'm sorry for you that it gives you anxiety. But when I started this project several years ago, and I started to talk at conferences and gatherings of psychologists about how I thought the children were really interested in talking about death. If you saw the expressions on the other psychologist faces, like what are you talking about? And then it turned out one after another, they kept coming up to me and saying, "Actually, come to think of it, my child does that." And it turns out it's very common. So one, I want to reassure you. Your daughter's interest is very common. Second, I want to say, why wouldn't they worry about it? Don't we all worry about it? Most problems or topics that are really worth thinking about also create some anxiety. And you know, I could go down a rabbit hole here about the role anxiety plays in curiosity, but uncertainty makes us anxious. And in our effort to resolve it, we seek answers and information.

That's the mechanism of curiosity. That's why Jerome Kagan said, "Curiosity is the urge to resolve uncertainty." And Piaget said, "Curiosity is the urge to explain the unexpected." The dynamic is, you feel a little anxious and you want to satisfy that. You want to resolve that anxiety, so you get information. It's like feeling a little hungry, so you eat something. So anxiety is built into our knowledge system. It's how we gather knowledge. But also it goes beyond that, because with topics like the examples I've been writing about and thinking about in recent years, are infinity, and justice and goodness, and death, they are anxiety provoking topics for all of us, not just children. And I don't think that you can separate out the intellectual. I think I would encourage parents and teachers to embrace the idea that worthy intellectual topics, and by worthy, I mean, the things that really draw people's interest, are often involved.

What makes them interesting is that they're uncertain, that they're loaded, that they're emotionally charged. A classroom where everything you want a kid to learn, the answer is already known and it's sort of simple. It's not an intellectually rich classroom. And it's one reason why here and there I've encouraged teachers to create more mystery in their classroom. More ambiguity, whether it's visual, or tactile, or purely abstract. Big topics are interesting to us, and they are to kids too. So I don't think that they can be totally separated. I guess speaking as a mom and now a grandma I'm sympathetic to you. If the anxiety seems to outweigh the curiosity, or the interest in thinking it through, then you want to help your kid feel a little more comfortable and safe about it.

I get that because too much anxiety, we know this from research with rats and mice, if a mouse or a rat walks into a new maze and is too anxious, they'll just cower in the corner. And that's why extremely anxious kids sometimes have trouble learning new stuff, because it's just overwhelming to them. There's a sweet spot in there. I would be very proud of myself if I had figured out a crisp way of identifying that sweet spot. But I think that good teachers and loving parents often have a sense of the balance between the anxiety and the interest, or the curiosity, or the appetite for more thinking.

Jill Anderson: It's funny. I went on a walk with my daughter, she's five, and we walked around the block and it was nice and just a nice pleasant walk, nothing unusual happened. And then we get back in the house, we're taking off our shoes and everything. And she says to me, "You don't believe in God."

Susan Engel: I love this kid. And it's a beautiful illustration of some of the things I was trying to say, which is, it's not surprising to me that she asked that after some time to just think and wander on the walk. She wasn't absorbed with some tasks that had a very specific goal, like get the table cleared, or put away your toys, or whatever it would be. Or in school it might be do these math problems, or solve this puzzle. So she had the intellectual leisure to think about the thing that was really interesting to her, and it's such a great question. And there you get the perfect chance to talk with her about something as huge and complex and tantalizing as god. Why wouldn't you want to talk about that? Who doesn't? She's getting a chance to strengthen her thinking skills, and to learn to get practice at pursuing an idea.

And that's the thing you want, because even when she's later pursuing a topic that doesn't make her so anxious, but I mean, think about the great intellectual questions of existence. Or more specific questions. Let's take a current example. Why do some leaders seem to grab the attention and devotion of citizens in a particular way? It's a big, complicated, interesting question, which requires all kinds of information and knowledge, and it makes us anxious. We wouldn't try to solve that question if we weren't motivated by various problems we encounter in everyday life. Or take COVID. I have said many times this year that if it weren't so devastating worldwide and so terrible for people, I would love all the new stuff it got me to think about. To learn how a virus works, and to learn about the social psychology of mask wearing, and to learn about the communication of scientific information, why that sometimes fails.

It's offered me such a delicious new menu of things I didn't know about that I'd like to know about, and problems I'd like to learn how to solve. Mentally, not in the world. But that interest coexists with my anxiety about the real problem. And that's just the same for children. The thing is, kids need a lot more opportunities to think about these ideas. You can't really get good at something if you don't get a chance to do it, and we just need to give kids more chances to do it. And what it means to do it when you're five is different than what it means to do it when you're 18, or 28. So figuring out what it looks like for a child to pursue an idea when they're three or four or eight, that's the interesting challenge for grownups who care about kids.

Jill Anderson: And you mentioned COVID, and that has disrupted everyone's life, especially kids. And they're going to school, some are at home, some are learning at home. Some are doing a mixture of both. What are your thoughts on that and how that might alter the way that we respond to ideas, and maybe how kids are having their ideas right now?

Susan Engel: Yeah. Well, there are two parts to that. One is, they may want to talk a lot about COVID. You know, it occurs to me that about a thousand years ago when I was a graduate student still in New York City, people like me who were politically active, our big worry was about preventing nuclear arms race. And because I was always interested in child development and kids, I remember getting involved running some workshops for teachers and parents about how to talk to children about the threat of nuclear war, which had a similar thing in that it felt terrifying to us. And there were no comforting, simple answers, but we felt we needed to help children manage their questions about it. And we used to always say, you can talk about the uncertainties, and the science, and the issues, and the facts, and you can then reassure your child by saying, and we're doing everything we can to make this safer.

And that is very reassuring to children, to be told that adults are working on it. I think people should encourage their kids to talk about COVID, and talk about the parts that are interesting. Do we know why a mask works? Can we make pictures of how viruses spread, or how they work mechanically? So there's lots to talk about that's interesting and satisfying and informative. And then there's the meta level, which is, has this changed the way grownups relate to kids? And I would say yes. So for parents, it's given most parents in this country way more opportunity than they'd like to watch their kids learning. And what I mean by that is if you're at home overseeing your child's remote learning, it's been so disruptive, and so difficult, and such a challenge. And yet it's also true that for at least some parents, it's also an opportunity to see how your kid thinks, and how they deal with new information, and how they make sense of all kinds of new experiences.

For teachers, I think it's just been such an unbelievable challenge to teach remotely. I'm worried that teachers are worrying so much about keeping up with some mythical set of standards that they aren't doing the one thing they could still be doing really well, which is getting kids to think about their thoughts, and to pursue ideas remotely. Because that's something they could be doing, but they'd have to let go a little bit of this idea that meanwhile, they have to keep up with whatever it was they were doing before. I heard a first grade teacher say to me, back in August, when she was planning her remote teaching, she said, "The parents are so worried that their children aren't going to keep up this year." And I said, "Keep up with what?" And she looked surprised, and she said, "Well, with the standards." But I mean, the standards are completely arbitrary. Who made up those standards?

Just a lot of people sitting in rooms. I don't know. And I'm not sure they were good standards in the first place, but it's silly to let those constrain you too much as a teacher right now. If my child was in school, or I was an elementary school teacher right now, I'd be thinking, what are the few things I could do really well remotely? One is, get kids to talk to each other. And to me, to get kids to do some activities that really engage them, and to get them to think about things that interest them. Those are things you could do a remotely.

Jill Anderson: This is a lot of fascinating stuff and really interesting, and I think has changed the way that I look at my own child.

Susan Engel: That is music to my ear.

Jill Anderson: Thank you so much.

Susan Engel: Such a pleasure to talk to you. I could talk about this stuff endlessly.

Jill Anderson: Susan Engel is a senior lecturer in psychology at Williams College. She is the author of The Intellectual Lives Of Children. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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