What is the significance of one's own behavior

What is the significance of a child's curiosity and how can it be supported?

1. Curiosity as an innate behavioral system

Through targeted observation and other scientific methods, a large number of results have been obtained that show that the acquisition of knowledge, intellectual abilities and skills are not only due to the child's intellectual prerequisites and the learning opportunities in the environment, school offers or specific support programs, but rather that there must also be a willingness on the part of the child to deal with these offers, to gain experience and to become familiar with new things. This willingness is innate (see Schneider & Schmalt, 2000).

In the course of the development history of living beings (evolution), a behavior system has emerged that prompts humans and animals to turn to new, unknown and unfamiliar stimuli and facts, to draw attention to them, to explore them in a variety of ways (e.g. by looking, Touching, manipulating [2]).

The ethologist Konrad Lorenz researched this behavioral system as early as 1943 and described it as fundamental for the adaptation of organisms to new environmental conditions and as a basis for diverse learning processes. According to Lorenz (1950), curiosity behavior always offers living beings a special selection advantage when they grow up in changing living environments and adapt to new conditions, i.e. have to learn. From an evolutionary point of view, the associated knowledge acquisition creates a long-term reproductive advantage (cf. Lengning, 2009). Wentworth and Witryol (2003) took up this idea and accordingly describe curiosity as “desire to learn more [3]” (Wentworth & Witryol, 2003, p. 281).

In motivational psychology, this behavior system is called the curiosity motive. Researchers in this field assume that people are endowed with a curiosity motive from birth. The first indications of this can already be found in newborns. In this way, they systematically explore their bodies, follow objects and people with their eyes and corresponding head movements. At around 4-5 months old, babies learn to grasp objects; they hold them in front of their eyes and put them in their mouths. In the following months, the child's attention is increasingly focused on the environment. Due to the ability to move around (from about 8 months), the child can also reach more distant objects (cf. for example Baxter & Switzky, 2009).

At around 1½ years of age, toddlers literally begin to experiment with objects in order to explore their nature and find out what can be done with them (Piaget, 1975). A time will soon begin in which the children systematically examine objects: all accessible switches and buttons are tried out, drawers are cleared out and tools are tried out. With the ability to ask questions, the child's repertoire of obtaining information, figuring out functions and acquiring knowledge expands considerably.

Although the curiosity motive is viewed as an innate behavior system, a willingness to explore, the child must first acquire the necessary behaviors (e.g. inspecting, touching, manipulating, asking questions) with which it explores its environment in the course of its development. The things and facts that stimulate the curiosity motive, that challenge the child's interest, attention and care, change accordingly, depending on both their increasing mental and motor skills and the experience they gain with these facts.

This is why great differences in curiosity and exploration can be observed even in toddler and preschool age. Berg & Sternberg (1985), two American researchers, describe two relevant components in which children can differ: the motivational component expresses itself in the attention to new stimuli and objects, to new tasks or unfamiliar events, in the persistence with the they explore these new facts, and in the joy they show in doing so. The cognitive component is shown in the ability to gain relevant information when dealing with new things and to differentiate between the important and the unimportant.

The importance of curiosity as a motor of intellectual development is now recognized in (developmental) psychology. It is understood as an important prerequisite and influencing variable on (school) learning and performance development (e.g. Alberti & Witryol, 1994; Kagan, Moore, & Bredekamp, ​​1995). Berg & Sternberg (1985) assume that children with strong curiosity prefer new stimuli or situations more, turn to them more often, more quickly and more intensively, and are more persistent in their search for information than less curious children. This enables them to develop a repertoire of strategies for obtaining information and use them flexibly when exploring new things. Studies confirm this assumption. Highly curious children can, for example, memorize further questions better and ask more questions about a topic (e.g. natural sciences) themselves (Jirout, 2011). Informal [4] learning processes are also stimulated by curiosity, e.g. when playing or in contact with adults or other children. It is crucial that the situations stimulate questioning, trying out, experimenting and thinking (e.g. Reio & Wiswell, 2000).

2. Theoretical embedding of curiosity

Curiosity and exploration are taken into account in various theoretical positions; these different explanatory approaches each emphasize particular aspects and thus also imply different ways in which curiosity can be encouraged and supported. In the following, three perspectives on children's curiosity are presented.

a) Curiosity from the perspective of attachment theory

Attachment theory examines the question of how a secure relationship / bond develops between a child and his or her parents [5] and what significance this has for the child's further development. In connection with curiosity, the caregiver serves as a "safe base" from which the child can turn to new things and explore the environment. If a child gains security through the presence of the caregiver and is certain that the caregiver is available (Sroufe & Waters, 1977), they can freely explore their surroundings. However, if they feel threatened or frightened, they will seek protection from the caregiver, show increased attachment behavior and limit their exploratory behavior. From this background, attachment theory assumes a clear relationship between attachment and exploration (cf. e.g. Schölmerich & Lengning, 2008; Lengning & Lüpschen, 2012), which is also known as the "attachment-exploration balance" (Ainsworth & Wittig, 1969) referred to as. In addition, attachment theory assumes that “securely” attached children can explore better and more persistently. [6] Children with a secure attachment have a caregiver who is there for the child and helps them when they are afraid or feel insecure. It is characterized by reliability and sensitivity (cf. Bowlby, 1988; Fremmer-Bombik, 2011).

b) Curiosity from the point of view of the self-determination theory of motivation by Deci and Ryan (2002)

Also in the self-determination theory of motivation by Deci and Ryan (2000), the child is understood as fundamentally motivated to explore his world. Whether curiosity is actually shown in behavior depends not only on the child, but also on the circumstances in the environment. Three basic needs play a role here: the need for autonomy (self-determination), experience of competence (effectiveness) and social integration (belonging) [7] (Deci & Ryan, 2002). If these basic needs are satisfied, the child can approach his environment openly and with interest and deal with it; if these needs are disregarded, a child will not be very motivated. Based on this theory, the curiosity behavior shown depends not only on a secure attachment relationship, but also on whether the child can experience himself competently and autonomously in a situation and can fall back on social support if necessary. In particular, the consideration of the child's autonomy has an important function in promoting curiosity and exploration. According to Whipple, Bernier and Mageau (2009), behavior that supports autonomy aims to strengthen children in their desires, interests and will and to enable them to cope with situations and tasks independently.

c) Curiosity from the point of view of the Bochum working group

As part of the motivational and developmental psychology research program on the connection between curiosity, fearfulness and the development of cognitive skills, we worked out a further theoretical perspective in our own working group (cf. Trudewind & Schneider, 1994). [8] In our opinion, the curiosity behavior shown results from an interplay of two independent behavioral systems: curiosity and fearfulness. [9] From an ethological point of view, it is argued that a behavior system that is geared towards approaching and exploring new stimuli and situations only brings an adaptive advantage if this system is inhibited by an opposing (antagonistic) system that allows the uncontrolled approach to unknown and risky ones Facts delayed and thus serves as an important protection of the individual from danger (cf. also Schneider & Schmalt, 2000).

From this point of view, the curiosity behavior shown depends not only on which curiosity-stimulating aspects are present in a specific situation, but also which aspects stimulate fear. Ultimately, however, it has not yet been clarified to what extent fear or anxiety affects the curiosity behavior shown and on cognitive development.

3. Own studies on the connection between curiosity, fearfulness and cognitive skills

In a series of studies, we examined the relationship between the two behavioral systems on the one hand and children's cognitive skills on the other. We were able to prove that the strength of curiosity can be used to predict behavior. Highly curious children react to incentives that cause subjective insecurity (e.g. new, complex, unpredictable stimuli and situations; Berlyne, 1960) more sensitively and in a more differentiated manner than less curious children (Gibas & Scheps, 1995). They perform better in problem-solving tasks in which they can actively deal with the materials (Laube, 1996; Trudewind, Schubert & Ballin, 1996). Overall, they seem to have better strategies at their disposal for selecting the relevant information from the environment that is useful for successfully coping with situations (cf. also Berg & Sternberg, 1985).

However, we were also able to show that anxiety has an effect on behavior and moderates the influence of curiosity. Here, however, the findings are less clear. Anxiety seems to inhibit the openly displayed curiosity behavior, while the intellectual processing of information is not automatically impaired (Gibas & Schepps, 1995). Younger children with high levels of anxiety and low curiosity tended to perform poorly in problem solving, while highly anxious children who were simultaneously high in curiosity showed no performance losses (Trudewind, Schubert & Ballin, 1996). This suggests that curiosity has a compensatory effect on anxiety. A strong curiosity seems to counteract the fearful inhibition and to help the children to overcome the fear of dealing with the unknown and to use their skills successfully in solving the problem.

Overall, the findings confirm that curiosity and fearfulness are to be understood as two different systems of motives, some of which are stimulated by the same situations and which then interact with one another to influence children's behavior. Therefore, both motive systems should always be considered when it comes to funding.

4. Encouraging curiosity, exploration, and childish interests

Piaget (1975) already emphasized in his work the importance of the child's active engagement with his environment. Not the passive absorption of information, but rather the active exploration of facts and events contributes significantly to the formation of experience and the development of intellectual structures. This is also increasingly being taken into account in the school context (Mandl & Gerstenmaier, 2000).

The behavioral system of curiosity supports this development process. However, it has become clear from the previous statements that the behavior shown is also dependent on other behavior systems and is also influenced by the situation. In the following, some suggestions to support and encourage children's curiosity and exploration will be derived from the theories presented and possible consequences for cognitive development will be described. The theoretical positions do not fundamentally contradict each other in their consequences, but complement each other and set different priorities.

a) Possibilities for funding from the perspective of attachment theory

Attachment theory emphasizes that a child must feel safe in order to be open to his environment at all. Corresponding findings provide evidence that securely attached children show a qualitatively “better” exploration and that their caregivers are more sensitive to the needs of the children and serve as a secure basis (cf. Schölmerich & Lengning, 2008). From this it can be deduced that the caregivers should attach particular importance to the creation of a secure attachment relationship. Parental sensitivity is a very important aspect; it is understood as the ability to perceive the child's signals, to interpret them correctly and to react promptly and appropriately (Ainsworth, 2011). The sensitivity of different caregivers seems to have different effects. The mother's sensitivity has a particular influence on the development of a secure bond. The father's sensitivity is of great importance for the development of security when exploring the environment. Fathers sensitively challenge their child to play, pay attention to the child's needs during exploration and thus encourage their child's curiosity (Kindler & Grossmann, 2008).

On the one hand, it is about satisfying the need to bond in a specific situation when a child is insecure, feels uncomfortable or is afraid. On the other hand, caregivers are encouraged to help their child explore and encourage them to explore their environment. Both tasks must be carefully coordinated in the respective situation.

In the professional context, this dual function is explicitly taken up and a term of attachment is used that not only takes into account the security and care function, but also includes assisting and supportive behavior (Drieschner, 2011). As a result, researchers developed a model with five sub-aspects to describe the design of the professional-child bond (cf. Booth et al., 2003; taken up e.g. by Ahnert, 2006, 2007): the first three aspects (donation , Safety and stress reduction) focus on the child's attachment behavior, while the other two aspects (exploration support and assistance) are more aimed at the exploration system.

  • Attention: Loving and emotionally warm communication;
  • Security: conveying a feeling of security;
  • Stress reduction: regulation of child stress / arousal;
  • Exploration support: stimulate exploration and play;
  • Assistance: giving advice and support.

The design of the five facets mentioned in the kindergarten setting depend, among other things, on the child's age and level of development. With increasing age, the need for individual attention as well as for security and stress reduction usually decreases due to the individual development of autonomy, self-efficacy and one's own regulatory strategies; the accompaniment and support of exploration processes, on the other hand, is moving more into the foreground (Ahnert, 2006, 2007, 2010). Here, too, a sensitive adjustment to the child's needs in the respective situation is necessary, whereby in a group setting it is also a matter of flexibly switching between individual-related and group-oriented strategies (cf., for example, Ahnert, Pinquart & Lamb, 2006).

Findings from studies show, for example, positive correlations between the quality of attachment (with parents or educators) and exploratory behavior (see Lamb, 1998), the child's willingness to cooperate and learn (Glüer, 2013) and the child’s motivation to learn and later enjoyment of school and school engagement (Ahnert & Harwardt, 2008).

b) Possibilities for funding from the perspective of self-determination theory

In the self-determination theory of motivation, special attention is paid to promoting child autonomy (Whipple et al., 2009). Children are confronted with various problems and tasks every day; these can be of a school or other nature. Very different strategies can be used in solving these problems. Sometimes all that helps is trying it out after trial and error to obtain new information that leads to a solution; In the case of other problems, on the other hand, it makes sense to plan the steps in advance and to assess the advantages and disadvantages of various alternative courses of action. For some problems, the use of certain strategies (e.g. taking notes or making a sketch) or aids (e.g. tools, other people) in the search for a solution is absolutely necessary. In order for children to learn independently and independently and to experience themselves effectively, they need a repertoire of action and problem-solving strategies that enable them to deal with and cope with very different requirements.

In the course of their development, children have to acquire these problem-solving strategies and find out in many different situations which strategies are particularly suitable and when. Adults can help in two ways: first, by creating opportunities when these problem-solving strategies are needed; on the other hand, by helping to find solutions and coping with those areas where the child is stuck. This requires a sensitive adaptation to the respective child's competencies and needs.

Whipple et al. (2009) emphasize that it is about an attitude that supports autonomy (as opposed to a controlling) attitude; This is mainly characterized by the possibility of choosing between options, a suggestion for a change of perspective, an optimal challenge (and not over- or under-demanding), age-appropriate advice and support as well as encouragement.

Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) described this process of optimal support for the child in coping with a problem with the term “scaffolding”. They differentiate between various aspects that can be of use here:

The first step is to arouse the child's interest in the search for a solution and to clarify the specific requirements of the situation or task by means of hints.
If the task is initially confusing and confusing for the child, the adult can simplify it, break it down into sub-problems, structure it and reduce possible alternative courses of action.
During the problem-solving process it may be necessary to keep the child's attention on the task. In this context, a motivating function is also important: if the child wants to give up or is no longer interested, the adult can encourage them to take new steps and dissuade them from ineffective strategies.
In the course of the search for a solution, a comparison between the actual state (problem) and the target state (goal) is always necessary, with which the adult can provide support. The distinction between essential and insignificant task aspects plays a decisive role here.
If the child gets stuck in solving the problem, they risk giving up. Here the task of the teacher can be to relieve the child of the fear of mistakes and failure and to strengthen the confidence in their own abilities.
If the child does not get closer to the goal despite persistent attempts, the adult can take up the steps taken by the child and continue correctly and thus demonstrate an ideal approach as a role model.

So it's not about giving the child the solutions, but rather exploring the solution together with them. In all of these efforts, it is important to give the child as little help as possible and as much as necessary. The greatest possible promotion of autonomy is given when the child achieves his goal largely independently with his own effort (and increasingly less support).

Such an approach that supports autonomy has been shown to promote intrinsic motivation, the quality of exploration, social and school adaptations, and self-esteem (summarized by Whipple et al., 2009).

c) Funding options from the point of view of the Bochum working group

From motivation research it can be generally deduced that the environment for a child must be designed to be stimulating so that content-specific interests (e.g. for music, literature or certain types of sport) can develop. Our own conception of curiosity and fearfulness is also about creating curiosity-stimulating situations and either addressing the fearfulness of the children as little as possible (which does not always succeed when a child is confronted with new things) or the children in the development of To support coping strategies for their fear and thus to give them the opportunity to deal with the situation despite their fear.

In shaping the child's immediate daily environment, parents and educators have numerous opportunities to influence the development of curiosity. Adults can ensure that games and materials are available to the child that arouse their curiosity, are appropriate to their level of development, i.e. represent a manageable challenge, and meet the child's individual interests and needs. When choosing such materials, it is not a question of acquiring as many educationally valuable games as possible and as expensive as possible; Rather, very simple materials (e.g. from household and nature) are just as suitable as elaborate computer games, provided that they are an incentive for the child to engage in diverse and creative discussions. Here, parents and their children can discover new and interesting opportunities to play and explore. It is important to have a playful and fear-free atmosphere so that even anxious children who, according to the results of our investigations (cf. also Mackowiak, 1998), show a limited behavioral repertoire in obtaining information, can try out new strategies for exploring objects and facts.

In order for children to experience themselves effectively in situations that trigger fear and to be able to cope with them, the main aim is to support them in developing coping strategies. Our own studies show that very anxious children often perform poorly in such situations. However, individual differences can be found here depending on the coping options available: those children who have specific strategies (e.g. trying out a lot, repeating action steps or speaking during action that relates to the solution process) show no performance losses compared to the not anxious children (e.g. Mackowiak, 2007).

However, these studies also make it clear that there are not the best strategies for all children; Instead, children benefit from different strategies depending on their abilities and skills as well as differences in their curiosity and fearfulness (e.g. Mackowiak, 1998). These results also have consequences with regard to the advancement of children, because they suggest that it is not just a matter of teaching basic self-regulation strategies, but also of working with the children to find out which strategies are helpful and useful for the child in question are effective. Free spaces for trying things out are necessary; often different paths can be taken in solving a problem or coping with a situation. The availability of various alternative solutions enables the children to select and try out the strategies that are suitable for them. Parents can accompany and support their children in a variety of ways (in the sense of "scaffolding") and thus enable many opportunities for exploration and testing as well as for acquiring knowledge.

The ability to self-regulate is seen as an essential protective factor for child development (e.g. Wustmann, 2004) and enables children to deal constructively with many kinds of challenges and to look for solutions. It has far-reaching consequences for social-emotional and cognitive development.

From our point of view, it is important in all these efforts to give the child as little support and help as possible and as much as necessary. The most beautiful solution is still the one that you achieved yourself with some effort.


[1] The term “cognitive development” is widespread in the psychological context and is used synonymously with the terms “intellectual development”, “intellectual development” or “intelligence development”.

Explore [2] with your hands.

[3] Desire / need to learn more (translation by author)

[4] Learning processes outside of formalized educational offers in day-care centers, schools or universities

[5] or other caregivers

[6] For more detailed and differentiating findings see Grossmann & Grossmann (2007), Grossmann, Grossmann, Kindler & Zimmermann (2008) and Lengning & Schölmerich (2008).

[7] The latter need is closely related to the concept of attachment (cf. Whipple, Bernier & Mageau, 2009).

[8] Our basic assumptions are based on older ethological and motivational assumptions (cf. for example Montgomery, 1955; Hinde, 1966).

[9] Here there are similarities to the attachment theory, because the child's attachment system is also stimulated by fear. Nevertheless, both systems of behavior can be distinguished from one another.


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Prof. Dr. Katja Mackowiak

Leibniz University Hannover
Institute for Special Education
Special educational psychology
Schloßwender Str. 1
D-30159 Hanover


Created and last modified on January 27, 2014