You are waiting in the queue, and your toddler asks you a spontaneous – yet embarrassing – question about the lady next to you. Should you answer?

Psychology professor, Michelle Chouinard, published a monograph in 2007 exploring why children ask questions, and how important answering those questions is for their cognitive development. Surprisingly, question-asking is something more than just a part of being a child. It helps children to fill their knowledge gaps about the world and learn new ways to interact with the things in it.

Take a moment to look back, at a thing or fact, that genuinely drew your attention. Consider how many questions you had, and the type of questions you might have asked. Remember if you persisted when you didn’t get the answers you wanted. Then think how important each piece of information was, and how it contributed to the overall knowledge you have right now. Having done that, the following sections will let us understand how all these processes combine and contribute to children’s cognitive development.

Ask for the sake of asking

Let’s begin by admitting that we have all experienced the endless ”Why’s?” of a toddler. But do they have a purpose? Previous research has already explored whether children ”actually ask questions”when do they begin gathering information, and what kind of information they seek.

At the age of 1-years-old, children begin to ask questions before they can even produce words. Pointing at things and doing facial expression are some of the tools they use to express their curiosity. After they have developed the ability to talk and form verbal queries, children can reach on average of 80 question per hour when engaged in a conversation with an adult.

Although these rates are surprisingly high, an analysis of the content showed that most of children’s questions request information about the world around them. Children begin by asking explanation about isolated facts (e.g., the colour of the wall and the painter), and then they ask questions that can help them relate those facts (e.g., why the painter paints the wall). This shift, in children’s questions, indicates that a learning process takes place in their minds.

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A photo of a toddler trying to figure out how things work in our world.

From an early age, children communicate their cognitive enquiries about the world through a question-asking mechanism.

Good answers inform, great answer transform

We all agree that having a child exploring the world alone is a bad idea. One should then logically ask whether adults should answer children’s questions, why these answers assist their cognitive development, and how children show that they want the information requested.

Surprisingly, adults are incredibly accommodative when children ask information about the world. Most of the times, they also support children’s enquiries with additional relevant information. That helps the child to realise that there are more things about the world that it doesn’t know. Thus, answering questions and providing additional information opens a path to the child’s mind about what has been left unexplored, and how it should be thinking to explore it.

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A mother answering her son’s question.

However, when children feel that an answer didn’t satisfy their questions, they persist. Children use persistence to signal that the information they requested is important to them. Interestingly, equal levels of persistence cannot be detected in other forms of communication, such as play. That makes question-asking a valuable tool of communication with clear purpose and outcome.

Children get the answers they want, and if they don’t, they persist. Providing additional information further supports their conceptual change, and offers new ways of thinking on an unknown topic.

Finally! Growth Happens

So far, we have explored that questions are useful in children’s conceptual change. However, there must be hands-on evidence showing that question-asking, as a tool for cognitive development, has some form of practical impact on children’s everyday lives.

Researchers from Texas University conducted an experiment to explore whether children, below the age of six, can apply the information they request to complete a simple, yet insightful task.

Fifty pre-schoolers participated in the experiment. The aim was to find which key opens a box. Two marionettes were answering their questions. The first provided information about the shape, and the second about the colour of the correct key. Although the task sounds simple, it revealed some interesting results.

All children demonstrated the ability to improve the content of their question throughout the course of the experiment. They initially began forming questions based on their existing knowledge; and as they were getting more answers, they were improving the content of their questions by integrating the new information.

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A child figures out how to solve a problem. A ”eureka” moment.

Interestingly, the 5-year-old children requested more precise information than the 3-year-old. That shows a developmental gap between the two groups. The five-years-old littles have been questioning things for a longer period, and that has sharpened their question-asking skills. As a result, it was easier for them to assess what information was unknown, and how they should form the correct question to get it.

Overall, children use questions to gather missing information. Then, they ”update” their knowledge and try again to solve the problem until they succeed. This ”trial-and-error loop” reflects that cognitive development takes place. Psychology researchers from the journal Developmental Review” have summarised all the processes we have discussed so far in the following graph (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1. A model to show how question-asking processes take place to solve a problem.

Finally, having explored all the processes, it is obvious that question-asking is a central part of children’s behaviour. It not only fills their knowledge gaps about the world but also contributes to their cognitive development. Overall, children view adults as teachers that can help them acquire an adult-like way of thinking as they move through the world.

That said, the next time a toddler asks you about the world, my best advice is that you should answer. However, remember to answer responsibly, your answers may influence one’s adult future world.


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