Curriculum of curiosity

Published by Lori Pickert on October 29, 2008 at 02:04 PM

Often, in educational research and theory, you find the same ideas expressed with different words, by different people, at different times.

You read about an “exciting new innovation” that, if you have been around for awhile, you realize you’ve heard before. Books are written that apply new jargon to old ideas. You explore an educator’s interesting ideas further and find out someone else was doing the same work twenty years before, in a different country.

After awhile, you begin to realize that ideas that resonate around something truthful will rise and rise again, until they are recognized by many people in many places.

After reading about education for more than a decade, I find that I am drawn again and again to the same core ideas, no matter who is talking about them — authentic art, children orchestrating their own learning, thoughtful and purposeful adults working with children, long-term projects.

Reggio educators talk about “provocations” — deliberate and thoughtful actions taken by adults to provoke or extend children’s thinking.

Unschoolers talk about “strewing” the environment.

Early childhood educators talk about “invitations.”

This shared concept recognizes that children (like all people) would rather make their own discoveries than be told what to do.

One very successful experiment we made with a group of three- and four-year-olds: We set a lovely bouquet of spring daffodils in the art studio in a beautiful vase, on a small pine table. Next to the table was an easel, a very familiar site in the studio, which had several easels. Instead of being set up with the normal selection of paints, however, there were many glass jars filled with an abundance of different shades of yellow and green. Not just one yellow, but six different subtle shades of yellow. Not just one green, but an amazing selection of greens, from light citrusy green-yellow to dark glossy green.

The juxtaposition of these things was a provocation. No one pointed them out to the children, saying “Look at this! Look at the colors!” No one asked, “Would you like to paint the daffodils?” They were simply in the studio, waiting to be discovered. The children found them, were delighted, and created beautiful paintings. They had new ideas about mixing colors; in fact, their ideas were taken to a whole new level from red + blue = purple. They understood the possibilities, and they immediately incorporated them into their thinking and began hatching new ideas of their own.

They didn’t all paint the flowers. Some of them talked about the colors. Some of them touched the flowers. But they all were excited by the offering. They painted all different kinds of pictures, and no adult came over and said, “No, no, no — don’t you want to paint the pretty flowers?” That wasn’t the point. The point was to offer something beautiful and inticing and then let the children do whatever they liked with it.

We talked about how we wanted students to interact with our classroom. We didn’t want them to come in and know every day that the block area contained this and the art studio had that. We wanted them to come in every day and not know what they might find. This, we felt, would encourage them to see their classroom as a dynamic, ever-evolving environment where anything could happen. In turn, we felt being on their toes all the time would help encourage habits of curiosity and interest.

Rather than put every material out on the first day of school, we added things throughout the year. Rather than announcing any new addition as a special treat and drawing attention to it (which creates the additional problem of 15 children wanting to use it at once), we simply added things and let them be discovered. Then the children told each other and showed each other.

When you prepare an environment in this way, you’re sending a strong message that you care about what happens in the room. You care about giving the children beautiful things to work with, and you care about the work they do with them.

At home, I still value this curriculum of curiosity. I think about how much my actions — careless or thoughtful, accidental or purposeful — affect my children’s attitudes and habits. I think about what a different reaction you elicit when you say “Look at this thing for you to do; here, this is how you do it” rather than simply creating an environment of possibility.

The difference between having an art studio and having art materials in a drawer is that the first acts as a constant provocation — the easel always beckons, the art materials call to you from their sunny shelf. Using that as inspiration, I try to make sure the rest of our home is filled with things that beckon — books, sketchbooks, journals, music, cozy nooks, science tools, field guides, binoculars. And always, always, most important — room to work. A clean table, an empty place on the floor. Not only exciting new things to find and use, but a place to use them.

Back to the daffodils ... I wonder what would have happened if we had put out the same flowers, the same paints, and then told the children that everyone would take turns painting the flowers. No wonder, no excitement of discovery, no figuring out what was there. No deciding what to do with your find, no thrill of showing another child. Instead, a defined task and 14 other people doing it, too. What habits and attitudes does that teach?


Comment by Melissa Markham on October 29, 2008 at 04:36 PM

What an awesome classroom you created! If only all teachers were so inventive!

Comment by Jennifer on October 29, 2008 at 04:41 PM

Thank you for this Lori. What a beautiful illustration of letting children discover for themselves. I must get better at this. I use the workbooks, etc. to cover the basics, but I yearn to take a more natural approach.

Comment by Nancy on October 29, 2008 at 05:40 PM

Lori -- I'm terribly down with you and this post. I could still use some really practical tips on "the how to of provocation." Your example of the daffodils and easel is awesome -- and now I want more examples. Best of all would be if you could just *show* me for a few days. Wanna park your VW bus in the capital of NC? :) I can do this, I can do this. --Nancy in NC (PS--I think I actually *do* do this successfully, but I also flumox it up a good bit. What's a reasonable success/failure ratio for a homeschooling mom? ;)

Comment by Lynn on October 29, 2008 at 05:42 PM

Lori, this was wonderfully inspiring. Really got the juices flowing here. I tend to think a lot in terms of what I need to remove from the environment (clutter, certain toys, etc.) and not so much about what things I could offer here or there to kindle fires and inspire projects. Thank you so much.

Comment by Sarah Jackson on October 29, 2008 at 06:30 PM

I love this, Lori. When I add new supplies to the art shelves, I often don't say anything about it and when they start digging around looking for materials, they're so excited to find them. I have a bit of trouble balancing the discovery possibilities and order, so I have some work to do in this area. Also, I can get so excited about something new that I have to rein myself in better to let them discover it themselves. I guess curiosity and discovery never get old. :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 29, 2008 at 07:18 PM

melissa, thank you! it was an amazing school. i was lucky to work with some teachers who were just as passionate as i was about exploring these ideas. it was really an ideal learning environment; i'll never forget having that experience.

jennifer, thank you! you can try just one thing and see how it goes. e-mail me any time if you want to talk more. :^)

nancy, i would *love* to park my vw in nc. ;^) and don't worry about your success/failure ratio -- just worry about your try/don't-try ratio. think of all the great modeling you're doing for your kids -- don't be afraid to try something new, give it your all and don't worry about making mistakes, mistakes can be fixed, don't give up if things don't work the first (or second, or third) time, always pursue your best self... :^) i promise to share more examples if you promise to keep posting in the forum!

lynn, thank you. i also like to remove things; by removing clutter you really highlight what's left. also, it gives you a chance to put things away so you can rotate what you have -- making it seem like a lot more. (things are so much more interesting to children when they haven't seen them in awhile!) once you have pared down to the basics, that's when you can start thoughtfully introducing things. and it doesn't have to be purchased items -- it can be a bowl full of fall leaves next to your watercolors or a chunk of dead log on a tray with magnifying glasses and tweezers. more than anything, it's an attitude. but you make a really good point -- it's important to delete and edit before you add!

thanks, sarah! ;^) i keep back a lot of art supplies, too, both to rotate what's out and so every once in awhile i can just pull something out of my hat. dominic was doing a really beautiful sketch the other day and when he was done i said, "i think we have some scratch boards, would you..." and he was so excited. if i had the scratch boards out all the time, i know he would have thought that was sooooo booooring. ;^)

i know what you're saying about keeping your own excitement in check, too! but you’re right -- curiosity and discovery are ageless. :^)

Comment by Estea on October 29, 2008 at 07:51 PM

enjoying all the thoughtful comments

gotta say 6 different shades of yellow makes me SWOON with delight. this is something mrs. hogensen would have done. 8^)

my mom rocked this concept, particularly with books. i call it *suggestive decorating* now, but i wasn't on to her then, when she placed certain books ever-so-casually on the top of the piano, or in stacks in the stairwell (my favorite reading spot)...

i'm still learning this. my children are just like me, that is to say, obstinately independent, and they can lose interest when i overwhelm with enthusiasm. like a big muddy puppy jumping all over the thrill of their discovery.

but i'm working on it.

and the decluttering is so important! that's another work in progress around here. we've made inroads lately and it feels so fresh. like a blank canvas.

Comment by se7en on October 29, 2008 at 08:11 PM

You write such wonderfully inspiring posts. We have a dresser where our materials are out and available - its amazing what they come up with just left to themselves.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 29, 2008 at 08:33 PM

e, "suggestive decorating" is a good one. ;^) i learned this years ago when dominic made it clear that by showing him a book i was officially putting it on the "I WILL NEVER EVEN GLANCE AT THIS" list. i stopped talking to hiim at all and just hid things in his room. i couldn't even leave a book on his table or dresser; i had to put it *under* something. sigh.

the decluttering is, alas, a constant on my to-do list...

se7en, you are *too* kind. thank you. and yes -- just creating the right environment is 2/3rds of the battle. :^)

Comment by SnippetyGibbet on October 29, 2008 at 11:03 PM

Interesting. This may be the spark for my Preschool lesson on Friday. I just have to work out the logistics for an entire class in a half hour time period.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 29, 2008 at 11:15 PM

jan, let me know what happens!

Comment by Michelle on October 30, 2008 at 01:15 AM

Ohh as always, I love the way you present things. ..."juxtaposition of these things was a provocation"... has my wheels turning ;).

It is amazing too how just moving the same stuff around the house will spark new found excitement and discovery. I frequently do that with our toys. Just this week I moved our toy kitchen set from the library (where it was accessible but hardly touched) to the living room and all of a sudden my kids are playing kitchen all the time again.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 30, 2008 at 02:00 AM

michelle, thank you. :^) and yes! i noticed this summer that anything i bring outside that's not usually outside suddenly becomes brand new. location, location, location. ;^)

Comment by skye on October 30, 2008 at 11:54 AM

I am getting so much inspiration from your blog Lori. THANKYOU! !
Maintaining a stimulating and creative environment yet soothing and restful places for everyone too has always been up there in the way we homeschool. I loved what you said in the comments about try/not try ratio..I guess we're so hard on ourselves aren't we/.. I often feel like I'm not doing enough. And yet they're learning. It's a marvelous process to watch and partake in.
Again thankyou- you are full of great homeschooling wisdom I look forward to reading and learning more.

Comment by nancy on October 30, 2008 at 12:40 PM

I love this example!!!!!! I have struggled so many times when trying to get my children to try some cool new art project and they are not interested. When it's their idea it always goes much smoother. Thanks for the inspiration!

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 30, 2008 at 03:09 PM

thank you, skye -- you are so right, we are all so hard on ourselves. when really, the kids keep learning despite our mistakes, so we should just relax and do our best!

nancy, great! i’m glad this has inspired you! :^)

Comment by Quinne on October 30, 2008 at 08:06 PM

Hi Lori :) wow, again! Your posts along these lines are playing on my heart strings. I feel a change coming in our schooling, and it is thrilling (and oh how it challenges me). I am trusting the Father to lead. Thanks and ever thanks for sharing :) Love & hugs, Q

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 30, 2008 at 08:40 PM

quinne, i am so happy you are finding something useful here. :^)

Comment by meagneato on October 31, 2008 at 02:17 AM

I love this post! I truly believe in this idea, as I've worried that I've stunted my daughter's learning by telling her how to learn a certain way.. She wants nothing to do with writing because I made her do worksheets as I looked over her shoulder and nagged her about how to hold her pencil and how to form letters. :( Now, I have started just having things readily available to draw around with, and she is slowly coming back to drawing and writing through her own curiosity. My 7yo told me about a month ago that she doesn't want to go to school because she doesn't want someone to tell her how to learn, she wants to learn the way that she wants to learn.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 31, 2008 at 02:46 AM

meagan, thank you!

my sister still remembers her kindergarten teacher teaching her class how to draw stick men and stick women (triangle body!) -- and then forcing them to draw people that way from then on! lol. i think we can make a lot of mistakes with kids and still get back on the right track. ;^)

your daughter sounds very self-confident, which is awesome. :^)

Comment by SnippetyGibbet on November 2, 2008 at 02:57 PM

Hey, Lori........I posted about my lesson based on this blog entry. I linked to Camp Creek Blog as well. Thanks so much for all the inspiration and help. Taking baby steps is so much easier when you know someone is around to catch you when you fall. Let me know if you look at this and see any giant blunders or errors in thinking. Thanks.........jan

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 2, 2008 at 04:04 PM

jan, terrific! i will go straight over and check it out. :^)

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 2, 2008 at 08:14 PM

jan, your provocation is incredibly inspirational -- i posted about it so hopefully more people will see it! thank you so much for sharing your work!

Comment by Rachelle on December 7, 2010 at 05:02 AM

Thank you for this wonderful description of provocations! As you say, terms for fostering a child's curiosity vary widely, but they often mean the same thing. I'm an art educator and parent, and agree that it's important to put art materials out where children can easily access them when the mood to create strikes. And your own phrase "curriculum of curiosity" is fabulous. So glad I found your blog. Cheers!

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 24, 2012 at 09:02 AM

thank you, rachel!

Comment by kareen on July 23, 2012 at 11:09 PM

"I find that I am drawn again and again to the same core ideas, no matter who is talking about them — authentic art, children orchestrating their own learning, thoughtful and purposeful adults working with children, long-term projects."

I, too, experience this very same thing Lori. Its certainly good to find a place where others are celebrating values that I hold dear, rather than having them frowned upon and commented on in a condescending way. I am definitely constantly inspired by your work and I do enjoy the useful comments of others who participate on this site...its a great place to sit back with a cup of coffee and nod and cheer ferociously when I agree with what others here have shared. Yup, I like!

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 24, 2012 at 09:05 AM

it is good. :) and i’m glad you’re here to be part of this community. :)

Comment by Barbara in NC on January 13, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Lovely. Very inspiring.

I just love the work "provocation." To "provoke" often has such a negative connotation, and this has such a different feel. I love the activeness of the word--that our job isn't just to sit back and leave our kids to fend for themselves, but to beckon and provoke them into exploration.

Which in my experience is really not very hard to do. Every time a small change in our environment (often inadvertently) uncovers a tool or a toy that hasn't been front and center for awhile, it draws my kids in and they take another run at it.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 13, 2014 at 02:35 PM


thank you, barbara. :)

i agree, i also love the word “provocation.” it reminds me of the eleanor duckworth quote i put at the front of my book:

There are two aspects of providing occasions for wonderful ideas. One is being prepared to accept children’s ideas. The other is providing a setting which suggests wonderful ideas to children.

— Eleanor Duckworth 

provocations are such a lovely way of suggesting interesting ideas while not micromanaging them. :)
agree completely re: how easy it is to spark ideas just by tidying a space or uncovering a toy they haven’t seen in awhile!


Comment by Jen Sparks on June 17, 2014 at 12:33 PM

I have just discovered your website and I am enjoying reading it immensely, in fact so much so that I have also just purchased your book for my kindle!

We are currently living in and out of our camper van as we travel long-term. Our challenge is how to make our son's artistic tools and other toys consistently available to him in an enticing way when we are always having to pack it all up again so we can eat, sleep or drive to the next place. We do often rent a place for a month or so at a time, so when we do that gives us more opportunity to spread out, but we still are no where near having the organized and beautiful classroom that you recommend.

The world is our son's classroom, but we would like to make his portal to it even better. What ideas can you suggest?

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