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'Why' Questions Play Big Role in Early Learning

When my youngest was about 4 years old, she asked one day about what happens to the water in the sewer pipes. So I proceeded to give a lengthy, but age-appropriate—I thought—explanation about how the water travels to a sewer plant to be treated and made clean again.

After listening quietly, she paused for a moment. Then she asked: "But who waters the sewer plant?"

I remember the broad smile that lit up my face. "Good question," I responded.

Granted, I may have been talking a bit over her head, but the fact is that we were conversing about something that interested her, as we often did during the many hours we spent alone together during those early years.

That kind of questioning and interaction plays a bigger role in early learning than we previously thought, according to a new book by Harvard University education professor Paul L. Harris.

In "Trusting What You're Told," Harris argues that the longstanding idea that kids should be self-learners who gain knowledge mainly from their own explorations and observations is flawed. In the book's introduction, Harris notes that we adults could barely get through the day without information from other people. It's the same with kids, he says.

Harris explored the ideas behind his book in a recent online interview on salon.com. He noted that a toddler's endless "Why?" questions are much more than just a claim for a parent's attention.

"If a child spends one hour a day between the ages of 2 and 5 with a caregiver who is talking to them and interacting with them, they will ask 40,000 questions in which they are asking for some kind of explanation," Harris said during the interview. "...And it's not just attention seeking. When children ask questions and you answer them, that is actually a setting for a sustained dialogue, and they're trying to get clear in their minds about a particular issue that's confusing to them or bothering them."

Harris' book explores lots of interesting ideas, including the impact of a mother's level of education on a child's inquisitiveness and why kids trust what they learn from their parents.

One interesting note: Harris says in the interview that by the time a child is 5 years old, "if a familiar person starts saying things that from the child's point of view are incorrect or implausible, the child will become less receptive to that person."

Now the mother of adolescents, I surely can relate to that. Kind of makes me nostalgic for those long-ago toddler days.

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