Giving Yourself Permission to Be Curious

My interest in observing and interacting has enriched my work in early childhood for more than thirty years. Remarkably, I keep learning more about what it means to observe and interact and how complex it is to do well. We have busy minds – we make meaning of everything we see. We are always filled with our own agendas. But to truly observe another person – to try to understand what she is thinking and feeling – what is interesting for her in this moment, requires mindfulness – a willingness to suspend one’s own agenda to learn about the other person.

I’ve used the phrase “stance of persistent curiosity” recently in webinars, workshops, and presentations about interactions and assessment. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be curious when approaching a child for an interaction. For me, it means letting go of my agenda and watching and listening to figure out the child’s agenda. It requires a degree of holding back, watching and/or listening to the child before saying or doing anything. Margo Dichtelmiller, my friend and colleague used this phrase “stance of persistent curiosity” in her book, The Power of Assessment. I think it is an important idea because it reminds us that observing children requires an open, curious mind.

I believe that this stance of persistent curiosity is essential for all our interactions with children. We have to watch and listen to learn about what they know and can do and what they are interested in. That’s how we support them as learners and engage their interest. When we push our agendas on them, they usually don’t respond very well.

Simply pausing for a moment to observe helps you assume the stance of curiosity. In the photo, Maggie joins Sherelle in the block area, taking a moment to observe before speaking. She sees that the child is constructing ramps and has placed them at two different inclines.


Last month I visited a program and experimented with “the stance of persistent curiosity” as I interacted with several children. Turns out it’s really hard! As I joined three-year-old, Kayla, rolling playdough, my first thought was: I wonder what she can do with this material. I tried to use “mirror talk” (simply saying what I saw her doing). As I was about to say, “Kayla, I see you’re rolling the playdough” she pulled a small piece off and dropped it on the floor. Before I could say anything about the small piece, she picked it up. Then she quickly handed me the small piece. My mind was racing as I worried about what to say rather than simply letting myself watch and wonder about her exploration. I realized that I actually didn’t allow myself to learn because I was so busy thinking about what to do.

As I approached the next child, I concentrated on quieting my static about what to say and allowed myself to simply be curious. This time, as I joined the child, I noticed that he was stacking blocks. I said hello and asked if I could sit with him. He nodded yes. I resisted the urge to say anything other than “thanks”. Then I watched. It didn’t seem like he was choosing which blocks to add but rather trying to make his tower tall.

I said, “I see you’re adding more blocks to the top of your structure.”

He replied, “Uh huh. I want it tall.”

I reminded myself to simply observe, take in what he was doing. He was seated and using a lot of effort to reach the top.

I said, “I can tell that you’re working hard to reach the top of your tower to add blocks.”

Smiling broadly, he replied, “It’s getting higher.”

Then I knew what made sense to say next. If I was going to help him achieve his goals, I could offer him a strategy that would allow him to build a taller tower.

I said: “I wonder if it would help if you stood up so that you can more easily reach the top to add more blocks.”

Up he stood and continued working.

“Oh look at that,” I said. “By standing, you are taller so you can reach up higher to add blocks.”

He replied, “I got taller when I stood up.”

“Yes you did,” I said.

As I prepared to write this blog, I invited several teachers to think about how they use observation as part of interactions. I posed the question: When you join a child, what do you see? What does it lead you to do? And what happens?

About integrating observing and interacting, one teacher said: By working observations into my one-on-one interactions with children, I actually get an authentic picture of the child. I can use what I observe to decide how to scaffold the child’s learning. She went on to say that actually observing to learn gave her information she could actually use in a meaningful way.  Staying present and quiet and actually letting herself observe the child was really hard but worthwhile.

Crystal has been working on trying to document her observations while interacting. Here’s her insight: As I continue to feel more comfortable with the documentation process and powerful interactions, I have been trying to apply all that we have learned within my classroom. However, sometimes I have an agenda, while the child has an agenda all of his own. I have to be careful to listen for the child’s agenda and not railroad mine!

Michelle, a preschool teacher said: As teachers we are often so sure of ourselves with children but we shouldn't be because all children are different and we need to be mindful of that. She is experimenting with a stance of curiosity simply by asking permission to join a child before entering an interaction. She said: Sometimes they don’t want us to be a part of that moment. We need to know that that's ok too. She shared a story from a family math night of how she is practicing this approach.

A parent and her child from another class were exploring the balance/scale in my room. They were experimenting with the feathers and mini-bricks. I observed them interacting and smiled and said hello and introduced myself. I continued to listen and watch. The little girl began to dump materials somewhat aggressively into one side of the scale and her mom said "Whoa Whoa." I waited a moment or two and then interjected: "Can I ask you a question?" The little girl stopped what she was doing, smiled at me and replied, "Mmhm." I asked, "What if you put one mini-brick in the bucket on one side and then… (using an inquisitive voice) put a lot of feathers in the other bucket — what do you think would happen?" Her mom smiled and she looked at her mom and replied "I don't know!" and began filling. They carried out the idea and found the mini-brick weighed more and we needed "Soooo many more feathers" to make it balance. I think that by slowing down and watching and listening, I was able to suggest a strategy that built on her interest rather than simply getting her stop doing her “negative” actions. By asking permission, the child was more willing to experiment with my suggestion.

Jessica, also a preschool teacher, described the challenge of staying present and curious when there are so many needs of all the children and the other adults who come into her room during the day. To make it work for her, she said: I’ve made a commitment to being present by simply not engaging in a distraction, not looking away, and making a purposeful effort to stay committed to the interaction.

 Jenny’s response was: I love this topic! She went on to say: We as teachers are trained to follow structured agendas each day. Taking time to be present with a child is an escape from the confinements of our agenda. It allows us to lay down our own ideas, listen to the thoughts and ideas of a young child, and allow their thoughts to become ours for the moment.

Haley said: If I am able to quiet my mind I can be a guide or a detour instead of a roadblock to the child's agenda. As adults know, roadblocks can cause unwelcome frustration in one’s day!

Think about a time you allowed yourself, or perhaps wished you had allowed yourself to simply be curious as you observed a child. Perhaps you let go of your agenda and quieted your mind enough to be open to the child’s agenda. Or – experiment with a stance of persistent curiosity and share what happened! Please use the comments box for stories and responses. We can all keep learning together.