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Why Ask Why? New Research Looks at Children's Questions

Published:  December 1, 2009

At some point, most people who spend time around young children encounter a youngster who likes to play the “Why?” game. For those who are not familiar with the “Why?” game, a child asks a question and an adult answers, to which the child asks a second question: Why?

The adult explains the answer and gets the question again: Why?

For a long time, researchers believed that most questions young children ask were being asked in order to prolong a conversation, and not because the child wanted an actual explanation about something. Why? The belief was that children don’t have an understanding of causality until they are between 5 and 8 years old; meaning that they don’t see how one thing can happen or exist because of something else. However, as research continues to dig deeper into the minds of young children, many researchers are starting to believe that very young children—possibly infants—can make causal inferences about the relationship between objects in their environment.

Psychologists writing in this month’s issue of Child Development probe the relationship between young children and their surroundings by taking a look at what questions they ask and how they react when someone responds in order to explain why. Their findings provide new evidence of the power of language interactions between adults and children – driving home the point that the strongest learning environments are those in which adults engage in rich conversations with children, even those as young as 2.
The studies were conducted by Brandy Frazier, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, and Susan A. Gelman, and Henry M. Wellman, both professors in psychology at the University of Michigan.
Frazier and her colleagues hypothesized that if children actively seek explanatory knowledge by asking questions, then they will react differently depending on the answer that they receive from an adult. They set out to examine not only the questions kids initially asked, but also their responses to the answers adults gave them. They figured that if children ask questions strictly to spark or extend a conversation, then any answer they receive will be satisfying. But if they are asking questions because they want to know an answer, then the nature and length of that answer will effect how the child reacts.
“I was interested in the active role that kids play in finding out about the world,” Frazier explained in a conversation last week.
The report describes two studies. In the first, researchers examined transcripts of conversations between six children, ages 2 to 5,  to see what kind of responses children gave when siblings, parents, and other adults answered their “How…?” and “Why…?” questions. They found that even 2-year-olds reacted in different ways depending on what kind of explanation the adults gave. Children of all ages reacted differently depending on whether explanations were short or long, and on whether they satisfied the question that the child was asking. A hypothetical example: if a child asked, “Why is he laughing?” and an adult responded, “Because he heard a joke,” that child was significantly more likely to respond with agreement or more questions than if the adult had responded, “I don’t know.” After receiving these non-explanatory answers, children were more likely to not respond, or to re-ask the original question, than they would have been if they had received an explanation from an adult.
“It’s fascinating to me that a 2-year-old has these tools at his/her disposal,” Frazier said, “and uses them in very specific ways.”
The second study examined children’s questions and responses in a controlled environment. Forty two children between the ages of three and five were led into quiet rooms in their preschools, where researchers placed objects, storybooks, and other stimuli. The stimuli depicted surprising or unusual things, such as a story about a girl who pours ketchup on her ice cream. Adults in the roomgave controlled responses to the questions that children asked about the unfamiliar things. Once again, the researchers found that children seemed to be seeking explanatory information when they asked questions. For example, children were significantly more likely to agree or ask follow-up questions in response to explanations than in response to non-explanatory answers form an adult.
The studies raise some fascinating questions that Frazier and others will hopefully investigate in the future. For example, if preschoolers are asking deliberate, causal questions -– as appears to be the case -- what is the best way for their teachers to respond? How much detail should a teacher provide so that a child can best digest information? Are short, simple or long and detailed answers the best way to explain something to a pre-K student?
The study also holds interesting implications related to learning styles in different cultures. Frazier’s second study consisted mostly of kids of European and American descent, who are often encouraged to ask questions about their surroundings. But, as Frazier herself noted, other children are likely seeking out information in different ways, perhaps preferring to observe an unfamiliar object closely, or explore it hands-on. How do we best engage children who are less likely to ask questions about things they don’t understand?
“The fact that kids as young as 2 or 3 years of age are asking questions and actually seeking out information is an opportunity for parents,” Frazier said. The research should be inspiring to teachers in child care and preschool settings as well: it shows the power of an adult who will take the time to listen to a child’s question, answer and elaborate, listen to the child’s response, answer and elaborate again, and so on.


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