How to Cultivate Curiosity in Your Kids

IMG_9041 I little while back I was doing some research for a client and read this article on the founder of Two Bit Circus, Brent Bushnell. Taking STEAM (Science, Technology, Art, Engineering, Math) to the next level, I was drawn to Bushnell's ability to spark a spectacle of engineering, technology and performance. It was here I discovered the story behind Bushnell's curiosity and creativity.

Published by Narratively, "a platform devoted to untold human stories", Ringmaster of the Nerd Circus spins a tale at first about Brent Bushnell, but the deep dive uncovers his father, Nolan Bushnell. How I lived 42 years without knowing this man's name, is beyond me. Nolan Bushnell is the creator of Atari and Chuck-E-Cheese, and was an employer and mentor of Steve Jobs.

As a parent, Nolan created an unconventional learning environment for his 7 kids. “To teach is to have kids be knowledge seekers,” said Bushnell. To that end he created "blank spaces" in the home and access to tools and materials for the kids to explore and create with. In early elementary school young Brent was allowed to stay up all night and work through a project, eventually missing school. The outcome? His kids developed their passions and became entrepreneurs, innovators, engineers. Little television and lots of adventures.

The Bushnell family was fortunate in their earlier days to have great resources. But access and wealth weren't driving this effort, it was his parenting philosophy.

“If (kids are) pulling in knowledge because they're curious, it’s ten to twenty times more effective than if you’re pushing knowledge at them. Kids haven’t had the creativity squashed out of them like adults have. The objective of education should be to keep that creative spirit alive.”

This reminded me of Ben Hewitt's story, We Don't Need No Education published in Outside magazine last August. Similar to Bushnell, Hewitt believes in unschooling, that true learning takes place in doing. An excerpt from the article, here:

As soon as we liberated ourselves from a concept of what our son’s education should look like, we were able to observe how he learned best. And what we saw was that the moment we stopped compelling Fin to sit and draw or paint or write was the moment he began doing these things on his own. It was the moment he began carving staves of wood into beautiful bows and constructing complex toys from materials on hand: an excavator that not only rotated, but also featured an extendable boom; a popgun fashioned from copper pipe, shaved corks, and a whittled-down dowel; even a sawmill with a rotating wooden “blade.”

All of this swims in my head and heart as our boys prepare to enter middle school next fall. Despite my urge to flee for the country and make jam after reading Hewitt's story (which is now a book, Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting Off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World) I actually pushed forward on the traditional schooling route, attending info sessions on the middle school "academy" and the lottery application for my kids to go through a homogenous GATE program. Longer hours in school? Like minded kids placed together for advanced learning? After my two boys completed a series of essay questions for their formal applications I felt guilty. A part of me wants to run screaming from this, but I don't have the guts to expel these notions altogether.

Again, from Hewitt:

This is what I want for my sons: freedom. Not just physical freedom, but intellectual and emotional freedom from the formulaic learning that prevails in our schools. I want for them the freedom to immerse themselves in the fields and forest that surround our home, to wander aimlessly or with purpose.

I want this too. But instead of letting it all go (I'm just not there yet), I'll continue my commitment to the unschooling philosophy in my parenting approach--less focus on grades, more on experience. Failure is not only an option, it's a valuable form of growth. Passions supported. Curiosity cultivated. Adventure encouraged. Innovation applauded. Love expressed freely, and often. Keep the creative spirit alive.

P.S. Shout out to Little Bits, featured in the snapshot up top, where Max was using the electronics kit pieces to activate a LEGO creation and Beck was creating a doorbell for their room.