When I'm around kids, I ask them questions all the time. The point is to make them wonder, to help them think critically. A lot of adults like to tell or teach kids things. In fact, I'll often ask a child a question, and a nearby adult will answer for/to the child.
But I think it's better to ask, hypothesize and explore -- especially in response to a child's own question.
Child: "How do I draw a dog?"
Adult: "That's a really great question, [child's name]! Where do you think we should start? What's the first part of the dog we should draw? Then what? Want to try it? We can always try again if we mess up."
Adult: "Uh oh! It looks like we did something wrong. Does any part of the dog look weird? How can we fix it? What should we do differently next time?"
By taking this approach, you send the important and powerful message that mistakes happen. Sometimes, even failure happens. It doesn't mean you're stupid. It means you have to learn, so you can do better next time.
It can be frustrating. But if you're having fun and it seems appropriate, you can go a little deeper with questions like:
Adult: "Great work! You put a lot of thought into your drawing, and it shows! But I wonder if that's the only way to draw a dog. What do you think? Is that the only way? Or is there another way?"
This gets them thinking -- and teaches them to test, iterate, and try again. It shows them that many problems have more than one solution. (And, by praising their effort rather than their ability, you reinforce a learning/growth mindset over a fixed intelligence mindset.)
And, again, it teaches them to persevere when things don't go right the first time. It teaches them that it's okay to take a risk, and that it sometimes takes a few tries to get it right.
I can't describe how great it feels to engage kids through this kind of dialogue. It's such a fun way to see into their mind -- to learn about the world, and each other. Here is another example to help you get started:
While playing outside on a longboard
Adult: "[Child's name], where do you think the skateboard will go faster -- on the dirt, or on the sidewalk?
Child: "The dirt!"
Adult: "Why do you think it will go faster on the dirt?"
Child: (says some explanation)
Adult: "That's a very interesting idea. Do you want to try it out to see if you're right?"
(We test it - the child's hypothesis was wrong)
Adult: "So what happened? Where did the skateboard go faster? Why?"
Another cool thing about talking and listening to children is that you often end up thinking differently, too. Kids have interesting ideas and strange senses of humor. Here's an exchange I had at a playground recently:
While at the playground
Child: "I want to look for caterpillars!"
Adult: "Caterpillars? Cool! Where do you look when you want to find a caterpillar?"
Child: "The air!"
The air? Most people would have expected to hear, "The ground!" But in Northern California, something special happens in the springtime:
But often, like I mentioned before, my conversations with kids go more like this:
Child: "I want to look for caterpillars!"
Adult 1: "Caterpillars? Cool! Where do you look when you want to find a caterpillar?"
Adult 2: "The ground. Caterpillars live on the ground. Right, [child's name]?"
Excuse me, Adult 2. I wasn't talking to you.
It's also important to note that when a child is working on something, you should give them praise and feedback for their effort. It sends the message that their hard work (rather than their natural ability) pays off. It makes them entrepreneurial and curious rather than careful and risk-averse.
You can often combine this effort praise with questions about the work. Try to avoid yes or no questions. Keep them more open. For example, say this:
"I like that you are spending lots of time covering the whole paper with paint. Can you tell me about your painting?"
"You're so good at painting. Is that a house?"
1. Effort praise builds resilience. When the child faces an obstacle or setback while painting, you want them to think, "Hard work will make it better," not, "I guess I'm not as good at painting as they said I was."
2. What if the kid isn't painting a house? You might accidentally embarrass them. There might be a cool story behind this painting, but you'll never know now, because the child doesn't want to talk about it anymore.
3. Asking them if it's a house limits their answer to a yes or no. Leaving the question open allows them to be more creative in how they answer. Because, sure. Sometimes a house is just a house. But sometimes it's a fort where the princess and her pet lion live.
In short, try to guide, but not always lead, the discussion.
You should also provide kids with opportunities and resources for growth. If your kid loves animals, take them to the zoo. Or even the creek in your local park. See how many different kinds of animals you can find living there. Ask your child about what relationships the different animals might have with each other.
Let them get their clothes dirty. The cognitive and motor skills they develop by playing at this creek are so much more important than a little bit (or even a lot) of mud. Plus, the whole playing-in-the-mud-may-build-better-immune-systems-and-decrease-their-chances-of-developing-allergies thing.
And let them love what they love -- whether that is stacking strawberry baskets or catching crayfish or ripping apart old electronics (just set clear rules and boundaries for them). Or whatever. Even if what they love is toilets.
This kids' parents are awesome. They could tell Dustin, "Ew, no! Toilets are gross! Don't touch them." But instead they did this -- and as a result, he's probably going to grow up into the best hydraulics engineer, water conservationist, toilet manufacturer or whatever, ever. His early childhood learning experiences will affect his curiosity and neural wiring for the rest of his life.
If you want your child to grow up into a curious, creative, inventive entrepreneur, be that kind of parent.