Loving to learn: How curiosity drives cognitive development in young children


From their earliest days, young children are genuinely curious. When infants are presented with two competing visual displays, one of them familiar and one novel, they will choose to look at the one they have not seen before. Toddlers will try to learn to walk even though they just found an efficient way to locomote through crawling. Here, I propose that this strong motivation to explore, children’s exuberant curiosity, is a crucial driving factor of developmental change. However, to date the impact of curiosity on early development has received little attention. This is all the more astonishing, as children’s intrinsically motivated exploration of and learning about their environment likely has long-term consequences for their cognitive development. This project will be the first to study the neurocognitive underpinnings of curiosity in early childhood and the influence of curiosity on children’s later cognitive performance and academic success.
To push forward our understanding of young children’s curiosity, I will build on the promising learning progress framework recently put forward within cognitive science and artificial intelligence. The framework proposes that learning progress is intrinsically rewarding for the developing organism and as such forms the central element of intrinsic motivation to explore and seek out novel information. Using a combined cognitive neuroscience and developmental approach, I will examine whether children’s exploration behavior is the result of a search for learning progress and whether individual differences in curiosity impact young children’s long-term cognitive development and academic performance. This project will yield novel insights into the working mechanisms of curiosity and into why some children are more intrinsically motivated to explore and learn than others. I will then leverage the new knowledge to investigate how optimal learning environments can be created for all children and develop a training for professionals working in childcare and early education.





Prof. dr. S. Hunnius

Verbonden aan

Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, Donders Institute, Centre for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour


01/08/2020 tot 31/07/2025