Children's Questions

I was a rather lonely child up until the age of six and found it easier to mingle with adults than other children my age. At that point, my little sister was born and I began spending every free moment with her. I used to look forward to playing with her when I returned from school and, as we grew up, I taught her many board games and set her assignments on various subjects too. I even correct them like a real teacher! In turn, she soaked up information like a sponge and was the first consistent example that I saw of the limitless ability and curiosity within each child. Over time, I worked with underprivileged children on life-skill programs with a company called Dream A Dream which cemented my realisation about how much I enjoy being around children and helping them realise their potential. I became a teacher because of these sentiments and these beliefs are what drive me to continue working in the education sector. Children fill me with optimism and hope – their inquisitiveness is infectious and it is their propensity to observe the world around them and ask searching questions that I shall examine in this essay.

At times, it might be easy to forget just how dependent children are on their primary caregivers. In their early years, they turn to their parents for guidance when they encounter a new situation and for reassurance when they want a validation of their actions. In a regular, healthy home environment, parents are usually responsive to their children and this can create a positive cycle that leads the child to ask more questions and seek clarification about the things that puzzle them. Their innate interest about the happenings around them and continuous questioning serves to build their banks of knowledge about the world, gain valuable skills, pick up languages and develop a better understanding of new experiences.

A child’s earliest questions, be it in the form of a puzzled glance or a requestive statement, appear to stem from a desire to obtain information via testimony to aid their understanding of the world (Harris, 2015; Frazier, Gelman & Wellman, 2009). This suggests that children are aware about their knowledge deficiency and expect the responses to their questions to plug that gap. I believe that this is the fundamental motivation behind why children ask questions and what they learn from these questions depends on the nature of the question that they ask (is it a what/why question? does it seek an explanation or a quick clarification? is it asking for something tangible/quantitative or intangible/qualitative?), the quality of the response received and the contextual elements at play – for instance, the purposes of a child’s question when he/she visits a zoo are probably very different from a question that he/she asks while performing a chore at home.

Let me consider the nature of the question under the assumption that the adult (or person responding) gives a satisfying answer to the child. If this child asked a ‘what’ question, he/she is probably seeking specific information about an object, event, emotion etc. Research indicates that these question types occur early in a child’s development when they are around 2 or 3 years old (Harris, 2012; Frazier, Gelman & Wellman, 2009). As a child grows older, he/she begins to ask ‘why’ or ‘how come’ questions that seek explanations for phenomena and things that they see around them that they do not fully comprehend. These questions may also serve a number of socioemotional or interpersonal functions, including exchanging information, sharing emotions or attitudes, and initiating or maintaining social contact (Gauvain, Munroe & Beebe, 2013). Besides categorising the nature of the questions on the basis of the question words they contain, it would be instructive to look at whether the question demands a qualitative, subjective response or a quantitative, objective answer. A child asking a question that requires the former is probably seeking out an opinion on a matter that he/she is unsure about or wants to discuss something related to feelings, emotions and/or relationships. A child asking a question that requires the latter is likely looking for a precise response towards a well-defined end.

To further the analysis of what a child learns from the questions he/she asks, it is important to investigate the quality of the response that they receive to their question. From the existing research cited in this essay, it is known that children genuinely seek information and understanding from the questions that they ask and are not trying to merely sustain a conversation or trouble an adult (Harris, 2012). A satisfying and quality response is likely to lead to follow-up questions from the child and more engagement with the topic being discussed. The conversation might enter uncharted territory and lead the child to learn more than he/she set out to. On the other hand, an unsatisfying response could either prompt the child to come up with his/her own answers (which could be wrong) or repeat/rephrase the question in the hope of getting an answer that he/she deems satisfactory (Frazier, Gelman & Wellman, 2009).

Lastly, the context in which the question is raised must be considered. Children tend to ask more questions at home than at school (Harris, 2015). Another trend is that children, who ask endless ‘what-if’, ‘how-come’ and ‘why’ questions when they are young, seem to gradually ask lesser such questions as they move up through school (Bronson & Merryman, 2010). This could be due to factors ranging from large class sizes to curriculum emphasising student answers rather than student questions. It could also be put down to children interacting with friends and/or reading material (either online or offline) to clarify their questions. This is more a case of children having questions but resolving them in less obvious ways rather than seeking out parents and teachers to verbalise them actively. Here, the questions, serve to spark peer learning, social interactions, information seeking behaviour and independence – skills essential to healthy adult development.

Building on the last point of the previous paragraph, the social element of questioning was one that we did not touch on during our classroom discussion. Humans are social animals and children are the epitome of what a socialising animal looks like. While they do ask questions to clarify anomalies and gain information, it would be naïve to discount the social benefits that stem from the interaction. One question can build on another and become a full-fledged conversation and I believe that children pick up on this and use questions as levers to interact with their parents, friends, teachers and other adults. Thus, above the benefits of learning from testimony about phenomena and things that surprise them, children build relationships and authentic bonds through their questions and exchanges.

Continuing with the analysis of the social motivations behind questioning, what a child learns from the questions that he/she asks is closely linked to the culture that he/she is raised in. One of my classmates mentioned the contrast between the collectivist culture in China and the individualistic culture in the United States of America as an example of how questions are regarded. For instance, in China, kids are told to not ask questions during lessons as that might disrupt the class and break the flow of the content. In my country, India, children are expected to respect their elders and critiquing or questioning them is not looked at favourably. Besides the signals that children receive from society, the family unit is significant in deciding the number and type of questions that children ask and what they might learn from the responses. Research indicates that children are greatly influenced by their primary caregiver’s style of questioning and seeking information (Harris, 2012) so it is evident that a child’s home plays a key role in how he/she thinks about questioning. It stands to reason that a family which encourages questions and responds accordingly will lead to children learning a lot from their questions while conversations might be shorter and less informative in households where questions are not regularly entertained.

Being an educator, I would like to conclude this essay by thinking about children’s questions in the context of schools. In a blog entry, journalist Warren Berger writes about Deborah Meier, founder of the Central Park East schools and considered one of the pioneers of the small schools movement, and her belief in creating school environments that enable children to become better questioners (Berger, 2017). One of the central tenets of her school were five “habits of mind” (evidence, viewpoint, connection, conjecture, relevance) and each had an associated question with it. She wanted her kids to constantly question, become critical thinkers and problem solvers and drew inspiration from philosophers and educators such as John Dewey and Jean Piaget. She listened very carefully to students’ questions and often found delightful insights – for example, a child was looking at a world map with North America in the middle and asked how it was that the East Indies are in the west! For Meier, children asking questions indicated what they wanted to learn about and, when they were given freedom to explore their interests, they processed content more deeply. Gaining knowledge became a joy as opposed to something being force-fed to them. These suggestions made me reflect on school systems in India that have teachers ask the questions and students give the answers. Copious amounts of syllabus put pressure on teachers to cover content in a didactic manner and there is limited time, if at all, to critically engage with a topic and question the various elements within it.

I am a firm believer in ‘why’ questions – if you ask some of my former students about my favourite question word, they are likely to tell you ‘why’! Nowadays, in many schools, children are being asked questions that educators call “higher-order” questions. They are asked to read, think about what they read, and explain ‘why’ they think certain things happen in the story. (Palacios, 2016). When they graduate from school, they enter a world that is fast-paced and are often expected to question things for themselves while solving problems in both their personal and professional lives. In all likelihood, children are going to have to make tough decisions as they grow older and it helps if they can critically question and reflect on the possible outcomes of these decisions. In this light, parents and educators should encourage children to never stop asking questions and, if anything, actively teach them how to ask smart, critical questions to set them up for long-term success in life.


Berger, W. (2017). Can a school be built on questions? A More Beautiful Question. Retrieved from

Bronson, P. & Merryman, A. (2010). The Creativity Crisis. Newsweek. Retrieved from

Frazier, B. N., Gelman, S. A. & Wellman, H. M. (2009). Pre-schoolers’ search for explanatory information within adult-child conversation. Child Development, 80, pp. 1592-1611.

Gauvain, M., Munroe, R. L. & Beebe, H. (2013). Children’s Questions in Cross-Cultural Perspective: A Four-Culture Study. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 44(7), pp. 1148–1165.

Harris, P. L. (2012). Children’s questions. In Trusting What You’re Told, pp. 22 - 44. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Harris, P. L. (2015). What children learn from questioning. Educational Leadership, 73, pp. 24-29.

Palacios, R. (2016). Why Do Children Ask, ‘Why?’ Huffington Post. Retrieved from

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This essay was submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the course EDU H180 - Cognitive Development and Trust in Testimony completed by the author at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The aim of the course was to critically examine widespread assumptions regarding early cognitive development, namely that children: (i) mostly construct their own ideas and theories about the world; (ii) rely primarily on their own first-hand observation; (iii) ignore corrections and suggestions made by other people; and (iv) arrive at their own, innovative solutions to problems. The course examined an alternative possibility that children are often willing and even credulous pupils rather than self-sufficient autodidacts. As such, they adopt ideas about the world supplied to them by other people; spontaneously seek information from other people, especially by asking questions; revise their ideas in the light of what they are told; and often have difficulty in arriving at their own independent solutions to problems.