The Challenge of Stimulating Curiosity (in China)

Since our baby was born in 2011, I’ve resisted the urge to flood my blog with baby topics. But as our little one learns to talk and begins to explore the world around her, I can’t help but delve into issues of first language acquisition, bilingualism, and culture. These are all topics I’ve thought about before, but never have I had such powerful motivation to really dig into them.

Photo by Maristela.O on Flickr

I recently read this in an issue of Growing Child newsletter:

> Many studies performed on both animals and humans have shown that exposure in the early years to surroundings that are dull and monotonous can permanently reduce curiosity.

> This results in a vicious circle of intellectual poverty where lowered curiosity resulting from inadequate stimulation leads to still less curiosity, and so on.

I’d be interested to see what the “many studies” were, exactly (leave me a message if you know!), because these two paragraphs strike me as particularly relevant to China.

When I think of my own childhood and look at my daughter’s so far, it’s not hard to apply “dull and monotonous” to a (relatively) small Shanghai apartment, the lack of a backyard, the lack of an open natural environment to explore, etc. I won’t even get into the obvious problems with the local school system.

In addition, here in China the fostering of creativity is often presented as something that needs to be accomplished within schools. In reality, children’s natural curiosity needs to be nurtured much earlier, before the “vicious circle of intellectual poverty” begins.

Is it still possible to stimulate curiosity in children while living in China? Of course! I have no doubt that it is. It just means parents here have to work a bit harder than my mom could get away with: “go outside and play.”


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Hi John and readers,

    I’d be interested to know thoughts regarding which language to teach “at home”. For us, we will be living in Australia so obviously everything around is going to be English based but we want our children to be able to speak Chinese fluently as well, if for no other reason than to be able to communicate with my wife’s side of the family but more importantly to enable them to be truly bilingual for many reasons.

    I’m curious about whether teaching Chinese at home (or in your case, teach English at home) is seen as something that will cause learning problems for the child who is trying to do well at school in the primary language in that environment. If we teach and focus on Chinese at home, will this affect the child’s development in English in the classroom. I hear a lot of arguments about how bilingualism is great for learning and that bilingual people are able to learn better etc etc.. but what about the early stages of development.. is it all too much to handle for a small child?

    Just trying to work it all out now as we are getting closer to having our first child… 🙂

    • Hi!

      what about the early stages of development.. is it all too much to handle for a small child?

      Multi-languages being taught to young toddlers/children not only will not affect their English(or whatever main language) development in class, it enhances their brain development and intellectual ability even more.

      My oldest sister who chooses to speak with my little nephew (4 now) only in Mandarin (even though she and her husband speak both English and German with each other). Her husband who is German, speaks only German with him. And from playing with neighbor kids and in pre school, he learns to speak English(they live at north California). He is totally fluent (speaks in complete sentences) in all 3 languages. He could even distinguish what languages to use depend on who he meets before 4yrs old. We could guess he chooses to use mandarin when he meets a Chinese because of black hair? But we still don’t know how he distinguishes the differences between an American blonde and German blonde, for example, for his choice of languages.

      But anyway, children’s brains are like sponges, thirsty for knowledge. It will never be too much! 🙂

  2. My 1.5 year old kid has so far spent 7 months in China and the rest of the time in Canada. China is so so hard to live in with a kid!

    As for curiosity in very young children though…I think there should be ways to combat that: Meet up with other parents & kids. Go to parks. Get lots of books. Go to those childrens’ play zones with all the crazy toys.

    I’d be more worried about the pollution. What effect will the toxins in the air, food and water have on children growing up in China? I suspect that will be a lot more serious than the lack of open space.

  3. @light487: Me (French) and my wife (Taiwanese) live in the UK. We have decided that I would only speak French and her Chinese to our son, even though we speak English between us. He goes to a British childminder and now at 2 1/2 speaks French to me and his mum, then Chinese when she complains. He speaks English to our friends.
    We haven’t found any issue with this approach and he will switch naturally between languages and even do translation when we need it.
    So I don’t think there is an issue with learning other languages at home.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. That’s basically what we were thinking of doing also. In our case, my wife is Chinese and I am Australian, so I would be speaking mainly in English with a little bit of Chinese here and there while my wife would pretty much speak Chinese exclusively when talking with our child(ren). I might even learn some more Chinese as I go as well! 🙂 haha..

      These are the things I can’t wait to experience.. to see my child(ren) speaking bilingually, switching with effortless ease from one language to the other as the situation merits.. 🙂

  4. We as a family Immigrated to the USA from The Netherlands when I was just over 1 year old. We spoke only Dutch in the home and I learned English by watching TV and playing with the kids outside.

    I don’t remember ever having any problems with either language. At home I spoke only Dutch and outside, at school, etc. only English. I switched between the languages without ever giving it a thought. It seemed as natural as walking.

    My wife (from Chongqing) and I have a 3 year old son. We live in California and he attends a bilingual preschool (Mandarin/English). My wife speaks mainly Mandarin to him and I speak mainly English but throw in as much Mandarin as I know, since I am still learning Mandarin. Just entered the Elementary level at ChinesePod. I also throw in an occasional Dutch phrase. The Dutch usually comes out when I have to yell at him.

    My son has no problem with the different languages. just yesterday, he wanted to wear his Spiderman pajamas. I told him they were dirty. He replied “Bu shi. Ganjing.” I looked at him with a perplexed expression. I replied “Ganjing?” He said, “Clean Baba, clean.”

    Children are smarter than we give them credit for. Teach them both languages at the same time. They will thank you for it later. Trust me on that one.

  5. Re: prompting creative and exploratory play with children, have you checked out The Imagination Tree website ( They have really good ideas for sensory play for all ages and the activities would be easily adapted to indoor play in China. Good luck!

  6. Ai-Ling Weston Says: February 21, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    I’m Chinese and my husband Australian. I think children can only learn a second language at home when both parents communicate in the 2nd language. If the language has to be translated, it won’t work. If your children are able to learn/speak a 2nd language at home, they’ll most likely have a bit of learning problems when they first go to school. My children were a little slow in understanding instructions simply because I didn’t use some of the words most Australian mothers would have used at home. I think as long as the parents persevere with the 2nd langauge at home, the children will compartmentalise their language learning and be bi-lingual. If your children are not able to learn Chinese at home, let them go to a school that teaches Chinese. They can always go and live in China and do some ‘intensive Chinese’ when they’re older.

  7. I think it’s probably not as big of a problem as you think it is, it just makes things a little more challenging, like you say. You may not have a back yard, but the streets of Shanghai are hardly non-stimulating 🙂 I’m hardly an expert on child development–just what I’ve read and observed in my own two small children. But even in a small space you can do plenty to stimulate curiosity I think. Give them lots of books, art supplies, music, toys that require them to use creativity instead of sit back and watch. Give them real world items to play with, depending on the age of the kid, that use different fine motor skills–containers to open and close, belts to buckle, rice to pour from one container to another, etc., or things that have different textures, or make different sounds when you bang them together, or whatever. Talk to them lots and play with them. Turn off the tv/DVD’s always and limit time on ipads and such. Take them outside, whatever outside looks like, at least when the air won’t kill them. Introduce them to all kinds of food. Involve them in what you’re doing, and don’t forget that something like washing the floor is fascinating to young kids. We have a Montessori kindergarten nearby that we’re very happy with for the older one. All that being said, I do consider us lucky to live in an apartment complex that has good outdoor areas for kids to run around and green space nearby, and even after 3 years here I still feel like it would be much easier to raise young kids in the US.

    light: the evidence is strongly in favor of almost all small children being able to handle bilingual input (maybe with a few exceptions for some types of special needs). Go for it!

  8. David Straub - (Ray's buddy) Says: March 6, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Hey John, my son is 20 months old. Here in Fuyang (s. of Hangzhou) my wife and in-laws play with him all day. Then at night I play with him. I think he gets a lot more stimulus than most kids. The stimulus he is missing is among his peers. There is simply not the culture of neighborliness over here and families don’t get their kids to play together as much as when I was growing up in the states. Chinese are pretty cautious about making friends with strangers, which you have to do if you are looking for another infant of roughly the same age to play with your kid.

  9. I actually just got a free ebook about kids being raised billingual from Amazon. It’s called, “Be Billingual: Practical Ideas for Multilingual Families” by Annika Bourgogne. I haven’t finished the book yet, but it is pretty good so far.

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