How reading non-fiction can ignite your child's curiosity

If we could stand like fairies round the cradle of every child, there are all sorts of gifts we’d like to confer, but in the real world, it isn’t possible to give ‘lifelong health and happiness’ to any child. There is, however, a gift that we can give that will last a lifetime, help the recipient to achieve their full potential and build an inner life that can withstand almost any crisis or trauma. It’s curiosity.

Curiosity - the desire to find out more - is a powerful engine that can drive a child’s learning. It can keep a person engaged with the world around them, distracted from interior darkness and depression, and constantly exploring the lives and experiences of others.

So how do you get the flame of curiosity burning? Well, as any Ray Mears enthusiast will tell you, you can’t start a fire by taking a match to half a tree. That first little spark must be carefully ignited with the right materials, and then nurtured with fuel of the right size and scale, dry moss, then twigs, before you work up to whole branches. But build your flame correctly, and eventually the fire will consume whatever you put on it.

Happily, that delicate spark of curiosity seems to be innate in every child, but it is easily extinguished if too much raw information is tipped upon it. ‘The Internet’ which is mistakenly thought of by some (even some head teachers and parents) as the superior successor to children’s non-fiction, can act just like a giant pile of wet logs - put that on your child’s head and the spark of curiosity will be instantly smothered. But age appropriate, well written, well designed, well illustrated non-fiction offers exactly the sort of flammable kindling that can coax a spark into a roaring flame.

That delicate spark of curiosity... is easily extinguished if too much raw information is tipped upon it

Non-fiction - like fiction - is a very broad church. There are books that present bites of information, so you can dip in and out at almost any page. There are narratives that weave the information into a form that can be read just like fiction. And there is everything else in between. It’s really important that parents and teachers read these books with children just as they would a story book: curl up on the sofa, or the in the story corner and share them in just the same pleasurable way that you would a favourite fairy story.

Don’t feel that you have to choose a non-fiction title that covers something you already know about; it’s great if you take the opportunity to share your enthusiasm (as enthusiasm is incredibly contagious) but resist the temptation to be a pile of wet logs! Remember that one of the great strengths of reading non-fiction with a child is that you can discover something new together. That’s a source of delight for both child and adult, but also incredibly important for children to learn that grown ups don’t know everything and that you can go on learning all your life. Reading non-fiction with a child can set you both on a new journey of discovery and exploration that the child may well end up leading - and how empowering is that for a young person?

Reading and talking about a variety of non-fiction, especially narrative non-fiction, models some very important skills: the ability to extract information from prose, process it and re-present it in another way. Think about that for a minute. In what area of your life is that NOT a useful, no, an essential skill? The valuable lessons that reading non-fiction have to offer have been recently recognised in America. College students raised on a diet of pure fiction did not have the skills necessary to interrogate texts and extract what they needed to learn. So in a recent remodelling of the curriculum, non-fiction texts, specifically narrative non-fiction, have been placed at the centre of children’s learning at primary and secondary levels.

Reading non-fiction with your child has a host of demonstrable educational benefits, but I urge you to try it for reasons of joyfulness. Do you remember exploring as a child? Running into a new park, placing your feet on the sand of a beach where you had never been or chasing up the stairs of a new home? Do you remember how wonderful and alive you felt in those all absorbing moments of discovery? That is the feeling that non-fiction offers - for children and for their grown ups.


Nicola is writing as part of National Non-Fiction Month. Read her blogs on using nature to inspire creative writing, and find out about her tour with us here.

Nicola Davies

Nicola Davies is a zoologist and has produced and presented radio and TV programmes, including The Really Wild Show. Her books for children include Poo, Extreme Animals, Ice Bear, My First Book of Nature and the Silver Street Farm series. She lives in Abergavenny, Wales.