Children are extremely inquisitive because they're extremely observant but, over time, their observational skills have the potential to fade. 

Whether that's because we're likely to become annoyed with their "Why? Why? Why?" questions, or we're too consumed with our own thoughts to have a conversation about theirs, observational skills are EXTREMELY easy to develop (and the benefits of doing so are many)! 

My two children, Harper (6) and Frank (4), have VERY different interests. 

When Harper was two-years-old and started potty training, she became extremely interested in public restrooms. (She was one of those kids who would say she had to go just to get a peek inside).

After a few weeks of getting frustrated with her, I decided to use her interest as an opportunity to develop her observational skills instead, pointing out things in each restroom that made it different from our's at home, making comments like:

"The toilet just flushed automatically. That's cool, our toilet doesn't do that!"

"This sink's faucet is automatic, too."

"The faucet's water stream is soft and spread out like a shower, not strong and streamy like a river."

"The soap is not automatic; we have to pump it like our bottled soap at home."

"There's no hand dryer in this restroom like the last one, only paper towels. We use a towel at home."

"Look...they've put a garbage can next to the door so we can open it with our paper towels, then throw them away."

This kind of "thinking out loud" not only helped her recognize the nuances of each and every restroom we entered, but it created an opportunity for us to have conversations about her observations.

Additionally, it gave her an opportunity to give her father "Restroom Reports," sharing all the details of our experiences with him too.

My son, Frank, has very different interests however.

In addition to loving all things creepy-crawly (like gigantic snails and worms on the sidewalk after a good rain), he's border-line obsessed with claw games.

What started out as a one-time thing while out to dinner with the kids (giving daddy a chance to show off his skills) has turned into a weekly event at the grocery store, motivating Frank to do odd jobs around the house (like put away my hot rollers once they've cooled off) so he can earn dollars to play the games. 

What's interesting about his passion for "THE CLAW" (insert alien voices from Toy Story here) is that it's given us an opportunity to develop HIS observational skills in a completely different way based off of HIS unique interests.

For example, when asked, Frank can tell you:

  • which restaurants do (and do not!) have claw games

  • how much those games cost (.25¢, .50¢, or $1...as well as how many quarters that equates to)

  • which games are "rigged" (i.e. have an impossibly weak grab)

  • which games allow you to drag the stuffed animals (making it much easier to win)

  • how much time each game gives you (20 seconds or 25 seconds)

  • which animals are going to be the easiest to win (based off of whether they're laying horizontally or still positioned vertically)

Obviously, we've allowed him to play a LOT of claw games... and Harper's visited a LOT of public restrooms... but both activities have engaged all of their senses, providing us with something to talk about (other than the princesses and ninja turtles they see on TV).

Well-developed observational skills aren't just important for conversational skills however, they're essential for growth in other areas too such as academics, specifically phonemic awareness activities (i.e. recognizing beginning sound and identifying rhyming words) which require children to LISTEN for similarities in the spoken word, but also in word family activities (i.e. dot, hot, pot, shot, etc.) which require them to recognize VISUAL similarities in words, helping children learn how to read and write.

As awesome as well-developed observational skills are at increasing a child's conversational skills AND his/her academic skills, helping children become more aware of their surroundings is beneficial for developing their ability to be more compassionate and empathetic as well.

When my children were infants, I felt like I did a good job of recognizing the fact that their emotional outbursts were tied to their physical needs, always asking myself "WHY THE CRY?"

Is she hungry?

Is he tired?

Is there a hair wrapped around her toe?

Does he need a new diaper? 

Is she constipated?

As they've aged however, I've stopped asking myself that question... but am making a conscious effort to do so again, realizing their emotions are often tied to a larger issue lying just beneath the surface.

Maybe they're tired, hungry, or bored?

Maybe they're acting out because I've been working extra hard this week and they miss me?

While doing so, I'm also trying to be more intentional about emphasizing other people's behaviors to their emotions, too... especially after Harper came home from school the other day explaining how one of her classmates had gotten into trouble, which prompted me to say...

"Maybe your friend was hungry because she didn't have breakfast this morning... or maybe she got in a fight with her mommy before she got on the bus? You NEVER know what's happening in the lives of others but, odds are, something's bothering them and causing them to act up."

As soon as I said that, I got a taste of my own medicine, realizing just how strong Harper's observational skills had become as she immediately began recounting an incident that happened recently when, after a long and difficult morning, I'd become frustrated with her brother Frank, resulting in him having a rough day at school too.

While observational skills are essential for the development of our children's conversational skills, and even their academic skills, the benefit of teaching our children to be aware of the things around them makes it easier for them to be more aware of the people - and their actions - too, helping increase their abilities to be both compassionate AND empathetic towards others.

Beth Nowak is a former Kindergarten teacher and mother of two who wanted to make memories with her children while making a difference in her community. Helping other parents do the same, she left the classroom to create Giving Families' Good Mail Challenges... fun and easy, family-friendly giveback activities that can be completed anytime, anywhere using materials readily available in most homes. To learn more and join the family, visit GivingFamilies.com.