Harnessing the curiosity of a 9-year old

October 25, 2014


“SCREW YOUR courage to the sticking place – and we’ll not fail!”

Lady Macbeth was no fool. She knew how important it was to have high expectations of a husband.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for what many adults expect of their children in schools. Over the last five years I have visited more than 300 schools all over the UK and abroad (especially in Japan) giving lectures in connecting knowledge together using timelines, everyday objects and natural curiosity.

Private schools, state schools, small rural primaries, giant inner-city secondary’s, faith schools, academies, home education groups – I have been in them all. And for all the fuss that’s made by politicians and school inspectors about the issues of literacy, numeracy or classroom discipline there’s one issue that never gets mentioned. And it’s the one that matters most.

Unlike Lady Macbeth, most adults with young children in their care, have depressingly low expectations of them. The problem is partly an unintended consequence of the national curriculum, which sets the expectations of adults by saying what is and isn’t required of students across the spectrum of subjects and throughout the year groups between the ages of 7 and 16.

Gifted and talented initiatives are no solution in schools regimented by timetables and staffed by teachers judged by standards that are centrally set. Attempts to unblock this curricular constipation, by giving more autonomy to school head teachers over the curriculums they use through the Academies programme, may, in time, prove helpful. But the results will be a patchwork at best or overturned by more political shenanigans at worst.

Added to the misery is that modern parents are depressingly far removed from their natural responsibility of helping educate their children. That’s the schools job – the state’s job – or, in the private sector, that’s why parents pay such enormous schools! With both adults working full time in a battle to pay off the mortgage, it is hardly surprising they often feel unable to make much of a difference.

This is not true in the Far East. Last month I was able to give my What on Earth? history of the world lecture at Ritsumeikan High School, Kyoto, in English because, by the age of 15, all the students had a sufficient command of our language to be able to understand everything I said without the need for an interpreter.

During the same trip I gave a symposium to parents and children of 13.7 billion years – a family educational TV Show that has been broadcast each week for the last 18 months, telling the story of the history of the world based on the Japanese edition of my book What on Earth Happened? Over 2,000 parents applied for just 400 tickets and the TV studio, where I gave my lecture, was sizzling with parents and children eager to learn about the history of the world together. It was an exhilarating experience.

But the archetypical Tiger Mums of the Far East are not a British species. It’s simply not in our culture to push too much. It feels wrong. For many British parents (and even some teachers), child prodigies are odd-balls – embarrassing bodies of a mental, not physical, kind. Some are autistic and are ‘statemented’ as having ‘special needs’ – not because they clever but because they find it hard to fit in. It’s low expectations that hold our young people back.

How ironic, then, that that the natural curiosity of the human brain – the most powerful learning apparatus of all – peaks in most young people at about the age of 9. That’s what I have discovered from my time spent in schools across Britain.

I have no scientific evidence to back this up, of course. But my hunch is well-honed. If I ask a room full of 9-years olds what is the age of the Earth, I promise you that a good number of them – regardless of postcode – can tell me the answer is about 4.6 billion years. But if I ask the same question to a group of Year 10s, on average less than half as many will know. Adolescence, peer pressure, giant schools, self consciousness, junk food – mobile phones – who knows which factors are most responsible for the demise of natural curiosity and rise of disengagement (aka boredom) amongst teenagers during those fragile ‘transition’ years.

If curiosity peaks at such a young age then it stands to reason that we should have the highest possible expectations of such naturally sponge-like, curious brains. What’s so rewarding is that if I really challenge a room of 9-year olds – as I frequently make it my business to do – I am seldom, if ever, disappointed.

In my experience, the best way to engage young minds in what adults or curriculum experts traditionally consider difficult, complex or inaccessible topics is to focus on narrative and visualisation. Stories and pictures, having been ingrained into our evolutionary psyche over tens of thousands of years. These represent the most natural, hard-wired paradigms for learning.

Alongside these is the power of exploring the world through our hands -unsurprising, I guess, when one considers that modern human brains evolved through the tool-making antics of our stone age ancestors over more then 3 million years.

So my latest experiment, in partnership with Wallbook illustrator Andy Forshaw, is to create a series of timeline activity stickerbooks designed to tell giant, complex stories such as the history of the world, the story of life on earth and the complete plays of William Shakespeare to children between the ages of four and nine.

How can you possibly introduce a child of four to the complete plays of William Shakespeare?

First, unfold the 2 metre-long timeline from the back of the book, revealing a contextual framework in the guise of the Globe Theatre, where most of Shakespeare’s plays were performed.


You will see that the timeline is punctured with 100 white spaces, each in the shape of one of many of the most famous characters and props from Shakespeare’s 38 plays. The shapes mask a cornucopia of ghosts, fairies, witches, sword fights, shipwrecks and swooning lovers.

The sticker pages, at the front of the book, are themed. One contains characters from the history plays, another features the tragedies and finally a double page spread of stickers come from Shakespeare’s comedies.

Now just watch. The young child, ever so carefully, peels off the bizarre sticker of a human with the head of a donkey. Then, using nothing more than her hands, eyes and the extraordinary power of natural curiosity, she discovers for herself which of Shakespeare’s plays this character, called Bottom, comes from, as she rubs down the colourful comic image that she has just placed on the timeline.

The British disease of low expectations is, I believe, best cured by adults – particularly parents and grandparents – spending as much time as they can playing and learning together with these amazing young minds.

Of course, that’s far easier said than done with all the pressures of the modern world. But anyone who takes the trouble will also experience first hand the miraculous power of the young brain at is peak – fuelled by a wonderfully pure, unadulterated, preadolescent, cocaine-like curiosity.

The series of FIVE What on Earth? Stickerbooks is being launched today.

A beautifully box-set gift pack of all five titles is available for just £25.

The individual titles, each costing just £6.99, include:

This article first appeared in Weekend Telegraph on Saturday 25th October 2014


Recent Posts

Blog, News & Events

An Absolute Sell Out!

It with great joy and pride that What on Earth Books can announce the complete sell out of its autumn world history book Absolutely Everything! Designed to connect together the dots of the past through 13.8 billion years in 15 chapters, Absolutely Everything! went ‘unavailable’ on Amazon just 8 weeks after launch. A second printing is now well underway with new stocks due in bookshops and online by the end of February 2019.


An amazing book that deserves to be kept forever!

Scoop Magazine. January 2019 issue reviews Christopher Lloyd's world history book for kids, Absolutely Everything! Read all about it! We'd like to thank to wonderful Oscar, aged 10, for being writing such a fabulous review. And we are thrilled you enjoyed it!

News & Events

Illinois Chronicles to go to every school in the State!

What on Earth Publishing is delighted to announce that the Illinois200 Bicentennial Committee is funding the purchase and distribution of 10,000 copies of The Illinois Chronicles, a new approach to learning about State history K-12. All 5,000 schools in the State will receive two copies of the book, which is officially published on February 12th […]


Let the gift of knowledge go further this Christmas.

As the jingle of Christmas bells gets louder, it’s time to share some yuletide treasure. This year we are partnering up with Magic Breakfast to raise funds and spread some Christmas joy. Magic Breakfast is a UK charity that believes no child should miss out on the opportunity to improve their chances in life because they are too hungry […]

News & Events

Timeline Collection Wins Top U.S. Award

What on Earth Publishing’s ground-breaking series of fold-out timelines – The Timeline Collection – yesterday won the prestigious gold medal in the Parents’ Choice Foundation non-fiction children’s book awards. The awards, established in 1978, are one of the most highly respected in the country.

News & Events

The Story of Gibraltar

What on Earth Publishing is delighted to announce the launch of its new timeline title The Story of Gibraltar. Developed in partnership with MH Bland and Visit Gibraltar, this new timeline book charts the amazing story of the Rock from earliest times to the present day.


The Inspiration Edit reviews our NEW Dinosaurs! book.

Angela Milnes from The Inspiration Edit reviews our new book with The Natural History Museum, Dinosaurs!
“I love non-fiction factual books and this is a great book for kids. It has some lovely illustrations and lots of information to read…”


Curious Summer: The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Keep curiosity alive this summer with fab days out for the whole family. Have a Curious Summer and walk in the childhood footsteps of one of the greatest playwrights in history; William Shakespeare. Step back in time with a day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon this summer and discover the house where he was born and grew up, and […]

News & Events

Win a 6 month subscription to Juno Magazine!

This August marks the 50th issue of Juno Magazine, the magazine that promotes a natural approach to family life and to celebrate we are giving away a 6-month subscription to What On Earth? fans.  The bi-monthly magazine supports and inspires parents with more holistic views and each issue focusses on topics such as nutrition, home education, sustainability and […]

News & Events

Brodie’s dynamite Dino cards wins our £100 prize!

Wow! Have you seen this amazing hand-drawn set of Nature Top Trump cards from Brodie in Lincolnshire? A huge dinosaur fan and a talented artist Brodie’s set of cards impressed the whole team here at WoE?

News & Events

5000 FREE wallbooks… What on Earth? is going on?

From today until the general election (June 8th) we are giving away 5,000 FREE British history timeline books to the nation, so everyone has the opportunity to find out for themselves what it really means to be British!

News & Events, Reviews

An AMAZING talk, according to Gabe….

Last month we went to a presentation one evening at the kids’ school called “A History of the World in 20 Objects”. The presentation was given by author Christopher Lloyd, who wrote the book “What on Earth Happened”, and it was nothing short of amazing. The kids loved it, Matt and I loved it, and it’s actually resulted in multiple family discussions on historical events that have been both fun and interesting.


King Harold falls at Hastings as Normans invade England

THEY SAY that a month is a long time in politics. It’s even longer if you are an eleventh-century English king. On 25 September, the English king Harold Godwinson celebrated a magnificent victory at Stamford Bridge, in Yorkshire, after defeating an army of Norwegian invaders. But less than three weeks later he lay dead on a battlefield near Hastings, on the south coast, after his army was annihilated by French forces led by William, Duke of Normandy.


British History Story #3 – The Roman Invasion

World history is peppered with stories of walls: Hadrian’s Wall, The Great Wall of China, The Berlin Wall. None of them were particularly successful at keeping people out – or keeping people in depending on your perspective! So what is this fascination with walls all about? Christopher Lloyd explores…..

News & Events

The bigger the story the better!

Most people, especially when they write non-fiction books – are specialists of some kind. Our modern culture is obsessed with people being experts, doctors and professors – so much so that to succeed in getting a good job (or being taken seriously as a non-fiction author) you must be an expert. “What’s your special topic?” asks John Humphries, host of the famous BBC Series Mastermind. Maybe it’s a species, an event in history, a famous person, an invention, a movement or a historic place.


Brick Castle reviews Wallbook of British History

I love looking at new books with my children, and sometimes a different sort of book comes along that really makes us pay attention. The What On Earth? Wallbook Of British History is definitely very different – and very impressive.From outside the hardback cover the Wallbook Timeline Of British History looks like a regular large format book, but open it out and inside is a pocket magnifier, a 2 metre long pullout wallbook, and an 18 page copy of The Chronicle – a brilliant mock up of an imaginary newspaper.

News & Events

Sunday Times British History Poster

Christopher Lloyd and Andy Forshaw have teamed up with the Sunday Times to produce a unique What on Earth? British History poster. It will be distributed free with the newspaper throughout the UK on Sunday April 10th. The poster features 20 of the top moments in our island’s history from the formation of Giant’s Causeway 60 million years ago to the present day. The back page depicts a list of all the Kings & Queens from 1066 to 2016 with key achievements from each reign.

News & Events, Videos

Listening to the Sounds of Science!

The Sounds of Science is a three-way collaboration between solo percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, composer Jill Jarman and Wallbook author Christopher Lloyd. The project aims to demonstrate how a narrative timeline can be conveyed effectively through a soundscape. Click here to see a video excerpt of the world premier in Edinburgh

News & Events

A Bayeux Tapestry for the 21st Century

With over 1,000 captions and illustrations, readers are taken on a visually exhilarating journey through the ages: from the dinosaurs, the Battle of Hastings, Henry VIII’s Reformation, Oliver Cromwell’s Civil War, George Stephenson’s Rocket to the invention of the internet by Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s…and beyond!


Famous Author Christopher Lloyd Visits Truro Prep

Children’s author and historian Christopher Lloyd visited Truro Prep School on Wednesday 20 January to run an interactive workshop on Shakespeare. Mr Lloyd first taught Years Two, Three and Four in the Pre-Prep Hall followed by a second presentation to Years Five and Six later in the day.

Book Club

Winners of the ‘It’s extinct!’ November Book Club Competition Announced

We were inundated with some fantastic and scary pictures following November's Book Club competition in which we asked members to draw an extinct animal. We had great fun judging them all but there could only be three winners - congratulations to Nathan, Sebastian and Xander who have each won a personalised T-Rex-shirt.

Book Club

Absolutely Everything Quiz

Everyone's a Winner! Take part in our fabulous quiz and receive a free £5 voucher to spend in our online shop. Answer all 15 questions correctly and you could win a FREE copy of our forthcoming book Ocean!