About Guiding Curiosity
Young children approach learning in the same way scientists tackle scientific questions. Children observe, manipulate, experiment, consider their findings in relation to what they already know, and then they repeat the process. Like scientists, children also posses theories about the way things work, and their actions are designed to test those initial theories or ideas.
This process – asking questions, making observations and comparisons, taking measurements, experimenting, and reflecting on results and elaborating – is often labeled critical inquiry. Inquiry is taught as a foundation for learning science in our schools.
Our premise is that parents can employ these strategies for guiding curiosity and nurturing imagination in the context of play. Providing their children with tools and encouragement for learning, building on what they are already doing.
With guidance, children can become more systematic in their explorations, think more deeply, and generate more and more sophisticated answers.
Young children learn best through play, not structured activities. We are not asking you to choose what your child learns, but rather follow his lead.
Our understanding of how children learn and develop knowledge is that they construct meaning for themselves through their interactions with people they care about and the activities they are engaged in.
We are asking you to:
- follow your child’s lead,
- observe what she is doing and how she is playing,
- listen to what she is saying,
- and gently and playfully guide her through one, some, or all of the following steps.
Resist providing the answers or solving the problem for her.
Always start with questions (yours or your child’s) and follow those with any or all of the remaining steps of inquiry.
At least initially, there is not an expectation that you work through these steps in sequence, but rather guide your child to what feels right or useful in discovering an answer to that question at the time.
The Foundation of Curiosity
Inquiry starts with questions, and young children ask many questions. So, everyone is already on the same page. Questioning is the first step, but it continues throughout the remaining steps of inquiry.
Initially, your child may not be the one to initiate a conversation with a question, so you can demonstrate. If you start the questioning, consider the following examples, “ I wonder what would happen if…”, or “ Can you think of a way to…?” , or “I am wondering why……” If you are stuck, consider Who? What? Where Why? and How? questions.
Remember that you are not trying to impose yourself into your child’s play if he is not interested in having you as a partner. Having observed his behavior, you are jumping in at a point where you think he is puzzled and helping to articulate that emotion and providing a way to think it through. Questions identify and define the problem.
Ask a question at breakfast, in the car on the way to school, when walking, when reading a book together, when bathing or brushing teeth. Every interaction presents an opportunity to think and discover.
Ask often and freely, about a range of topics. If your child asks the questions, that is even better, BUT resist giving the answers. Instead try rephrasing the question, or deflecting it back (“What do you think?”, “Let’s see what happens if…”).
You may need to focus a question, since young children can be thinking too generally [She asks: “Where does foods come from?” You respond: “Do you mean where does milk come from, or meat, or vegetables (choose one)?”]. Keep questions relevant to what ever your child is doing at that moment. Questions spur conversation and spark imagination.
Look AND touch, taste, listen, and smell. Accumulate information using all the senses.
Next communicate these experiences finding the words that capture the sensations. Ask for details or elaborations.
Parents can foster young children’s observational skills and emergence of language to communicate those observations through structuring questions and sharing conversations.
Drawing pictures is also a great way to capture the essence of an observation and is a record of that experience.
Compare and Classify
Refine your child’s observations through comparing one object or phenomenon to another. Classifying, or looking for patterns, is a natural tendency for children in this age group.
Classifying supports the development of logical thinking and recognition memory. Provide egg cartons or containers with compartments to assist this process.
Measurement is a fundamental component of inquiry. Learning to measure includes working with a variety of tools including rulers, scales and thermometers. Young children benefit from working with such tools and also nonstandard measuring tools. Use candy like licorice or uncooked linguini or one’s fingers and toes to encourage play while learning.
Equate hypotheses with if-then statements that are essentially another form of a question prior to initiating an experiment. Also invite predictions, or if I do something, then what can I expect will happen?
Experimenting or Creating Alterations/Transformations
In the context of play, young children experiment all the time. Our approach provides advice on how to extend these activities and make them more systematic to challenge your child’s thinking.
Experimentation includes manipulating or transforming objects to understand their properties.
Explaining Past Observations and Elaborating
Having worked through the steps above, it is time to summarize or elaborate. Children are highly motivated to seek causal explanations and interpretations of events.
The ultimate goal of elaboration is to make connections to other situations or phenomena and apply the newly acquired knowledge. For example, a child may recognize that wood floats, now what about metal?
Parents are especially well positioned to assist children in making connections because they know their interests better than anyone. Don’t be afraid to introduce abstract concepts and use the appropriate terms. You may not hear your young child repeat the word, but if used often and consistently, its’ meaning is sinking in (Science: friction, evaporation, acceleration. Art: perspective, tessellation, surrealism).