Exercising the Young Child’s Brain through Questioning
Adults like to tell. We have knowledge so we tell children what they need to know. We tell them the rules. We tell them how to interact. We tell them what to do. It feels natural to use our wisdom to instruct. It saves time. We already know what should happen so there is no need to spend time analyzing. The problem with all this telling is that we are doing all the thinking. Children are not forced to stretch their thought processes if we hand them the answers. When you are a parent or an educator, it feels like we ask questions all day long. Spend a day or two really listening to yourself. Note how often you instruct rather than ask. When you do ask, think about the structure of your questions. Are your questions encouraging critical thinking skills or are they just requiring children to recite lessons already learned? Are your questions open ended so that children need to really think?
Open ended questions, with no right or wrong answer, force children to use their brains differently than they do most of the time. As often as children ask me “Why?”, I like to ask them the same thing. When children tell me that their favorite color is blue, I ask why. When they tell me about their favorite movie, I ask why. It is interesting that the question “Why?” often stops them in their tracks. I recognize that early learners are challenged to reason. They have difficulty separating fantasy from reality. They don’t quite have the logical thinking skills to determine direct cause and effect. When I ask why, it is as if I can see their brains churning as they sort through possible responses. I believe that part of the dilemma is that they are used to asking that question but not answering it. It is fine when they respond with a shrug and I don’t badger them. It is interesting to hear whatever answer they may offer. Recently, a 3 year old told me that her favorite color is pink. I asked, “Why is your favorite color pink?” She thought for a moment and replied, “Girls like pink” – a very concrete answer based on how she sees the world around her. I simply smiled. I didn’t inform her that girls can like other colors. I didn’t add that some boys like pink. I didn’t make her wrong. I know that she is 3 years old and that her thinking will change. She didn’t need my help.
The behavior and socialization lessons of early childhood can also be approached in a way that encourages more thought through questioning. When young children are frustrated, they tend toward physical reactions. They push, kick, grab toys. Instead of telling them what to do next time, ask them. One of the lessons that we teach frequently in early childhood is that our hands belong on our own bodies. Our hands are not for hitting or shoving other people. Usually, a couple of months into the year, teachers can ask, “Where do our hands belong?” and young children will regurgitate what they have heard – “On our own bodies” – but do they really know what to do next? I once learned just how concretely 3 year olds will interpret this statement. A student wanted to get by someone who wouldn’t move so she pushed her. I said, “What can you do next time?” I expected this particular child to say that she should tell a teacher or go another way. She is very verbal with reasonably good critical thinking skills for an early learner. Instead she looked at me and asked, “Push myself?” I asked what else she might try and made a mental note to add to the lesson about how our hands are used. I learned from her answer to the open ended question that we hadn’t really taught the children what to do. We need to teach in one lesson that our hands belong on our own bodies and then ask what they might try instead of the uninvited touching of others.
Walk into almost any early childhood classroom during group or circle time and you will hear a teacher ask, “What is the weather today?” Children will report sunny or rainy or cold or warm. There is a right answer and a wrong answer. This question does not provoke deeper thinking. Perhaps our days should start with the question, “What can we do outside in today’s weather?” You might get some wishful thinking, but who cares? Children should be free to imagine. Whatever answers they give should be accepted. When a child draws a picture, the sky doesn’t have to be blue. When a child talks about what they can do in rainy weather, the answer does not have to be about umbrellas and puddles.
Listen carefully to your own conversations with children. Instead of doing the thinking, find ways to encourage the children to do so. Be careful to offer questions without judging their answers. We want young children to enjoy thinking creatively and deeper. Attempting more critical thinking should build self-esteem. Children can learn that they are capable, that thinking deeply is rewarding and adults can have a window into their view of their world.
For more information, click on these titles: "Should Preschoolers Ever Be Wrong?" and "Scaffolding & Extending Knowledge: How a Hairstyle Became a Teachable Moment"
Read my articles in “The Shriver Report”: "Stress in the Family: Helping Our Children to Cope" ; "From Working Mom to Working Woman: The Opportunity of the Empty Nest""Family Finances: Tips To Teaching Your Kids About Money""Equality in My Home"
Read this blog for more articles. Ask your parenting & education questions and learn about early childhood workshops for parents & educators on my website - Helping Kids Achieve
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