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.



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
Copyright 2014 © Cindy Terebush
All Rights Reserved

Please do not sell, post, curate, publish, or distribute all or any part of this article without author's permission.   You are invited, however, to share a link to this post on your webpage, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and other social networking sites.


  1. Fab post. This is something I use with kids in my work - with great results.We are always trying to educate parents on the benefits of listening to their children using different methods :)

  2. This is a dynamic reminder. As an Instructional Coach working with PS/PK and Kinder teachers, I encourage them to not only provide questions that support critical thinking but also provide provocations such as dropping food color into the water table while the child is playing and waiting for the child to begin the conversation. Thank you!

    1. Thank you for the feedback! I am currently studying for a couple of coaching certificates. We speak the same language :)

  3. "Be careful to offer questions without judging their answers." This is such an important part of asking open-ended questions and probably the hardest part for some parents.

    The last step of our ABC's of Parenting includes a brainstorming and "free thinking" time during which children can creatively problem solve with their parents...no ideas are judged. Allowing a child to explore cognitively and creatively without fear of repercussion will enrich their problem solving skills well into adulthood.

    Thanks for the fabulous article!

    1. You are very welcome! I will be writing more along this line of thinking! Please feel free to share via social media.

  4. Thank you! You make two wonderful points for parents and educators in interacting with young children. Ask open ended questions and then encourage creativeness by not correcting the answers. Yes! This is such a positive mindset to live in. This double dynamic is really one of the keys to raising children to become self-confident thinkers and initiative takers.

    The more I think about this the more excited I become. When I intentionally address a young child with a question, often the adult will jump in and answer. The look on the child's face is often one of disappointment. It is a extremely important service you provide by coaching parents to be aware of the importance of enabling their children to express themselves without fear of criticism.

    1. Thank you! I am actually working on a new website & aspect to my career having to do with coaching families. A new website is being designed and I hope to unveil it soon.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Tips for Teaching Children to Feel Proud of Themselves

Do You Want Your Young Child to Write? Tips for Encouraging Literacy Skills

Preparing Preschoolers for Next Year: 4 Ways to Make Change Less Scary