When children are engaged in play-based learning, the teacher (or parent) plays a very different role than what we think of when we envision a teacher standing in the front of a classroom conveying knowledge or the parent sitting next to the child teaching a skill. (That more formal instruction, called direct instruction, definitely is valuable, but for young children needs to be balanced with guided play and free play.)
One of the most important ways we facilitate learning in a guided play setting is to ask questions that extend the child’s learning and help them take their exploration to a new level.
When I say to ask questions, I don’t mean to quiz a child about basic facts. If a child is engaged in an exciting experiment with pouring and scooping in the sensory table, and you use it as an opportunity to test their knowledge of academic facts (“what color is that scoop” or “how many toys are there?”) then you’re interrupting their learning. If they know the answer to your question, they don’t learn anything by answering. If they don’t know it, they feel stupid. And it didn’t show that you cared about what they were experiencing.
Here are some general rules / suggestions about good questions:
- Don’t ask any question you already know the answer to. That’s not interesting for eithr of you!
- Don’t ask closed-ended questions, those with a single right or wrong answer. Instead of “what color is that scoop?” say “What can you tell me about the scoops?”
- At the start of a project, if they’re trying to figure out the solution to a problem, ask: “What information do you already have?” “What do you need to learn next?” “What will be your first step?”
- When they are working, instead of saying “what is it?” say “tell me about it.” “How did you do that?”
- Ask them to observe: “What do you see here?” “What do you know about the things you see?” “Does this remind you of something you’ve seen before?”
- Ask them to explain things: “What do you think? Why do you think that?” “Do you see any patterns forming?”
- Ask them to make predictions: “What will happen next?” “What would happen if…”
- If they’ve slowed down in their work, or are looking uncertain about what to do, you might offer “what supplies can I get for you?”
- If they’re stuck and come to you for help, ask: “can you describe the problem?” “Can you tell me what you’ve tried so far?” “Let’s think of lots of things you might try next, then you can decide which thing to try.” Then brainstorm with them, not giving “the right answer” but giving some helpful options and maybe some crazy not-helpful ideas.
- When they’re done with something, ask: “What were you thinking about while you worked?” “What did you learn today?” “Is there something you would do differently next time?”
When you ask a question, wait for a response – sometimes it takes a young child several seconds to gather their thoughts, then a few more seconds to put their thoughts together into words. Listen patiently and attentively to their response.
Don’t overdo the questions. Would you enjoy working on a hobby if someone was peppering you with questions the whole time? Probably not. Much of the time, you can just sit nearby quietly observing, or play alongside your child, or get chores done while your child plays. It’s helpful for children to have some times when you aren’t closely supervising (beyond what’s needed for safety) so they aren’t feeling watched or judged and can follow their own whims in unguided play.
Resource for Educators:
I made up posters to hang in the classroom to give parents ideas for connecting with kids. You can get the questions to ask posters here.
More articles on asking questions: