I also love listening to young children talk. They actually have much in common with a skilled interviewer, aside from the years of training. Young children ask interesting, open-ended questions and genuinely want to discover and learn from the answers. They then have insightful follow-up questions, and usually, these cause us as adults to think deeply as well.
We too can learn a great deal from this approach our children take, and we can use the opportunity to teach some skills to help children develop their thinking, as talking is one form of communication, one of the 100 languages, referred to in Reggio Emilia. We understand from the work in Reggio Emilia that children are natural researchers, philosophers and theorists. They have a strong sense of wonder about the world, and they seek to understand by asking questions. Engaging with young children’s questions, listening to them talk and then asking them open-ended questions helps us as educators and parents to understanding their thinking, hypothesising and their making sense of the world.
Open-ended questions are questions where there is no right or wrong answer and you cannot answer with just ‘yes’ or ‘no’. This doesn’t mean that there is never a time to ask a ‘closed question’; however, be prepared for the answer you get – it might not be what you were hoping for or expecting. And sometimes when we ask a closed question, that’s not what our intention was at all – ‘Do you want to have a bath?’, for example, when you possibly meant, ‘It’s time for a bath!’. Children will take us at our word, they are concrete thinkers and often quite black and white. As they mature, they will understand the implied nature of the question – ‘it’s bath time’.
In 2011, the ELC was fortunate to have a ‘thinker in residence’, Associate Professor Angela Salmon. This was a fabulous experience for the staff and children, we were able to model many of the routines from Project Zero from Harvard University under Angela’s expert tuition. This program from Project Zero is about teaching children to think and developing their thinking skills. The basis of this is asking open-ended questions and offering children time to think and answer, and, importantly, listening to their answers – and not looking for a right answer like a test but genuinely listening and trying to understand their thinking. This is of course how they make sense of the world around them.
Young children can ask an average of 200 to 300 questions per day, there are periods of time when every time the young child opens their mouth it’s ‘Why?’ or ‘But why?’. This is a new word for many, often gets adult attention and demonstrates their curiosity and their desire to learn, make connections and create their theories.
As adults we need to resist the temptation to provide all the ‘knowledge’, ‘answers’ to their questions. Part of our role as educators is to create opportunities and spaces for the children’s curiosity to flourish – we do not anymore need to ‘tip information into the empty vessel’ as was once both practiced and believed to be the best way to teach.
Children will ask questions in environments where time is given, where there are respectful relationships, where children are genuinely listened to, and where the adults are honest and communicate openly when they don’t know: ‘let’s find out together’.
Often, responding to children’s questions with another question is a great way to challenge their thinking and get them to come up with their own answers. ‘What do you think?’, ‘What’s your idea?’, ‘Can you show me what you are thinking about?’ – this may be an opportunity and invitation to draw, paint, model, build their ideas and thoughts – again capturing more of the 100 languages.
Sometimes remaining silent and holding the space for the child to talk and think and wonder is essential. For children learning to listen to the ideas of others and learning to sit in a space of reflection is important too. And then there are philosophical questions with no answers but opportunities to think and wonder.
To kick-start their natural curiosity and desire for discovery, here’s some great open-ended questions to ask your children if you are stuck:
Asking them open-ended questions helps to develop your child’s thinking processes, their speech and language skills, builds their confidence and supports their deeper thinking.
Director of ELC Kew