27 June 2024

How to stretch children’s thinking – and ours

KewEarly LearningJunior School
How to stretch children’s thinking – and ours
How to stretch children’s thinking – and ours
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Children’s development in the first five years of life is quite extraordinary, which we sometimes forget and take so much of it for granted. Remember back to that tiny newborn that needed every single thing done for them, who communicated by crying – and there were lots of different cries! – which as parents we soon began to work out. Look at your toddler or pre-schooler now: they have so many skills in all areas of their development. Physically, through their motor development, they can walk and run and usually want to head in a different direction to you. They can go to the toilet themselves or are beginning to, they can feed themselves, they can develop social connections, they can separate from you and they have their own thoughts and ideas. I could go on: the development in just a few years is like no other stage in their life.

Another fascinating development to watch unfold is in their use of language. In their own time, they eventually go from crying and whimpering to sounds and words to sentences and lengthy conversations. Sometimes we need to be careful what we wish for, as once children can talk, there is no going back! Some children are speaking and thinking in two or more languages as well, which is such a gift. Children’s language development is amazing. The world over, there is a similar pattern to how children develop the capacity, skill and drive to talk and communicate. For the most part, we just expect this to happen and generally it does.

However, there are many things we can do to enhance their thinking and communication. It is important to support the natural language acquisition process, as children’s ability to communicate is part of their literacy development. For example, modelling turn-taking in conversations from a young age is critical. Children will replicate what they observe, so taking turns to talk is not just about having a functional conversation, but understanding at a cognitive level the idea of waiting and contributing: learning the concept of ‘my turn’ and ‘your turn’. This can be done through imaginative play and though conversations at the dinner table.

You can begin to stretch your child’s thinking by asking questions, in particular, big open-ended questions, questions that get children to think, rather than closed or one-word answers. Think of questions that challenge their critical thinking with no particular right or wrong answer, that will encourage interactive conversation. In the ELC, we discuss open-ended questions like:

  • What story did you have today at library? Tell me about the story.
  • What did you like or not like about it? Why?
  • If you were making meals for our family, what would you make for breakfast?
  • What was the best/funniest/hardest thing that happened at kindergarten/school today? Why?

All questions that begin with what, when, where, why, how are all great openers for extending and developing thinking. Opportunities for these questions present themselves all the time, like while walking, playing, driving in the car, bath time, mealtimes and bedtime reading. You don’t need any materials with you – just curiosity and patience.

It is important to allow plenty of thinking time; we all need time to process the question and collect our ideas, thoughts and the vocabulary needed to respond. It is also important to actively listen to the responses – this means giving full attention, eye contact, whole body listening and reframing what they say so they know you have understood. You might use this opportunity to get them to expand more – ‘Why do you think that?’, ‘I’m curious about how you know that?’, ‘What do you think would happen if ...?’, ‘Can you tell me more about …’ – these opportunities for expanding the conversations are also making new synapse connections in their brains and this is a significant time during the early childhood years for an explosion of cognitive development. Don’t be afraid to use some big words to expand their vocabulary and thinking and, most of all, have fun. Children are great to have conversations with. Their thoughts and theories on the world around them are unique as they develop their map and understanding of the world they live in.

Next time you are reading a bedtime book, challenge yourself to ask, ‘How might you end this differently?’

Wendy Seidler
Director of ELC Kew

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