Inquiry with Toddlers

Purposeful and authentic learning is good for the soul. The mama soul AND the teacher soul AND the kid soul.

Parent-supported remote learning is hard. Really, really hard. It’s hard for me, and I’m a teacher. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be for working parents not in the field of education. Some of the best times with my bruises this past spring stemmed from learning experiences driven solely by them – their curiosities and questions (rather than the purely academic and pre-created tasks, activities, and/or worksheets). During these times, they were learning and growing and engaging in “school” without even knowing they were engaging in school. That’s the best kind of learning, and I’m here to hopefully give you enough info and background knowledge to at least get your brains wrapped around it, so you can hopefully try it out too.

First, let’s understand inquiry, in it’s true sense of the word and in relation to the educational world. Here’s dictionary.com’s definition of inquiry:

What does this tell us? A few important things. First, it stems from questioning – and how many questions does your toddler ask per day? If they are anything like mine, it’s 39084094857450 billion. And lots of times toddlers especially can get fixated on topics that they don’t quite understand, but are trying in their brains to organize and sort information to help them understand it. (Right now my 4 year old is trying to understand death/dying/dead….need some advice on this one [perhaps a future post] so help a sister out if you have any ideas!) How amazing is it that I’m telling you, instead of you trying to answer these questions and not really knowing what to say, there’s a way you can turn it around on them and let them discover it themselves? Second, it requires investigation. It’s not just straight to google. Kids learn to answer their questions by doing – and ‘doing’ in all sorts of ways. Reading, writing, researching, experimenting, building, revising, reflecting.

Now, simply put, here’s the inquiry method as a teaching philosophy:

Kids go through a series of stages in order to investigate and answer their own questions. Ask and investigate are self explanatory. The creating stage revolves around finding some way to share work publicly. The best questions to investigate are purposeful – the answer to the question helps you DO something with it. And when you DO something, you get to share it with the world. This is extremely motivating for kids of all ages, but especially toddlers. Think about how proud they are of that massive lego tower or that painted self portrait. Discuss is important because we know as educators that kids learn best when they are able to socially construct knowledge – i.e., two brains are better than one mentality. And lastly, reflect is so important, now more than ever, because it signifies to kids that just because you may have ‘finished’ you project or ‘answered’ your question, it mostly likely will lead to more questions, ideas for how you might make it better, or how you might replicate it in bigger or better ways.

Sounds great, right? Well, sounds more like something you’d see in a high school or college classroom. Wrong. We use this model in the elementary classroom too (not like traditional school – way different than what you and I remember from when we went to school). I’m going to show you a few examples of how our family has made it work for a 2 and a 4 year old, and I think you’ll begin to see it better.

Exhibit A: Our Vegetable Garden

This one launched naturally and has been a larger project that has continued over time. It was around March, and we started to see the first daffodils of the season pop up. Dominic would see it in our driveway and scream “LOOK AT THE FLOWERS!”. And Luca would follow up with “Mommy how did those get there? Where did those come from?” Because he’s 4 and he asks questions about everything. Teacher brain kicked in, and over the next several days we researched flower and vegetable gardens, decided which one we wanted to try, and got to it. This part was amazing, because it required us to read and to watch and to write (literacy!), and measure and plan and price (math!). And it’s ongoing, with daily opportunities to engage in literacy and math in order to move forward – we’ve had to ask and answer more questions along the way. Like why our first ripe strawberry mysteriously went missing overnight (animals!) and what we could do to keep them away (coffee grinds!). Or how we keep tomato plants from bending and snapping due to their own weight.

Exhibit B: Hearts for Healthcare Heroes

This one came out of left field one day, in the early days of shutdown due to the pandemic. And it was shorter – only took us one morning to complete from start to finish. We had been watching the news at night, and Luca and Dominic would pick up on a lot of it. So we ended up having kid-appropriate conversations with them about what was going on with COVID (there’s a bad sickness spread easily by germs right now, school’s canceled and we have to stay home so other people don’t catch our germs and we don’t catch theirs!). One random day Luca asked what we could do to help people get better and feel better. A BIG question coming from a 4 year old, and I didn’t have any answers in my back pocket lined up. So we talked a lot about how there were heroes that were working really hard to help people get better and feel better while the rest of us stayed home. And he said, “Like doctors?”. Yes buddy, exactly. And nurses, and hospital workers, and lots of other people too. You should have seen his eyes when I asked, “Do YOU want to help too?”.

“But Mommy, I’m too little to help!” No, sir, no you are not. Enjoy the progress photos below to see what I mean. 🙂

Hands down, the best part about these projects? The pure JOY that radiates from these kids’ faces when we go out every morning to see if we have any fruits or veggies ripe for picking, or that moment they turned around outside and looked at our front door full of hearts for the first time. And can you imagine the excitement they had when they then noticed hearts appearing in our neighbors’ windows?!

Epilogue

Guys, I get it though. I really do. These moments described above are amazing. But also remember they aren’t every day. There are plenty of days where we did discrete academic activities or tasks, and days where I didn’t know what to do at all. And days where we actually did do NOTHING AT ALL. I did find some resources that helped me come up with some fun science and engineering investigations that I thought would be interesting and engaging for the kids, so of course I’m sharing them below. Click on the photo to be taken right to Amazon to fill your cart. Happy shopping!

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