Why Ask "Why?"

By Susan B. Neuman PhD
  • Grades: PreK–K

Children actively seek information. Their curiosity and desire to learn about their world often leads to what experts call "passages of intellectual search" — long, seemingly endless series of "why" and "how" questions.
 
Sometimes it might seem like a sequence of challenges. You might have experienced something like this with your preschooler:
 
Mom: What do you want to drink?
Christopher: Apple juice.
Mom: Okay, you can have one glass of apple juice but that's all for now.
Christopher: Why?
Mom: Because it's close to dinner and I don't want to spoil your appetite.
Christopher: Why would a drink spoil my appetite?
Mom: Because it's filling and it has a lot of sugar.
Christopher: Why can't I have sugar?
Mom: Because it will make you more thirsty.
 
And so the conversation continues as the mother attempts to satisfy the puzzled mind of the young child. But while your child's many questions might seem frustrating at times, they illustrate his intense need to make sense of what he observes. Analyses of conversations have consistently revealed the rather persistent, though logical ways in which children are attempting to make sense of their world.
 
Your child learns so much from these conversations. These "why" and "how" questions really play a vital role in learning. Your child will pick up words you use in the course of your explanations, not to mention great amounts of general knowledge. In fact, for every word or concept you carefully define for your child, there are dozens more she'll pick up by hearing you use them in context and trying to use them on her own. For this reason, you may occasionally want to include sophisticated words in your conversations along with the explanations if needed.
 
Of course, after a while, you might want to turn your child's questions back to him by asking what he thinks, and why he thinks so. "Why do you think that a drink would spoil your appetite?" Having your child explain things to you will give you a wonderful window into his world. It will create a problem that he'll need to solve. It will also encourage him to use more descriptive language, and sentences that grow longer and more complex. And the more your child knows about words and knowledge networks when he starts kindergarten, the more likely he is to become a skillful reader. Spoken language is the foundation of written language.
 
Helping your child engage in these glorious "intellectual searches" is one of the most valuable things you can do as a parent to lay the groundwork for literacy. That's why it's important to use these constant "why" questions as an opportunity to extend your conversations. It's a great way to strengthen language, reasoning, and problem-solving skills.

  • Subjects:
    Early Learning, Vocabulary, Communication and Language Development, Learning and Cognitive Development
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