3 to 4: It Moves If I Poke It!

by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

Kiley, age 3 1/2, and Carlo, 4, exhibit preschoolers' typical and natural curiosity about almost everything. In a single spring afternoon, they bombarded their friends, teacher, and parents with such questions as, "Why can I see myself in the puddle? How come the pinecone is sticky? When will the cookies be cooked?"

Because they're so full of wonder, preschoolers seem compelled to explore their immediate environment. They use all their senses to smell, poke, nibble, stare at, or carefully listen to the objects around them. Although they're not trying to be destructive, preschoolers sometimes go overboard in their exuberant inquisitiveness. For example, they may open the back of a clock to see how it ticks or bounce a ball so high that it disappears river the fence.

Curious Threes

Though both threes and fours exhibit strong curiosity, they often approach new situations differently. When a group of preschoolers knead the play dough until it becomes slimy and makes loud gushing noises, 3-year-olds, often timid, feel reluctant to place their hands in a mixture that looks and sounds so strange. They may prefer observing from a safe distance. More confident fours may eagerly add water, flour, or salt to see what happens.

Frequently confused about what is real and what is not, threes need to have real-world information. For instance, Amy could not take a nap in the new classroom because she heard unfamiliar noises. Acknowledging both Amy's inquisitiveness and her need for comforting, the teacher walked around the room with her until a smiling, reassured Amy discovered that the banging sounds came from the radiator pipes!

Curious Fours

Many fours enjoy diving right in, then sharing their findings with others. Fascinated that his shadow is attached to him whether he runs or jumps, Evan calls his friends to come see. He encourages them to watch their shadows too.

Fours often find it helpful to clarify their thoughts by looking at objects' similarities and differences and sorting them by classifications. Inquisitive about a parsnip among the vegetables for the soup they're making, fours compare its shape with a carrot's and its inside color with the color of the potato cubes.

To preschoolers, the world around them seems almost magical. Our role is to help keep this fascination alive by giving them the time, space, and freedom to explore and investigate their interests and ideas.

What You Can Do

  • Provide interesting materials to explore. Place a garlic press on the play dough table or a magnifying glass in the science center.
  • Add surprise to a routine activity. To stimulate curiosity and develop problem-solving skills, change something in a familiar activity area. For example, hide the dolls' clothes so that children must search for them.
  • Take field trips. A visit to the local fire station will elicit questions about equipment. When curiosity persists, create a firehouse in the dramatic-play center.
  • Stimulate all the senses. Let children enjoy the tactile experiences of contrasting textures in a feely box. Help them become "sound detectives" by asking them to guess which bell in a collection is the one that's ringing. Spur curiosity with food-tasting parties.
  • Tap into children's multiple intelligences. Inspire interest in logic and math by providing simple experiments with floating and sinking.
  • Provide a well-rounded library. Magazines and books with realistic visuals help promote discussion.
  • Use questions to promote inquisitiveness. Ask openended questions to pique children's curiosity: "What else might the magnet pick up?"
  • Record meaningful findings. After children have compared and contrasted objects of interest, help them organize and share their ideas through graphs, charts, or photographs.

5 to 6: Look What I Found!

by Ellen Booth Church

"I think I discovered a diamond mine!" The children interrupt their playing to see what Jess has found at the sandbox. Once there, they see the sand sparkling in the sun. All the children begin speaking at once: "Are those really diamonds?" "Nah, I think it's just shiny sand." "Look. The sand over here by the tree doesn't shine like that." "Hey, Ms. Koenig, what do you think?"

Children's curiosity is the place from which thinking and understanding emerge. The children playing in the sandbox were curious about something they discovered in the sunlight. They observed and wondered about the shimmery effect, created a hypothesis based on prior knowledge (things that shine could be diamonds), and then went about investigating the problem.

Their teacher, seizing the teachable moment, encouraged the children to investigate the sand more closely with screen sifters and magnifiers. The discovery of shiny pieces of rock in the sand propelled the children into a full-scale fascination with rocks and sand. A moment on the playground became a problem-solving activity.

Applying Curiosity

We all know that kindergartners are explorers. The main developmental difference between the curiosity of preschoolers and kindergartners is in how they apply it.

In the younger years, children may express curiosity about something and find a simple way to investigate it. For example, a 4-year-old might wonder. "What would happen if I rolled this ball down the slide?" Then she would do it.

A kindergartner might be more systematic in her exploration. She might wonder not only what would happen if she rolled the ball down the slide, but whether other items would roll down differently. Next, she might make a prediction about which object would move the fastest and then test each object to confirm or disprove her prediction.

Using Sharper Skills

Developmentally, kindergartners are able to use the higher-order skills of critical and creative thinking when they problem solve. Five- and 6-year-olds move beyond the question and enjoy working on the solution.

A greater attention span allows kindergartners to stick with a problem or activity rather than jump from one question to another without waiting for an answer. Kindergartners are also more organized in their play and thinking, which permits them to create systems for testing out ideas. And because of their expanding body of experience, kindergartners can apply the understanding gained in prior situations to current ones.

What You Can Do

As a teacher, you can model the steps involved in problem solving by using both spontaneous activities (such as the sandbox event) and planned explorations. The following outdoor experiences help illustrate how you can turn children's curiosity about ants eating a cracker on the sidewalk, or about seeds, into problem-solving activities.

1. Define the problem.

For an ant study, ask children: "What do you observe the ants doing? What do you wonder about what ants like to eat?"

For a seed study: "What does a seed need to grow? What is inside a seed?"

2. Brainstorm predictions, hypotheses, or solutions.

For an ant study, ask: "What do you think ants eat? What don't they eat?"

For a seed study: "What are some other living things? What is inside them? What do they need to grow?"

3. Create experiments for further exploration.

For an ant study, ask: "How can you find out what ants eat?"

For a seed study: "How can you find out what is inside a seed? How can you find out what it needs to grow?"

4. Discuss predictions.

For an ant study, ask: "How will you know if the ants like to eat a particular item? How will you know if the ants don't like to eat something?"

For a seed study: "How will you know if a seed is growing?"

5. Conduct the experiments, then analyze the results.

For an ant study, ask: "What did you find out about food ants like to eat? What did the ants do with it?"

For a seed study: "What did you find out about what plants need to grow? What, if anything, speeds their growth? Slows their growth?"

6. Extend the experiences.

For an ant study, ask: "What else do you wonder about ants? Why do you think they move and work in such large groups? How can we find out more?"

For a seed study: "What other things would you like to know about seeds? Where do you think seeds would grow best? What are the differences between planting seeds indoors and outdoors? What can we do to learn about these things?"

This process of exploration provides children with a systematic way to organize their thoughts and questions, a method they can use the next time they're curious about something.