Why is the sky blue? Where does the night come from? The questions of childhood are the source of some of the best conversations and language-building opportunities. The next time children ask you one of these questions, turn to them for the answers.

Last month, we looked at how children learn to brainstorm by using open-ended questions and materials. This month, let's look more closely at the different types of questions you can ask during group time to stimulate children's thinking and learning.

Creative Questioning

As you know, simple questions can be easily answered without the use of much language. For example, questions such as, "What shape is the robot that Adam is holding?" or "Is Margaret's hair red?" can often be answered with a simple "yes" or "no" or with one word. While these do not invite children to speak at length, they do serve a purpose. They help children consider what they know about various things. From here, more open-ended and creative questions are built and creative thinking grows.

Let's imagine that a child notices the stripes on a friend's shirt and a group-time conversation develops. A knowledgebased question might be: "What did you notice about Sarah's shirt? What can you tell us about it?" On the other hand, if you're asking a comprehension question, you might ask, "What other shirts can you find in the group that are striped? Can you find stripes on other things that are around us?"

Divergent questions often do not have a right or wrong answer. These questions are open-ended and stimulate a child's creative and critical thinking.

Here are some examples of divergent questions you can ask, using the example of the child's shirt:

  • Encourage the child to take what he knows and use it in new situations. You might ask, "What else could we do with stripes? How can we make them in the art area? How can we use them in the math area?" Or, "What animals have stripes? How do they use them?"
  • Suggest that the child think about the whole in terms of its parts. You might ask, "Look at all the stripes in our group. How many do you see? What makes a stripe a stripe? How many different parts do you need to make stripes?"
  • Help the child learn to put the parts together to form a new whole by asking, "What would happen if we made stripes out of paper blocks, or trucks? What else could we use to make stripes? How can we make one big stripe as long as the room?"
  • Encourage the child to compare and make judgments by asking, "What makes the best stripes?" or "Why do animals have stripes?"

Celebrate with a stripe day during which all children are encouraged to wear stripes to school. Go on a stripe treasure hunt. Later read the wonderful new book Stripe by Joanne Partis (Carolrhoda Books, 2000; $14.95).

Things to Remember

Keep in mind that the more questions you ask, the more diverse the answers, the more ideas children are exposed to, and the more perspectives they discover. It is this process of examining ideas from different angles that encourages the growth of thought, both individually and collectively. Help children respect each other's contributions. Celebrate all children's ideas equally. Sometimes what may sound like a "wrong" answer might be just a great example of creative thinking. When 4-year-old Owen was asked what he thought he would see on the trip to the firehouse, he answered, "A swimming pool!" The other children started to laugh. But when the teacher asked why he thought there would be a pool there, he said, "Well, they have to get the water from somewhere don't they!"