Why is brainstorming so important? Because the creative- and critical-thinking skills children use in the process are core ingredients to every area of curriculum and development. No matter what experience a child meets along the way, if she has the ability to think open-endedly, flexibly, and critically, she can deal with the task at hand. Brainstorming invites children to use information, think about it, and create it anew. Young children use essential expressive- and receptive-language skills to present their ideas, thereby expanding vocabulary and creating phrases and sentences. When they see their thoughts written down on an experience chart, children begin to make the leap from the spoken to the written word.

Brainstorming also enhances social development. It is a collective process that encourages the best of the character development traits and skills we want to teach children at group time and all day long. When brainstorming, children are hearing different ideas and learning how to listen to each other-valuable receptive-language skills.

Setting the Stage

Create a safe environment for children to be able to say any thought without fear of ridicule.

  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Provide time for children to think and express their ideas.
  • Be brave ... take a risk ... share your own "crazy" idea ... be a model risk taker

Open-Ended Questions and Props

Open-ended discussions are the heart of group-time brainstorming sessions. Because there are no right or wrong ideas in brainstorming, children quickly learn that everyone's ideas count. This enables them to experiment with ideas without the fear of being wrong. When children feel comfortable about taking risks with their ideas, they begin to use higher-order thinking skills such as application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Let's look in as one preschool teacher and her class brainstorm at group time:

"I was walking around my backyard yesterday and look what I found." The teacher holds up a giant red rubber band. "What do you think it could be? What could it be used for?" Slowly but surely the children start to raise their hands and suggest things. "It is a tire off a toy truck," says Jerome. "Maybe it's a swing for a squirrel," says another. "Oh, I know. It's a clothesline for tiny creatures," says Alize. "Those are great ideas," says the teacher "Let's write them down on an experience chart so we can 'read' and discuss them later." Later, during activity time, children were back at the chart, adding illustrations to their ideas and pointing out the letters and words they knew.

More Questions and Props

The keys to brainstorming are the questions you ask and the props and materials you use to get children thinking. Divergent questions and materials that can be thought of in many different ways are fundamental.

Ask questions that start with:

  • How many ways can you .... ?
  • What would happen if..?
  • What could this be .... ?
  • What can we do with ....?
  • What do you notice about .... ?

Use props that can be looked at in new ways, including:   

  • Common objects such as a banana, a key, a rubber band, a hula hoop, a ball, a hat
  • Uncommon objects such as an unusual tool or instrument, a photo or piece of art, or a sandwich bag filled with air

From Ideas to Print: Experience Charts

In this brainstorming session, the teacher set the stage for thinking by providing a prop (the rubber band) and a question. She then made space for the children to take over the thinking process. Playing the role of moderator, the teacher encouraged the children to verbalize their thinking as she recorded their ideas on an experience chart. This process of writing to record their ideas is a key step in helping children make the connection between their spoken words and text.

Experience charts are also validating for children. Even though they can't read, every child knows which idea has his name after it on the chart. Experience charts provide the link between the concrete expression of a voiced idea and the abstract representation in print--an "I said that?!" experience for children. As children go back to reread the chart (independently or with you), they notice key literacy elements. They may notice their name and other words that have the same letters in them. They may also find words that look the same. "See, I found this word THE five times on the chart." "Look! Jason's name starts with the same letters as mine, Jasmine."

Here are a few steps to follow in creating exciting and engaging experience charts:

  • Write exactly what each child says--word for word. (Children know when you have changed their words!)
  • Add simple pictures (called rebuses) to illustrate words on the chart. Then when children go back to read it, they can use the picture cues to help them make meaning out of the print.
  • Talk as you write. Tell what you are writing, including the punctuation at the end of the sentence. You might say, "Reggie was so excited by that idea, let's put an exclamation point at the end of the sentence."
  • Invite children to add drawings to illustrate the chart. Older children can write their own name and words if they like.
  • Make a variety of different experience charts throughout the year. You can use them to record children's ideas and predictions, write thank you notes, shopping lists, record memories, write a class newspaper.