Sparking Inquiry from Children’s Emerging Interests

By: Diane Kashin, Ed. D, RECE. My last blog A Provoking Post on Provocations garnered some great comments and Twitter conversations that have sparked deep thinking about the process of pedagogy and curriculum in the early years.

Twitter thread on provocations

When I began my career as an early childhood educator I was fascinated by planning and programming. I had so many questions. How does curriculum emerge? How should it emerge? I was dissatisfied with the theme approach and looked for alternatives that had more authenticity and meaning for children. In my doctoral dissertation: Reaching the Top of the Mountain: The Impact of Emergent Curriculum on the Practice and Self-Image of Early Childhood Educators I chronicled my thoughts. During this time and for years after, my objective was to figure out what and how to teach my students about the process of curriculum. As an early childhood education professor, this was my goal. It would have been easy to teach about themes as those are teacher-chosen, representing a traditional and familiar approach. A theme is usually a broad concept or topic like seasons or animals and is often based on holidays. Themes are teacher-directed and teacher-owned. When I started my research, themes were overused. Now with inspiration from Reggio Emilia, emergent curriculum, inquiry and the project approach, there are alternatives. However, themes still exist, and they suggest a process that is mimetic with the children repeating or miming newly presented information about a broad topic. Inquiry offers a way to include the voices of children, creating a curriculum with children directing their own learning in meaningful and authentic ways. In theme work, children are rarely involved in posing questions to be answered or taking initiative for investigation (Katz, 1994). Still as I found from my research, projects can turn into a long-term theme, if the focus is on the noun not the verb or the thing not the thought. My thinking after my last post is that provocations will remain a table scape display related to theme or topic if teacher-owned. Yet, they can serve as a spark for further inquiry as children’s ideas, thoughts and theories are documented and next steps considered. Is this how the curriculum process should start? Should curriculum in the early years, be teacher provoked or child-initiated? When and who decides that a topic is worthy of a long-term inquiry? Just the teacher? Shouldn’t it be something that emerges from the children’s experiences during play? Shouldn’t it emerge from a teacher observed and documented play experience that caught the children’s interest, engaged their senses and ignited questions and ideas?

I often read posts on Facebook groups asking about sparking inquiry because the children are interested in ___________ (fill in the blank). How was this interest gauged? Sometimes I worry that teachers are too quick to determine interest. In order to become a long-term inquiry, there should be sustained interest. Taking something that engages children and developing curriculum from that interest is key. Does the interest translate to a thing or a thought? Is it a verb or a noun? When I was teaching early childhood education students about emergent curriculum and offering them steps to take in their practicum experiences I suggested settling on a “burning learning question” that the children had about ________ (blank). If, as was asked awhile back in a Facebook group, a child had found a “decent sized piece of bark from one of the trees during outdoor play today” what would the teacher do next? “Where we could go from here in terms of sparking an inquiry or extending their learning?” Does the inquiry become “Bark”, or can a burning learning question frame the inquiry? The question would lead the teacher’s choices for further learning experiences. More importantly, the question would lead to more questions, ideas or theories from the children. One suggestion that was posted was for the teacher to “talk about the different types of trees and the changing weather and see where it goes from there”. When teachers talk to children, are they learning? Or is this more in line with the view of the teacher as the source of all information? The children are receiving the information, and in turn, will memorize and repeat it back. If we shift to an inquiry stance it is about more than this transactional exchange of information. Thinking about teaching as inquiry in early childhood education, I recently went down the wonderful rabbit hole of the Internet and found this graphic depicting Teaching as Inquiry (TIA). On the internet, a rabbit hole frequently refers to an extremely engrossing and time-consuming topic. This graphic gave me food for thought in conceptualizing the process of teaching and learning from an inquiry stance.

I have been working with my dear friend and colleague, Cindy Green developing a training program for Learning Jungle, a global provider of quality educational child care. In an effort to support others to understand the process of teaching and learning we created a scenario called “Squiggly Worms” and a curriculum and pedagogy table. I am so grateful to Cindy, for the dialogue which resulted in multiple versions of the table as it helped in my thinking about TIA. I am sure this won’t be the last revision.

Relating this scenario to the TIA spiral, the focus of the inquiry would be worms. It would be worthwhile to spend time, exploring children’s ideas, theories and thoughts about worms especially if they take place outside! There is an expressed interest in worms and the information about worms (as depicted in the curriculum column) would be an indication (evidence) of children’s learning. Focusing on what happens as a result of the teaching, leads to the pedagogy column. We want more than memorization or mimicking. We want critical thinking from the children. But what would come next in planning and programming? Back in the day, when I was teaching the project approach, I used to recommend that my students create three different webs. One would be a mind map that I called the “teacher’s web” where you’d brainstorm everything you knew about the topic after researching it yourself. The other would be the “children’s web” which would document the children’s prior knowledge about the topic but also their questions, theories and ideas. The final web would be a schematic representation of the project as it evolved. I don’t read that much about webbing these days. Do teachers still web? I do see that teachers are using I See, I Think, I Wonder as a frame for next steps. I would love to know more about how you approach planning and programming. Please add a comment below. Thank you in advance for teaching me about teaching and learning.

It is through others, that we develop into ourselves ~ Lev Vygotsky


4 thoughts on “Sparking Inquiry from Children’s Emerging Interests

  1. Oh Diane what a packed post giving us so much to think about! I will respond first to your question about webbing which we feel in our program is critical to understanding the children’s interests and questions about a topic. Webbing helps us to identify content curriculum that might not have otherwise been obvious to us – an underlying more subtle question that possibly the children are wresting with but cannot yet articulate. e.g. maybe the interest in worms is not worms at all but care taking or families – webbing can help us make connections that we might not have otherwise made. If we are unsure of a deep interest we will do a general web of all the interests we have documented through play and conversations. We then looks for connections. We often do these as a team to get the greatest depth and perspective. Once we’ve decided on an interest to follow we do one web but it is colour coded to 1) identify the different directions or lenses that a topic could be explored 2) what the children have already shown us they know or questions they have and then 3) then we update the web to reflect what we have or have tried to explore/cover and new ideas that emerge to ensure it is a responsive and living document.


  2. LOL look – I’m still thinking about your post! I wanted to add to the above that webbing helps to keep our planning from becoming formulaic (for example working outdoors rarely a year passes that an interest in worms doesn’t come up – so how to we keep it authentic?) Webbing gives us as teachers the opportunity to think, to be engaged with our hearts and minds, to maintain our passion, and to live and work with curiosity.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you Diane for always sparking our thinking. I love to read and reread your posts.

    The question ..who gets to decide what is of interest …a great one.

    What I keep thinking is learning is not not predictable – it can’t be packaged …it requires us to always be considering, thinking, and to be curious and learning ourselves.


  4. Pingback: The Beginning of Beautiful Friendships: Circles of Support for Early Childhood Education | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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