Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.
What do you know about the biggest creatures on earth?
What nighttime dream do you remember most vividly? Why do you think you remember it?
What super power would you like to have?
When have you been most proud of yourself?
What ideas do you have for ways you could listen to directions so that next time you’ll remember?
“Think, think, think,” Winnie-the-Pooh tends to say.[i] The use of open-ended questions, or questions that have no right or wrong response, requires children to really think. It engages children in the natural learning process. For example, your child may for the first time observe an older child playing basketball. The small child asks questions internally to start. “Could I bounce the ball like that?” “How does he throw it up so high?” Then as the child tries to throw the ball as he’s observed, he sets goals for himself. He might ask himself, “How far was he from the net when he threw?” “How do my hands and feet have to be positioned to bounce the ball as he did?” And then after the experience, the child reflects on it internally with questions. “How could I improve when I return to shoot hoops the next time?”
Questions have been the start of some of the most important inventions. What happens if chocolate is combined with peanut butter? The scientific method begins with a question. And faculty spend a significant amount of time helping doctoral candidates craft a good question to begin their research. Growing up, my Father, a college professor, taught me that the intelligent person asks good questions.
The Power of Our Words; Teacher Language that Helps Children Learn[ii] offers rich strategies for educators on connecting with children through language and eliciting their thoughts and feelings to contribute to academic growth. Some of those same strategies can be used at home in a family environment that values learning. One tip they provide is to use tentative words like “might,” “possibly,” “could” or “may” in questions to make sure children understand that there are lots of possible answers, not just one. “How might you use that ball in other ways in addition to shooting hoops?” Another way of asking an open-ended question to promote creative thinking might be, “How many different games do you think we could come up with using our basketball?”
Then, after asking the question, wait. Be patient. Allow your children to think. Some kids will come back with a quick response but others need some time to process and ponder. Waiting allows them time to problem solve and come up with multiple solutions.
The use of open-ended questions can
- Inspire creative thinking and problem solving. When children are challenged and come to you for a solution, it’s an opportunity to allow them practice in problem solving. If your child is playing with a friend constructing a building on the floor and the building keeps falling over, don’t solve the problem for them. Ask “What are some ways you could make that building sturdier?” “How could you add strength to it to prevent it from falling down?” If children are disagreeing and pulling you in for a solution, respond with a question. “There’s only one ball. What ideas do you have for sharing the ball so that you both get a turn?” When they come up with their own solution, they feel empowered.
- Assist with teaching discipline and improving behavior. After a poor choice is made and logical consequences follow, ask questions about the experience to promote reflection. “How did you feel when you made the choice to go to a friend’s house without telling us?” “When an opportunity to run to a friend’s house comes up again, what might you think about? How will you remember that you need to ask us first?”
- Open the door for connecting and allowing for caring conversations. The implicit message with an open-ended question is “I care about your thoughts and ideas. I trust that you will come up with something interesting.”
- Improve language and literacy. In school, children are often asked to predict what will happen in a story by looking at the cover page illustration or words they see. When they read a book at home with a parent, asking open-ended questions will help them elicit meaning from the stories. Questions that require them to think creatively also require that their response utilize their language skills to translate their thoughts into words.
Children are also full of questions for adults. Curiosity about the world around us is part of the joy of childhood learning and development. It can feel overwhelming to adults when the questions keep coming, particularly when there are no simple answers to questions like, “Why do people die?” Children will feel validated and connected to you if you think and respond in a way that respects the question and their curiosity. But you do not always need to come up with an answer. Some questions can be researched, which is a great thing to do together. But for questions that are complex or have no obvious answers, you can respond with your own questions or mixed thoughts about the issue. Asking questions together shows children that all members of your family are learning together. How will you use open-ended questions in your family?
For more on this topic, here are a couple of additional good articles.
Top 50 Open-Ended Questions for Sparking Conversation with Kids by Lela Davidson
[i] Milne, A.A. (1926). Winnie-the-Pooh. NY: Dutton Children’s Books.