When we embark on the complex journey of learning, we start with a question. Anyone who has spent even just a few hours with a young child has seen the impact of curiosity in action: Why is that butterfly gray but the others are so colorful? What do lizards eat? How do mangrove seeds travel so far? Or my four-year-old’s latest, “Mom, why can you feel and hear the wind, but you can’t see the wind?”
Inquiry-based learning starts with a question and empowers children to have agency in their learning. It propels them to take ownership and expand their knowledge by problem-solving and making real-world connections. Inquiry-based learning looks different across settings, but the purpose behind inquiry-based learning remains the same. Children learn best when they are interested in what they are learning.
What if we empowered children to be seekers of information and trusted them with their own learning? Writer, unschooling organizer, co-founder of Raising Free People and founding board member of The Alliance for Self-Directed Education Akilah S. Richards emphasizes the importance of questioning everything and refers to it as “mad question asking,” as she invokes the late lyricist Notorious B.I.G.
We can lean into children’s questions by providing opportunities for inquiry projects in our classrooms and homes. If you’re interested in learning how to use inquiry projects to promote a love of learning, here are some tips to get started:
Set the Stage for Inquiry Projects
Get curious. Before you can figure out what children are interested in learning about, it’s important to listen to their ideas, thoughts and wonderings. The following questions can provide you with a guide:
- What questions have you heard children asking lately? Jot them down on a piece of paper.
- Can you pinpoint a theme that’s emerging? Is it a change of seasons, families, friendship, discovery, identity or how people take care of each other? Or do their questions revolve around something more tangible like snow, dinosaurs or exploring bugs found outside? Reflect on what you notice. This shouldn’t take up much time. Kids are naturally curious and they make connections to what’s going on around them throughout the day.
- Involve children in creating a web of investigation based on their questions.
- Gather children together in a comfortable space.
- Find a blank piece of paper and create a circle in the middle.
- Label the inside circle with the topic of their inquiry. For example: “snow.”
- Create lines shooting out from around the circle. This looks a little like a spider and its legs.
- Jot down childrens’ questions related to the topic by each line. If you notice questions are related, feel free to create another mini-web based on one of the original questions. Tip: remember kids are constantly shifting their wonderings. It’s okay if their questions do not directly relate to the topic. As you explore books, online resources and ask more questions, you might be surprised to find out how interrelated everything truly is.
- Review questions with the children.
Find an inquiry space to document learning. Choose a space in your home or classroom to dedicate to the inquiry project. Remember the space doesn’t have to be large or a certain way at all. A corner in a playroom, classroom or kitchen will work just fine.
- Set up a small table that can display books, photos, art created by the children, and other materials related to their inquiry. For example, during an inquiry about what things are made of, you might set up a magnifying glass alongside a variety of natural and synthetic materials like bugs, shells, foil, and bottle caps.
- Decide the best way to store materials and start small. Library books can be stored in a basket under the table. The child’s artwork can be taped up on the wall, poster board or a small whiteboard.
Create a wonder wall. Involve children in creating a wonder wall near the inquiry space.
- Print out the Wonder Wall template.
- Support children in cutting out the words.
- Paste or tape the words on a colorful piece of paper.
- Invite children to decorate the space inside the words and the area around the paper. Get creative!
- Hang your poster on the wall near your inquiry space.
- Explain to children that this is the area where you will display the web of investigation and any other questions that come up as they are learning new things.
Dive Into Inquiry Learning
Prepare for learning. Once you’ve decided on a topic to explore, it’s time to think about what you already know about a topic, gather materials and start learning more. Here are some ideas:
- Tap into children’s knowledge about a topic first by creating a simple KWL (Know, Want to Know, Learned) chart. Dedicate time to build out what children know about the topic before exploring other resources. Children come with such diverse and robust ideas about topics and taking the time to hear their ideas is a great way to involve them in active learning as well as make sure that the project mirrors their reality in culturally responsive ways.
- Find books related to the topic at the library or online resources.
- Gather resources like articles, videos, television shows, activities or games that can extend the learning. If you’re in a classroom setting, check out the Inquiry Planning Document to plan activities.
- Go on virtual field trips to take children to amazing places.
Let the learning begin. Allow children ample time to research their questions in multiple ways, as mentioned above. The purpose of an inquiry project is to really allow kids to dive into their topic of interest so they can learn and explore naturally. Children might complete artwork, journal about their ideas, or create models to make sense of what they are learning. Our youngest scholars will mostly create pictures and use inventive spelling to show what they know. Anecdotes, videos and photos are ways adults can document learning in holistic ways because they illustrate the many ways in which children learn.
Find time throughout the week to explore the resources together. Educators might dedicate an hour of classroom time a day to the inquiry project while a busy parent may decide to spend an hour on the inquiry project on the weekend or when a child makes a connection or asks another topic-related question.
Inquiry projects can take anywhere from a few weeks to months depending on how children stay interested in the topic of exploration. Remember that if children end up losing engagement, it’s time to move on to the next exploration. Once you’re comfortable with facilitating inquiry projects, it’s much easier to shift as time goes on. What will you learn about next?
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