One of my tasks at Windham Child Care Association is to produce a newsletter for early childhood and after-school educators. As I was brainstorming content for the next edition, I came across an article on open-ended questions.
Open-ended questions are simply ones that can’t be answered with one word. Often they start with how, what, where, and why. For example, asking "What is happening in your block creation?" instead of "What color is that block?"
When we use open-ended questions with children, there are many benefits. They require fuller sentences, so it means children must think about their answers and tap into their vocabulary knowledge. Often, it encourages children to be creative and use their imagination.
It also shows them respect. When a problem arises, it might be easy for teachers or parents to offer a solution, but given the opportunity, children often come up with their own reasonable solutions. When we engage them in resolving conflicts by saying things like "do you have any ideas" or "what can we do to make things better," they practice their problem solving skills, become more invested in the outcome and they learn that their ideas matter.
When we attentively listen to their responses and ask follow-up questions, children learn that their views and their thoughts are valued. They find reward in expressing themselves verbally and gain the confidence to be good communicators in their world. All of these things also help to build and strengthen relationships.
As a mother raising two young girls, it’s apparent to me how powerful language is. The words we choose shape the world around us. I want to be sure that the words I use create a positive environment, provoke thinking, and ignite imagination in them. As an exercise, I decide to tune into my communication with them and task myself with using more open-ended questions.
I’ve learned many things in the past few weeks by being more intentional in my conversations. Sometimes, teaching moments landed in my lap. When my four year old Sylvia was telling me about a matching game she played in preschool, I said "Tell me about the pictures on the cards." She responded, "They were China people." I could steer the conversation in many ways -- cultures, diversity, even the world map!
Sometimes, answers to the questions offered a glimpse into their hearts desire (when you’d least expect it). Q: "Where would you wear an outfit like that?" A: "When it’s summer and I’m surfing. I want to surf and I want Santa to bring me a surfboard!"
And sometimes, through the filter of a young child’s eye, complex concepts are so eloquently simplified. Q: "Can you tell me about Martin Luther King?" A: "He wanted black and white people to hold hands and share water fountains and buses. He thought we should share the earth and I agree."
Once I started listening to myself, I was quite surprised at how many closed-ended questions I asked. Not just yes or no questions, but questions that didn’t require much thinking on their part. For example, I asked "which apple did you like better?" It was easy enough for them to answer "granny smith or red delicious" but what if I had said "what did you think of the apples?" It opens everything right up for all of us.
And when my 6-year-old, Nina, was talking about a classmate at recess, I heard myself say, "You like spending time with that friend, right?" As soon as the words left my mouth, it was clear to me how much more information I could’ve elicited if I said "How do you feel about spending time with that friend?"
Another thing that I noticed with this practice is how easily and often our own assumptions are embedded into our questions. Naturally, our perceptions of the world inform how we frame our language. But with young children, we want them to be discovering and exploring their own views of the world. Without even noticing it, adults are often making subconscious suggestions to little ones. Certainly there is a time and place for guiding them and making suggestions, but it was surprising to me just how often I was doing it when I wasn’t really meaning to. By slowing down and being attentive to the way I was framing my questions, I was learning about myself in the process.
Forming questions in a new way can feel artificial at first. Like with any new habit, at times you have to really force yourself to pause and intentionally decide to do it differently. But after a while, it gets easier. After a few weeks of reformatting my questions, I noticed it became more natural. I didn’t have to think about it as much, it just flowed from me.
Needless to say, there is a time and place for asking open-ended questions. What’s most important is to understand their benefits and to know when to access them from your communication toolbox. (And might I add that the benefits reach beyond early childhood -- these skills surely enhance communication with older children and adults as well.)
As adults, we have so many responsibilities to create the best environment for our children. When we’re communicating to young children, our words penetrate deep. The effort it takes to tune into our language, to encourage their own thinking and to keep from projecting our own beliefs onto them (when unnecessary) has immediate rewards that will last them a lifetime.
Sarah DiNicola is the Communications & Events Coordinator at Windham Child Care Association and mom to Sylvia, age 4 and Nina, age 6. She welcomes comments, questions and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-5332 ext. 310.