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Inquiry-Based Early Learning Environments: Creating, Supporting, and Collaborating

Inquiry-Based Early Learning Environments: Creating, Supporting, and Collaborating

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Inquiry-Based Early Learning Environments: Creating, Supporting, and Collaborating

269 pages
2 heures
Sep 18, 2018


What does it mean to inquire? Grownups would say it means to question, to search for information, or to finding out about a topic of interest. For children in an early childhood classroom, the definition is no different. From the time of their birth, children want to know how the world works and actively seek out information. How educators respond to their quest is what this book is all about.

Inquiry-Based Early Learning Environment takes an in-depth look at children’s inquiry. What does inquiry look like in early childhood settings? How does the environment affect children’s inquiries and teachers’ thought processes? Inquiry-Based Early Learning Environment examines inquiry in all its facets, including environments that support relationships, that create a culture of risk-taking in our thinking, that support teachers as well as children, that include families, that use documentation as a way of thinking about our work, and of course, the physical environment and all the objects and spaces within it. Throughout, stories about environments and approaches to inquiry from around the world are included as examples.
Sep 18, 2018

À propos de l'auteur

Susan Stacey: Susan Stacy has worked in the early childhood education field for over 35 years as an early childhood educator, director, practicum advisor, and instructor in both Canada and the US. She is a frequent speaker across North America, focusing on topics related to emergent curriculum, reflective and responsive practices, inquiry, documentation, and the role of the arts in early education. She also teaches adult students at the Nova Scotia College of Early Childhood Education, and she belongs to several organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Canadian Childcare Federation. She presents at NAEYC conferences and has been published in Young Children, Young Exceptional Children, and Exchange. Susan holds a master's degree from Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, CA.

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Inquiry-Based Early Learning Environments - Susan Stacey


Introduction: The Quest for Knowledge

What does it mean to inquire? In our everyday lives, we might think of inquiry as questioning, searching for information, or finding out about a topic we are interested in. For children in their early years classrooms, the definition is no different—from the time of their birth, they want to know how the world works and are on a quest to actively search out information. How we as educators might best respond to this quest is what this book is about. How do children’s questions and ideas affect our practice? Our classroom environments? Our relationships with children? How do we provide environments that support inquiry?

Within this book, I use the term environment in a way that encompasses many aspects. At first we may tend to think of environment as a physical space, and, of course, it is. Yet it is also so much more. We can also consider the environment as a place where we respond to provocations, the unusual, and the puzzling. We can think of it as a space that intrigues us to move in new directions and as a setting where relationships are formed, decisions are made, and a particular culture—a way of being—might be formed. What if this culture was one where children’s questions are expected, valued by their teachers and community, and taken seriously enough that their ideas are put into action? Where teachers consider their own questions as well as those that come from the children, even if this causes a change of plan or takes them in an unexpected direction? What difference would this make to our daily practice? Throughout this book, we too will be on a quest—a quest to consider how inquiry, in all its forms, might open our eyes to a broader, deeper teaching practice.

Many Forms of Inquiry: What Does It Look Like in Practice?

Inquiry has the potential to be a messy practice. For children, it is messy in the sense that they need to get their hands on materials and their minds on ideas to mess about, make mistakes, revisit, and repeat many times. For adults the cycle is pretty much the same. In our collaboration with children, we also should be familiar with the materials so we understand their possibilities; we can only do that through trial and error, messing about and experimenting with possibilities until we understand how a particular material or process works.

What Is Messing About?

David Hawkins is an educator whose life bridges the boundaries between scientist and philosopher, teacher and writer, scholar and activist. For more than two decades he has helped to bring teaching and curriculum materials in tune with the ways in which children learn.

—Thomas James, Teacher of Teachers, Companion of Children

Educators David Hawkins and his wife, Frances, directed the Mountain View Center for Environmental Education in Boulder, Colorado. He referred to children as curious, active investigators who were willing to take risks, and he felt that teachers could learn about teaching in the same way: by being curious, risk-taking investigators. Referring to professional learning for teachers, Hawkins remarked that it is something to which the advisors and teachers must participate equally. Exploration, invention, experimentation—but not training as though the trainer knew beforehand what the trainee should do.

At the Boulder Journey School, the influence of David and Frances Hawkins and the work taking place in Reggio Emilia, Italy, has been profound. The leaders at Boulder Journey School, who also mentor student teachers in their program, developed the Hawkins Room for messing about with materials and ideas. They state, We envisioned a room that would challenge teachers to broaden their understandings of scientific concepts and wondered how this might impact the learning taking place in our classrooms (Lynch, Schaffer, and Hall 2009).

The term messing about has become an important one in the early childhood vernacular, one that describes hands-on learning with materials, for adults, that will ultimately benefit the children in their classrooms.

In our thinking—which might also feel a little confused or messy if we are in unfamiliar territory—we can expect to sometimes be unsure, to take a step forward without really knowing where it will lead us, and, in time, to be comfortable with the disequilibrium that this may cause. We can also expect to be wrong sometimes (for instance, when we misunderstand children’s intentions or thinking) and to use our stumbles as a way to dig deeper and learn more about the children’s ideas. We can revisit, think again, and repeat.

Inquiry can take many forms, and perhaps one of the most familiar and comfortable for us as educators is that of hands-on exploration of materials. This means we explore them to find out how they work, the effect they have, how they can be combined, and what possibilities exist for their use. For instance, a material such as clay might be used in combination with something else, giving not only an unusual effect but also a different use. We will explore the use of materials in some depth in a later chapter, but here is a first example, involving natural materials:

Having observed children watching birds for some time and then asking questions about trees, it came as no surprise to teachers when this group of four-year-olds wanted to build a tree house in their classroom. Providing branches, sections of tree trunks, burlap, and lots of tape enabled these children to construct an indoor tree house by themselves. This was their own design, built over a period of two weeks with lots of trial and error and no assistance from adults, except for occasional encouragement.

Here we see that children have used clay not as a sculpting medium but as a tool. Wanting to make their sticks stand upright and having had many experiences with clay, they were able to see this medium’s possibilities for helping them achieve their goal.

Inquiry might also appear as pure experimentation. This could connect with children’s questions about how the world works. To find out, the child watches and often experiments with replicating a process. A toddler, for instance, might be fascinated with the disappearance of water down a sink and will experiment for long periods of time (if allowed!) with turning the faucet on and off, peering underneath the sink, or playing for hours at the water table. Preschoolers or kindergartners are often curious about print and how it works. They are surrounded by it, realize its importance in the world (because adults use it all the time), and begin to experiment. We see scribbles, symbols, lines, and forms arranged intentionally on the page as these emerging writers experiment with what works in terms of being understood.

And we should not forget that inquiry often involves revisiting what has already been attempted. It is helpful for all of us—adults and children alike—to revisit past attempts when we are learning something new. What worked? What didn’t? Why? Even the youngest child will have something to say, or demonstrate body language that sends a message, when revisiting a photograph of their play or work. To see a visual representation of what we did helps us think through what happened, what we enjoyed, what was frustrating, and what we might do about that. Having a conversation with an educator or more proficient peer while looking at photographs means that the child may then try to articulate what happened. Again this leads to deeper thinking, a kind of cementing of children’s provisional theories.

When we think about ways to support inquiry, then, it’s also helpful to keep the benefits of doing so in mind:

First, in early years settings, inquiry is based in play. This means that in an environment that already puts a high value on play, inquiry is already present and providing rich opportunities for us to explore. There are no major changes, therefore, in philosophy when we work to support inquiry, only an enhanced noticing and responding that needs to happen.

For those engaged in emergent curriculum, inquiry is a natural outcome of deep engagement. For those using more prescriptive approaches (for instance, within a school system), there is the opportunity to introduce inquiry that will loosen up some old scripts while still staying within required frameworks.

We know that children are biologically wired to learn. Within play and inquiry, children can also learn how to learn. This is quite different from traditional approaches, where a top-down method (that is, a method that views the teacher as holder and transmitter of knowledge) contains little meaning for young children.

Just about any skill can arise and be developed within inquiry. There is opportunity for problem solving, collaboration, literacy, math, science, artistic expression, and so on, all at the child’s own level. Rather than follow a script or checklist, we follow the ideas and theories of children and then notice the skills and learning taking place within the inquiry. They will be there! At times there will be naturally arising opportunities to scaffold these skills, giving the educator an opportunity to collaborate with children individually or in small groups.

As children learn to tackle challenges (which will inevitably arise), self-confidence builds, as does the ability to collaborate and think together.

Play as Inquiry

When we play, as children or as adults, we explore, wonder, and investigate. We try out varied ways of doing things and adapt our approaches. As humans we are constantly playing with new ideas and strategies, and we learn from this play—this is discovery through playing with ideas. What’s more, we have fun doing it; we are motivated to continue with play, as we find it interesting and engaging.

Elizabeth Jones and Gretchen Reynolds (1992, 1), authors of The Play’s the Thing, describe what happens during play:

Master players are skilled at representing their experiences symbolically in self-initiated improvisational drama. Sometimes alone, sometimes in collaboration with others, they play out their fantasies and the events of their daily lives. Through pretend play young children consolidate their understanding of the world, their language, and their social skills. The skillful teacher of young children is one who makes such play possible and helps children keep getting better at it.

In the video Play, Dr. Peter Gray and Sir Ken Robinson (2015), both advocates of play in the lives of children, address the idea of imaginative thinking that develops through play, stating that geniuses seem to be those who retain into adulthood the imaginative capacities of young children.

We see imagination come to life in our everyday work with young children, and we commonly observe young children who are so captured by their play experiences that they are in their own world and do not see or hear what is going on around them. Similarly, if adults allow themselves to play as children do, perhaps with new ideas or approaches, they enter into a state of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as flow, a very satisfying state which is both alert and calm (1996).

In his TEDx Jerusalem talk, Living in a Playful Collage, Hanoch Piven (2012), an artist who uses everyday objects in creative and playful ways, points out that play leads to creativity and to looking at the world in a different way. He compares the direct versus the playful path, noting that off the main road, we find treasures . . . playfulness lets you make mistakes, which allows for adaptation and flexibility.

As educators of young children, we are so fortunate to be working with those who see the world in flexible, adaptable, and unusual ways. Through their play, children remind us to really see, with wide-open eyes, all possibilities. At this point in their lives, they have few preconceptions about how to use materials or how to approach a challenge or play out their thinking—they simply dive in and try out their big ideas. In a supportive environment, they are fearless in their explorations.

Within the following chapters, we’ll explore all the ways that we can think about the terms environment and inquiry as well as how these ideas might affect our daily practice and the children and teachers who collaborate in learning together.

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