Encouraging your child to expand on their thoughts and experiences better equips them to understand the world around them. Get into the habit of asking openended questions that require more thinking than short, closed questions.
Language is one of the most powerful ways to learn. Caregivers can use language to expand children’s curiosity, their ability to reason, creativity, thinking ability, and independence. One effective way to extend a child’s thinking is by asking open-ended questions. These questions have no right or wrong answers. Open-ended questions can reveal fresh and even surprising insights and ideas.
For example, here are some insights from a 5-year-old:
what is space?
Space is between the couches and the table; it is in my nose; and I can squash it with my bum when I sit on a chair. There is space in the sky too, that is where the planets live.
who lives in space and what do they look like?
Aliens live in space and they have 10 fingers on one hand and eight on the other. They have three eyes and they wear underwear. You should always check that aliens do not take your underpants. Astronauts live in space too. They have big bubble helmets and if you pinch them they won’t feel it because their costumes are very thick.
open-ended questions extend children’s learning and thinking skills by:
- encouraging children to think beyond the obvious;
- encouraging children to think of as many possibilities as they can, before
deciding upon the best or most appropriate answer;
- increasing understanding;
- allowing children to include more information, feelings, attitudes and understanding of the topic;
- providing children with opportunities to explain or describe, thereby expanding and developing their speech, language and vocabulary;
- requiring children to recall recent or past events which develops their short- and long-term memory skills; and
- requiring adults to listen attentively to children’s responses and this shows the children that what they are saying is important. The caregiver can comment on a child’s response or ask another question to extend the conversation.
how to use open-ended questions
Ask “what” questions to start a conversation. Point to an item and say, “What is this?” or “What is this called?” Repeat what your child says and let your child know his or her answer is right by repeating it, “Yes, that is a cat.”
Extend on what the child says, but keep the phrases short and simple to ensure that the child is able to imitate what you’ve said. “Yes, that is a black cat.” The conversation can continue. “What is the cat doing?” “Yes, it looks like the cat is sleeping.”
The older the child, the more extensive the questions can become. There are no right or wrong questions or answers, but caregivers should ensure that they ask children questions in a way that they can comprehend them, so that even if they cannot provide an answer, they can still think about it.
Open-ended questions often start with, “why”, “how”, or phrases such as, “I would like to know more about”, “Tell me about”, or “I am interested in hearing more about.”
Asking open-ended questions is a habit you can adopt using a few tricks.
Here are some ways to start an open-ended question:
- What would happen if ...
- What do you think about ...
- I wonder ...
- In what way ...
- Tell me about ...
- How can we ...
- What would you do ...
- How did you ...
- Why do you think …
After asking a child an open-ended question, allow quiet time for the child to think before responding to your comment or question. Young children often need extra time to decide what to say and how to say it.
Try to use open-ended questions to start an actual conversation with the child and not just to gather information. The most interesting conversations with children are often those that result from a sequence of open-ended questions that move the discussion forward and reveal responses that you would never have imagined.
using closed questions
Closed questions encourage a one word or short answer, and there is also usually only one correct answer to the question. Caregivers can use closed questions to determine what a child already knows and this can be a starting point for further learning. Closed questions are therefore appropriate in certain situations, and it is up to the caregiver to assess when to use each type of question.
examples of open-ended and closed-ended questions
Closed: Did you have fun at school?
Open: Tell me about your day at school.
Closed: Did you make these cupcakes?
Open: How did you make these cupcakes?
Closed: What is your favourite movie?
Open: I would love to hear about your favourite movie.
Closed: Did you hit your brother?
Open: Why is your brother crying? Tell me what happened.
10 great questions to encourage extended thinking
1 Why do animals sometimes fall from the sky?
2 I wonder why the wind blows?
3 I wonder why the desert is cold at night?
4 Why can’t people fly like birds?
5 I wonder why ponies lived underground?
6 I wonder why fish grew legs?
7 Why did dinosaurs become extinct?
8 I wonder why trees have leaves?
9 Why are vultures bald?
10 How do ducks see under water?
Asking and responding to open-ended questions requires more effort, time and patience from adults, but children benefit significantly by thinking through their responses and expressing what they want to say. I encourage caregivers to use open-ended questions to broaden children’s thinking processes, to develop their speech and language skills, and to build confidence in their ability to express themselves using words.
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Open-ended questions require adults to listen attentively to children’s responses and this shows the children that what they are saying is important.