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Your Child as an Investigator

Dear Elizabeth,
My 2-year-old really loves to test things and find out how they work. I call her my little investigator! Are there things I can be doing to encourage her curiosity?
Sarah Condron
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
  • Provide a variety of interesting things & places to explore
  • Take time to discover new things together
  • Let children figure things out for themselves
Expert Advice
Leah Melber, Ph.D.
Leah Melber, Ph.D.
Science education professor
Encouraging Curiosity
The most important thing is to latch on to each and every “teachable moment.” For instance, when your child asks a question, it might be easiest to just provide an answer and move on. However, it will be much more meaningful if you can provide the setting for your child to actually explore on her own and find out the answer herself.

Develops Critical Thinking
Exploration and investigations teach children to be critical thinkers. Critical thinking is the one skill we need throughout our lives as we try and handle challenges that come our way. When a child is encouraged to investigate, he or she learns to gather information and make decisions. As a result, children become fantastic little problem-solvers.

How to Investigate
Anything can be an investigation. You can have a child taste a bit of sugar, salt, and flour. They may all be white powders… but there are definite differences! A flower with the petals falling off can be an investigation opportunity or leftovers that have started to go bad. Anything that peaks a child’s interest can be an opportunity to explore.

The backyard and the kitchen can be great places to explore. They tend to have items that naturally peak a child’s curiosity and create learning experiences without additional cost.

As long as it is a safe situation, then by all means, adults should allow the child to do as much as possible on their own. Again, children learn best by doing, so whenever possible let them get their hands dirty.

Ask Questions
It’s important to scaffold or support the learning experience. Asking questions to help guide a child’s discovery is critical. Asking what the child is observing is critical. Once a child provides a response, it’s important to delve deeper into that response. Why do they think something happened? Is there something they could do to change what they saw? Would that happen each time? Does it remind them of any other investigation they did?

Learn Together with Your Child
If after guiding a child’s exploration the child is still seeking answers, taking part in information gathering together will be critical. Looking up something TOGETHER at the local library or on the Internet can be the next step. You might also have a friend who is an expert in this particular area. For example, if you have a mystery flower in your garden, you may want to take a digital picture or pick one and share it with a gardening enthusiast down the block.

Be Enthusiastic
Adults need to show excitement about learning new things. Sometimes children ask so many “why” questions we can lose our patience. It’s important to treat each question with patience and excitement to inspire a love of learning and exploration. If a parent becomes exasperated, it can send the message that asking questions isn’t OK and we don’t want to end up there.
Child Care Provider Comments
Jennifer Irish
Jennifer Irish
Mother of two
My daughter is really interested in cooking because I do it a lot. She loves to be involved. I was making tea one afternoon, and my daughter noticed “smoke” coming out of the kettle. It was one of those teachable moments. We got to explore the idea of how and why water turns to steam when it heats up. Also, we talked about ice and how it melts into water. Whatever tools or foods I’m using seem to fascinate her. She’s very interested in what things are used for and how they work.
Eve Del Real
Eve Del Real
Child Care Provider for 3 years
I believe that every opportunity is a chance for investigating, and that investigation promotes curiosity. With the children in my care, I make sure to choose projects ahead of time that will promote curiosity. We choose investigations that will make the child ask questions. When a child initiates questions, the provider must encourage them to ask more so that he develops an appreciation for learning. You want to keep it positive and make them feel good about asking questions so that they are never shy about asking again in the future.
Janis Sanders
Janis Sanders
Grandmother of four
There is a trail in the woods near my house that I take my grandkids to a lot. They get to be out in the wilderness where it’s very quiet and serene. Their favorite part is a stream that runs through the woods there. They like to find rocks and throw them into the stream. They love a particular spot where we will sit on the rocks and have a snack. They also love to climb on the big rocks by the stream. There are lots of plants. I’m a big gardener so I’m always introducing them to plants.

Become a Backyard Investigator Featured Activity:
Become a Backyard Investigator
Your Child as an Investigator Featured Video:
Your Child as an Investigator
Topic: Early Learning Areas
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