Start Small

Working with young children, I love to start with an inquiry into insects.

This accomplishes many things that set us up for success:

  1. Turn fear into fascination… so they stop screaming and running from bugs!

  2. Practice attention to detail and curiosity.

  3. Establish respect for creatures of all sizes.

  4. Practice empathy skills.

  5. Develop scientific and research skills.

I kick this inquiry off in a variety of ways, all an attempt to spark curiosity.

While outside, I will often behave as if I have just found the most fascinating thing for students to look at (ant hill, beetle, butterfly) and then listen to children’s reactions, observations, questions and ideas. Paying attention to children’s reactions always determines how to move forward. (Terrified? Ease their fears + appeal to curiosity. Fascinated? Ask open ended questions to gauge what they already know. Disinterested? Plan for how to use their interests to bring them into the inquiry.)

Another path I take for this first experience with inquiry is to spark curiosity by providing deceased insects to observe… this has the fabulous effect of removing the fear and inspiring almost instant fascination and wonder! (It’s pretty easy to find dead bugs if you just start noticing them… it seems they die from the heat in summer often.)

Once we are curious, we start recording our wonders and knowledge during group meetings. First question- What are insects and how are they different from other creatures? Throughout the inquiry we observe the natural world in our community, and formulate questions about the topic, to later engage in finding answers.

In the case of insects, I like to bring in additional specimens either dead or alive to better build the foundation on which this new knowledge will rest, and to maintain interest. On one occasion things got interesting when we found a live caterpillar…

We knew insects have six legs… then looking at a caterpillar who seemed to have many legs we began to have questions! We looked closer, we looked in a book, and we learned that caterpillars really do have six legs and then several extra suction type parts to help them!

So Cool!

Constantly learning new things myself through this practice of letting wonderings mellow and then researching with children is one of my favorite things about teaching this way!

Typically, I try to find a variety of materials and invitations to explore that allow children to investigate and learn on their own. Counting objects, building insect models and homes (with toys/natural or crafty materials) and browsing a collection of insect books are a few examples.

Group conversations are a great time to gather the thoughts of children and ask open ended questions to expand their thinking. This is typically when we record wonderings, and knowledge, read books for answers, and explore learning materials that work well with a group.

This reciprocal approach allows a cycle of data gathering and theory creation for days or weeks, that is then reflected on through our group conversations, questions and learning charts often. While preschool students are non-readers, with encouragement (and a healthy serving of excitement and fascination by adults) they will be drawn to the large selection of books about insects in the classroom. This provides a way for children to take ownership of their learning, and inspires many new questions for investigation!


Investigating, asking questions, and gathering evidence to support the learning position is an interesting challenge with young children. As adults, we often forget that children have limited background knowledge and experience. That said, we must never make assumptions, nor should we simply hand them our evidence to get them started. It certainly would be easier for me to simply tell them on day one “That is an insect, it has six legs” but then I would put myself in the role of the knowledge authority, and for the remainder of our time together they would turn to me for answers rather than as a partner in exploring, learning, and growing so many essential thinking skills.

Wrap It Up

After a few weeks of investigation our inquiry wound to an end we took a page from project-approach and found a way to share and present students learning experience. In this situation, students helped to gather learning posters and drawings to hang as a display for families and neighboring classes. As this was often my choice for first inquiry, it was not typically the one I made a big fuss over with a final project celebration. However, there’s always a good reason to celebrate learning, and there are so many fun ways to present this unit and others! I would love to hear what you come up with!

Inquiry-based instruction sparks curiosity and encourages creativity, resulting in learners who are motivated to seek the answers rather than receive information passively from an adult source.

Inquiry for Learning

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Learning through experience together.

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