Imagine one of your preschoolers enjoys playing with a plush dog toy. You ask, “Do you like dogs?” They respond with, “Yes,” and go back to playing. Conversation over? To better engage with your children, asking a question requiring a more detailed answer is best. “Do you like dogs?” becomes “Why do you like dogs?”
In this article, we’ll discuss open-ended questions—what they are, their importance in early childhood education, and examples you can use in the classroom.
What is an open-ended question?
An open-ended question is a question that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no” response. They’re alternatives to closed-ended questions, which are narrow in focus and can typically be answered with a limited or single-word response. It’s the difference between asking the closed-ended question, “Do you like playing with this toy?” versus an open-ended alternative, “Why do you like playing with this toy?”
Open-ended questions create a language-rich environment and are key to starting a long conversation. Some significant characteristics of open-ended questions are that they don’t have a right or wrong answer, encourage discussion, and give control to the child. By using questions that start with what if, why, or how, you’re giving your children the opportunity to use their knowledge, feelings, and understanding to answer questions. Additionally, you’re helping them develop and exercise their language skills, which are a strong foundation for their social-emotional development and reading, writing, and math skills.
Why are open-ended questions important?
Through conversation, children can practice and develop many skills, and open-ended questions are at the heart of guiding them. These questions allow children to speak and communicate, problem-solve, control conversations, and think creatively.
Open-ended questions encourage young children to use their language skills because they require longer answers, which helps them strengthen and build their vocabulary. In answering open-ended questions, children are driven toward expanding their cognitive and problem-solving skills. They have to use their memory, search their mind for words, and form sentences. It requires them to think about their answer and give details to answer the question reasonably.
An effective way to develop social-emotional skills is through conversation. These skills allow you to understand your thoughts and feelings while being able to relate to others. They also include the ability to express yourself and recognize emotions in others. When you ask young children open-ended questions, it creates a space where they can relate to you and build a relationship with you. It also gives them the freedom to be creative and use their imagination as they express their thoughts and feelings and offer their opinions.
How to ask open-ended questions
There are three components to open-ended questions—asking the question, actively listening, and responding. The purpose of asking open-ended questions is to get children talking, allowing them to use their language skills and participate in the conversation. While there is no exact approach to asking open-ended questions, there are several strategies you can use.
Combine open-ended and closed-ended questions
Closed-ended questions aren’t a great tool to keep conversations going; however, they are a useful way to start one. Use them to introduce a topic to your children. Follow up by asking open-ended questions to allow your children to use their words while expressing their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. For example, in a conversation about sports, you can start by asking the closed-ended question, “What is your favorite sport?” To keep the conversation going, follow up with open-ended questions like, “Why is it your favorite sport?,” “How do you feel when you’re playing it?,” and “What’s your favorite thing about it?”
Ask stimulating questions
You wouldn’t expect an adult to enjoy answering “boring” questions, so why would we expect the same of children? In conjunction with asking them stimulating questions, ask questions in a way that relates to them. Ask your children about their interests and experiences. You can ask them about what they’re doing and prompt them to make predictions or provide explanations. The open-ended questions you ask can also guide them to connect concepts back to their own lives and experiences.
Give them time to answer
Language and cognitive development continue past early childhood education. Young children are at the start of this process, so it may take some time for them to hear your question, process the information, think up a response, and express it. When you ask your children an open-ended question, give them time to formulate an answer. You should also allow them to respond without interruption.
Express interest in their answer
As their social-emotional skills develop, children begin to pick up on cues. They notice when someone isn’t interested or paying attention. Just imagine how often you’ve heard your name repeated by a child waiting for your attention. After asking your open-ended question, make sure you express interest. As they respond, use facial expressions and nods to confirm that you’re listening. You can also try repeating parts of their response in any follow-up questions.
Extend their language
To help children increase their vocabulary, it’s necessary to introduce them to new words. Language scaffolding is an effective way to develop and strengthen their skills. Extend their language by repeating concepts or actions with more complex vocabulary. Try restating their language using correct grammar. Summarize their thoughts while making the phrases more complex and adding new words.
Keep the conversation going
A one-sided conversation isn’t a conversation; it’s practically a monologue. When asking your open-ended questions, keep the conversation going. Offer your experiences and insight into the discussion. This opens the door to asking more questions and allows your children to engage in back-and-forth conversations.
Watch their expressions and behavior
Non-verbal communication is a key factor when engaging children in dialogue with open-ended questions. Watch their facial expressions and body language to make sure they’re engaged. If you realize they’re no longer interested, switch the topic or move on.
Examples of open-ended questions for preschoolers
Open-ended questions will help you guide a conversation with your children. In addition to general questions, below are several types of questions you can use to guide your preschoolers through experiences, feelings, problem-solving, predictions, and thinking.
- How did you do that?
- Why did you do that?
- How can we find out?
- What made you think of that?
- What does that remind you of?
- Why do you think that happened?
- How does it work?
- What could you change?
- What is your plan?
- What are you thinking about?
- What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen?
- What sounds do you hear when you go to a park?
- What do you see when you look outside at night time?
- What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
- How did you learn to ride your bike?
- What new things did you learn today?
- What is your happiest memory?
- What do you take to bed with you every night?
- How does a TV work?
What is the first thing you do when you go to the beach?
- What makes you feel like dancing?
- What is the nicest thing a friend has ever done for you?
- What are you excited about in the morning?
- What makes someone a good friend?
- What are you thankful for?
- What makes you feel afraid?
- Do you like dogs or cats better, and why?
- What is your favorite toy and why?
- What is your favorite part of the school day?
Why did you draw that picture?
What is something you can do today that would make your day better?
- How can we build a block tower so it’s really tall?
- What are some different ways to draw a bird?
- What do you need to make a sandwich?
- How are dogs and cats the same and different?
- How can you turn on a TV if you can’t find the remote?
- What can we do if your backpack is too heavy for you to carry?
- If your parent’s coffee isn’t sweet enough, how could we make it sweeter?
- What could someone do if they want to be stronger?
- What are some ways we can make clean-up time faster?
- What do you think this story is about?
- What would happen if your parent(s) missed their alarm in the morning?
- What do you think happens when a worm burrows itself into the dirt?
- What would happen if you skipped breakfast and lunch?
- How do you think Mary felt when you shared your toy?
- What might happen if we built your block tower 10 feet tall?
- How many books do you think we need in a library?
- What could we do differently so your block tower doesn’t fall?
- What happens after an egg hatches?
- What do you think happens when a bee lands on a flower?
- What do you think about when you wake up?
- If you had a million dollars, what would you do with it?
- What is the best thing about being a grown-up?
- What do you think is the hardest job in the world and why?
- If you could go on an adventure anywhere, where would you go?
- If you could change the color of the ocean to any color you’d like, what would you change it to and why?
- If you could be any animal, what would it be and why?
- What do you think a giraffe says?
- If your toys could talk, what would they say?
- If you were a teacher, what would you teach your students?
What will you do next?
It’s exceedingly challenging to learn about someone and facilitate a conversation if you keep asking “yes” or “no” questions. Using open-ended questions with your preschoolers effectively builds their language skills and helps with social-emotional development. As you incorporate open-ended questions, ask about their interests, give them time to answer, and show interest. Children are like a sponge—constantly soaking in new information and social cues. The conversation and connections they learn and make with you help set the foundation for the ones they’ll make in the future.
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