Updated: Apr 22, 2021
It’s so easy to worry we aren’t doing enough to support our kids’ academic success. Sometimes we can stay up late thinking about their grades at school or their progress in a subject. What if we could take that worry and turn it into relief by thoughtfully jumping on opportunities to build knowledge that arises when our kids ask questions? Even better, what if this knowledge building also created moments of deeper connection with your kids? Here is an example of a simple question being turned into deeper learning that occurred in our house recently:
Seven year old Charlie pops into the house while playing in the snow: “Mom there are 44 hours in 2 days right?” I was busy working at the moment and could have easily said. “Oh, close. There are 48 hours in 2 days.” But instead I decided to take a moment to let him figure it out for himself.
Me: “Well, let’s see. There are 24 hours in one day.”
Him: “so, 45 hours?”
Me: Well, let’s add 24 and 24. We need to add the ones. What’s 4+4?”
Him: “Ugh, I don’t want to do this right now.”
Me: “I can just show you real fast on paper. (writing down 24+24) so we need to add the ones first-- which is?”
Him: “8-- 4+4 is 8.”
Me: “Yeah. And we need to add the tens. 2+2 is?”
Me: “So there are 4 tens and 8 ones.”
Him: “So there are 48 hours in 2 days!”
Me: “Yup! You were only a few hours off with your first guess!”
He then happily turned on his heels to go outside to play. I have no idea what led to his question or why he was thinking about how many hours there are in a day. But guiding him through finding the answer for himself is critical to being someone who considers himself a problem solver, a learner, and someone who can tackle math problems that occur to him throughout the course of a day.
Here is one more example of turning a question into a learning opportunity.
We were getting ready to go on a bike ride and my son said: “Mom, what do you think the likelihood of me falling and scraping my knees is?” To be honest, he asks questions like this ALL the time, and I don’t always respond with patience and engage the dialogue. I at first tried to blow him off, because, really, how am I supposed to know the likelihood of him falling off his bike?
Me: “I don’t know, probably not that likely.”
Him: “But HOW likely do you think it is?”
Me (now showing annoyance): “I have no way of knowing that.”
Him: “Yeah, but on a scale of 100, how likely do you think it is?”
Me: “I don’t know.” And then, just to move the conversation along: “Maybe 20 out of 100.”
Him: “Ah, that’s like a 2 out of 10 chance” I better go put long pants on in case I fall.”
Me. Jaw drops.
I had no idea my seven year old could convert a percentage into a fraction in his head. If I had shut this conversation down, as I was honestly wanting to do, I would have never witnessed this really cool display of mathematical understanding!
Sometimes we caregivers don’t actually know the answer. Especially when the question is particularly complex or something we ourselves haven’t thought of before. Just last night we were sitting around a fire and my son was playing around near the fire. He asked, “Why is the smoke warm?” I didn’t actually know the answer so I responded with “Why do you think it’s warm?” He was a bit stumped and my husband asked him what he knew about smoke and what he thought it was. This led to a lengthy conversation about smoke, fire and ash. We were able to see what he understood about the topic, we made some mental notes about where his understanding needed further explanations, and we built connection as a family by exploring an interesting topic.
If I were to make a list of all the questions I get asked in a day, it would probably reach the hundreds. I’m sure this is the case for many other caregivers too. Here is a great article from the New York Times about the importance of engaging in the constant questions. I know it’s not possible to turn every single question into a moment of learning-- but here are some simple tips to turn SOME of those questions into a moment of deeper thinking.
Fully listen to the question, then pause. This might seem too simple. But I often catch myself automatically answering a question instead of giving myself a moment to pause. One way I create a pause when it doesn’t come organically is to repeat the question back. Pausing gives me a chance to decide how I want to respond.
Acknowledge that the question is interesting and get curious about the source of the inquiry. This could sound like, “Hmm, Interesting question. What’s got you thinking about that?” This interest in the thinking behind the question can on its own create connection as it shows you are interested in the inner workings of your child’s mind. We all like to hear that we’ve asked a good question. Asking where the question is coming from also helps us to understand more about what the child really wants to know.
Turn the question around. Just last night we were sitting around a fire and my son had been playing in the smoke. He asked us why the smoke was warm. I wasn’t sure I knew the answer, and I asked “Why do you think it’s warm?” This led to a complex conversation about fires and smoke that I learned from as well. If you have time, explore the rabbit holes and let your child take the lead on providing answers, even if they aren’t right.
Look it up. Even if I know the answer to a question, I might still spend the time to look it up. This can be in the moment, or later. “Last night when you asked about why smoke was warm, it got me wondering. I found this cool video about smoke and fire, want to watch with me?” If I can’t look something up right away, I keep a list of questions in my phone. Some questions in my phone right now: What made space? What made the gases that started the big bang? How does someone become a lefty or a righty? Why do cats purr?
Continue the learning. If my children have asked a particularly interesting or intriguing question, I try to go onto our library website and look for books pertaining to the topic. I keep a book basket filled with books from the library and make sure to include some on topics I’ve been asked about. Sometimes they get read, sometimes they don’t. What matters is that the questions are heard, thought about and explored to the learners interest.
From the absurd to the serious, our kids’ questions can be a great jumping off point for connection and learning. They can help us find those subjects that will light a fire of learning, and help us get to them even better as people and as learners. If you think this is something that you could use support learning how to do, we would love to provide that.