Linda Thornton and Pat Brunton explore ways to use the children’s curiosity about their world to become self-motivated, independent learners

Opportunities for communication

For children, learning to communicate is a very significant step towards independence and self-reliance. Young children have a naturally investigative style of learning and an equally natural urge to communicate their discoveries. By communicating their ideas, children are able to demonstrate their curiosity and express their creativity. The science and technology aspects of Knowledge and Understanding of the World provide an ideal opportunity to help children develop communication skills starting from their own ideas about their world and how it works.

Communicating through science

Although our image of science may be about ‘doing’ things, in fact it is far more about communicating theories, both to ourselves and to others. This becomes clear when we look at the processes of science which involve:

  • observing
  • raising questions
  • hypothesising
  • predicting
  • planning and carrying out an investigation
  • interpreting results
  • sharing findings.

A wide range of oral communication skills can be developed through scientific exploration. Children will have opportunities to experiment with language and practise the skills of explaining, questioning, hypothesising and predicting. They will be keen to find ways to influence others and persuade them to accept the ‘correctness’ of their findings. All scientists need the acknowledgement of others that what they have discovered is ‘true for the time being’. Scientific discovery, from the Nobel Prize winner to the toddler investigating jelly, needs to be shared with others in order to be validated.

Communicating through design technology

Design technology is all about communicating ideas. The process of design technology involves:

  • identifying a need or problem
  • proposing a solution
  • realising a design (making something)
  • evaluation and testing of the design.

As it is often a cooperative activity involving more than one child, a design technology activity can help children to see how individual decisions contribute to a larger group project. They will begin to appreciate the value of clear and accurate explanations, and learn to appreciate feedback from their group. There will be many opportunities to use ‘specialist’ vocabulary and communicate through oral, graphic and mathematical representations.

Languages for communication

Scientific and technological ideas can be communicated through speaking, drawing, writing, constructing, music and dance, each of which will be of value in different situations.

In every group of children there will be ‘experts’ – children who are fascinated by machines, by construction, by the planets, by plants and animals – with knowledge, skills and experience to communicate. Creating opportunities for ideas to be shared will help children to develop the skills to communicate scientific ideas effectively. This will help them to learn how to:

  • express their ideas clearly
  • take turns in discussion
  • listen to the points of view of others
  • negotiate.

Explorations and investigations provide many opportunities for using mark-making and writing skills. Capitalise on these by creating reasons to produce labels, to sequence events and to write instructions. Drawings and pictures convey meaning and can be used to initiate, develop and communicate ideas. Children who find using language difficult may prefer to express their ideas through drawings, but all children will benefit from the challenge of trying to convey their thinking through graphic representation using pictures, plans, maps and diagrams. When a child represents his ideas and thoughts in a drawing he is also re-presenting them to himself. In doing this he modifies his ideas and develops his reasoning skills. By then going on to explain his drawings to a group he has a further opportunity to revisit, revise and enrich his understanding.

Remember to recognise and value the very wide range of languages which young children use to communicate. Some children may prefer to express their design ideas and scientific theories using the language of the body as well as the brain. They will communicate their ideas and thinking through models, construction, music, dance and re-enactment.

Encouraging curiosity

Curiosity is defined in the dictionary as ‘an eager desire to know’, and so is certainly a useful disposition to encourage in young children. Curious children actively explore the world around them. They ask questions about what they see and make predictions about why things happen in a particular way. They test out their theories, interpret the results of these investigations and share their discoveries with others. This is exactly the same scientific process that a scientist engages in when carrying out experimental work.

Be aware that curiosity can be displayed in children in many different ways, not just through the questions they articulate. Young children, particularly those who are not yet proficient in language, demonstrate their curiosity through their facial expressions, body language, stance and posture. They also demonstrate their interest and involvement through the length of time they spend investigating a particular object or activity. In younger children curiosity tends to be impulsive as their interest is taken by a succession of new experiences, objects or situations. As children grow older, curiosity tends to become more focused; they pay more attention to detail and begin to look for explanations for the things they see and experience.

Asking good questions

Posing questions is one of the very common ways in which we begin discussions with children, helping to establish what they already know about a particular subject. Open-ended questions which invite a comment or response from the listener are the most useful sorts of questions to use in this context. Open-ended questions don’t have a right or a wrong answer and therefore invite responses which can lead to further discussion and investigation. Open-ended questions often begin with, ‘How do you think…?’ or ‘What might happen if…?’ Encourage children to give explanations when they put forward an idea or a theory. By continuously asking, ‘Why do you think…?’ you will help them to make connections in their learning and develop their thinking skills. Developing your questioning skills and becoming a good role model will encourage children to ask their own questions and volunteer their own ideas and theories. Use these ideas as the basis for interesting investigations and explorations to carry out with the children.

Time to think and be curious

Remember that children, like all of us, need thinking time. It is all too easy to bombard children with questions without giving them any time to consider their responses. One of the most effective ways of measuring how good you, or your staff are at ‘managing questions’ is to tape record or video an adult/child interaction. Reviewing the recording can often be a salutary lesson on how often we as adults hurry children along by asking one question after another, without giving children time to respond.

As children’s enthusiasm for investigation and exploration develops they often become absorbed and concentrate for long periods of time. In addition they may want to revisit an experience several times while they extend and consolidate their learning. This requires you to be flexible in your approach to the allocation of time. This could be over the course of a day or a week, or even over an extended period, to allow children to become involved in the longer-term exploration of something which particularly interests them.

Supporting children’s creativity

Helping children to express their creativity through science and technology involves providing them with opportunities to express their own ideas and make choices, investigate how materials behave, and make associations and connections.

Helping children to express ideas and make choices

Skilful questioning helps you to elucidate children’s ideas about how the world around them works. These ideas make the ideal starting points for further investigation because they relate directly to children’s interests and first-hand experience. Take time to have in-depth conversations with children about their ideas and what they believe to be true. Their theories will often be very creative and may not always match what we as adults consider correct. Their theories are nonetheless valuable because they make sense to them at the time and reflect their current understanding about the world.

Fostering creativity in science and design technology involves offering children ‘real choices’. This will develop their confidence in making decisions on what to investigate, or to design and make, in choosing who to work with, and in selecting resources, finding a suitable space and planning their use of time. Facilitating choice for children affects all aspects of the organisation of your setting including its ethos, layout, availability of resources, organisation of the day and, very importantly, the attitude of the staff team.

Making associations and connections

Children behave as creative thinkers when they transfer knowledge and understanding gained in one context into another. For example, the everyday experience of adding water to sand builds an understanding of how solids change when a liquid is added. A child choosing to use this knowledge when investigating flour and water mixtures while making dough is demonstrating a clear association between different areas of learning. As a creative investigator they may then move on to exploring the effects of adding water to other solids including powder paint, clay, instant mashed potato or sugar.

The joy of discovery

As adults it is important to value and nurture the excitement of not knowing exactly what will happen next. Young children exploring the world around them will experience the joy of discovering things for the first time.

Children often invest a great deal of emotion in the thinking behind the ideas and theories they come up with. Their observations can be very profound at times and demonstrate deep thinking of a spiritual nature. Respecting and valuing this awe and wonder and helping children to communicate it will encourage them to be even more curious and creative.