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Are You Asking Questions that Engage?

Jan 2017

By Beth Smith, B.S., M.Ed.

It’s a beautiful Monday afternoon. Jose, Charmin, Terrance and Maria are playing together in the sand. Jose busily uses a shovel to fill a bucket. Terrance drives a toy car back and forth and Charmin and Maria fill plastic bowls and call it, “soup.” As you watch the children play, you obviously observe many skills…problem-solving, fine motor control, social interactions…and the list goes on. So, how could you use this opportunity to engage the children even more? How could you challenge them to think and then share those creative ideas with you? The answer is easy…by asking open-ended questions.

Open-ended questions are those that cannot be answered with one word but instead require explanation and thought. These questions most often begin with words like how, why and what. Research has shown that asking these types of questions makes teaching and learning more effective. In fact, in the well-known book Classroom Instruction That Works (Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock 2001), questioning is listed as one of the nine research-based teaching strategies that is extremely effective. Unfortunately, many teachers rely heavily on closed-ended questions that can only be answered with one word as they interact with children. According to a recent research abstract, Teachers Asking Questions in Preschool, 86-92% of questions asked by preschool children were closed-ended (Bay & Hartman 2015). These types of questions do not challenge children to think creatively nor share their ideas verbally.

So, what should you keep in mind when interacting with children? Ask questions that cannot be answered with one word. For instance, in the example given above, you might ask Charmin and Maria something like, “What do you like best about making ‘soup’?” or you could ask Jose, “Why did you choose to use the shovel to fill your bucket?” These types of questions challenge the children to think and express those ideas verbally. This process then opens the door for you to have meaningful back-and-forth conversations with children as they engage in play.

Here’s another example. Let’s say some of the children playing in the sand notice a bee. Here are some open-ended questions you could ask:

  • Why do you think the bee is flying near the flowers?
  • What do you think it would be like to be a bee?
  • How is a bee like a butterfly? How is it different?

These types of questions challenge children to think creatively. With open-ended questions, there are often no “right” or “wrong” answers. In fact, you could say that the thought process involved in forming the answers to these types of questions is much more important than the answers themselves.

When open-ended questions are a natural part of your daily interactions with children, thinking skills, creativity, social interactions, language and so much more grow stronger. As a side benefit, many environmental rating systems look for back-and-forth engagement between teachers and children as part of the evaluation process. Adding more open-ended questions into your daily routine is truly a “win-win” for everyone. So…here is an open-ended question for you…

“What open-ended questions are you going to ask children today?”

Want more information about asking open-ended questions? Check out these links:

Let Us Hear from You

  • What is the most challenging part of adding open-ended questions to your daily routine?
  • Which activities tend to lend themselves to open-ended questioning?
  • What happens when you ask children open-ended questions?
  • What do you learn about each child’s development when you ask more open-ended questions?
  • How could open-ended questions be helpful when interacting with parents/caregivers?


bethheadshotsmallestBeth Smith, B.S., M.Ed. is a Partner with Gee Whiz Education (…a curriculum company that produces a digital curriculum that is designed to be used in a home setting. She has over 25 years of experience working with children in a variety of settings including child care and public school. She’s conducted training over the years at Head Start, NAEYC and NAFCC conferences. She currently resides in northern Virginia with her family…including two teenagers which she says are more challenging than toddlers!