• concept: an idea or understanding about something
  • data: what has been observed or experienced
  • evidence: data that support an explanation or conclusion
  • model: to explicitly demonstrate a process, behavior, or task
  • open-ended questions: questions that require critical thinking, invite opinion or explanation, and result in more than a one-word answer
  • phenomenon(a): an object, material, living thing or event that can be directly observed
  • represent: to make a drawing or model of something that has been observed
  • scaffold: a temporary support that helps children learn; it may include prompts, hints, reminders, or models
  • science talk: words that are commonly used by scientists such as compare, predict, measure, sort

Guide Children’s Explorations

Before watching this video, read the text below. When instructed, watch the video from the beginning to end.

As children investigate scientific phenomena (such as seeds sprouting) related to important concepts (a plant’s life cycle), they need to explore on their own and talk about their work just as scientists do. This is how they process their experiences and develop deeper understandings. You can foster this exploration and help them begin to build their understanding of concepts with thoughtful guidance.

  • Work alongside children. As the children explore, so should you. Express what you are doing, what you are thinking, and what you are wondering about as you do it. This models scientific inquiry for children, and provides examples of how to explore, ask questions, and engage in discussion. 
  • Watch and listen. Observe children to determine what they understand, what ideas they have, what they are wondering about, and what problems they are trying to solve.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Prepare and ask questions that draw children’s attention to phenomena related to the science concepts you are introducing. When possible, ask questions that provoke their problem-solving abilities.
  • Encourage peer discussion. Learning for young children is a social process, so provide opportunities for children to explain their thinking to their peers. (What do you think might happen to the “goop” when we add more water? Turn and tell your partner what you are thinking.) Encourage children to compare their observations and ideas. (How was that different from what you observed?) 
  • Inspire children to use the language of science. As you guide children’s explorations, use the language that scientists use. (Let’s observe the seeds. How many days do you predict it will take for the seed to sprout?)

In this video, you’ll see center-based and family child care educators guide children in hands-on explorations. Though their environments differ, the educators use the same strategies to encourage children to think, predict, describe, and explain using the language of science. As you watch, look for effective strategies used by the educators in the video and jot down answers to these viewing questions in your Learning Log.

  • How do the educators guide children’s explorations without directing them?
  • What kinds of questions do the educators ask children to support their explorations?
  • What other strategies do the educators use to support children’s inquiry and exploration?


Why is it important for you to guide rather than direct children’s explorations?

  • The best way to support children’s science learning is to encourage, facilitate, and interact in ways that stimulate children’s thinking rather than just reciting the facts. Questions and comments such as I wonder what would happen if… or Why do you think… can inspire children to make predictions, try things out, look closely, collect data, and draw thoughtful conclusions based on evidence from their own explorations.
  • Facilitating exploration rather than directing it promotes conversation that can deepen children’s understanding of what they observe and experience. It enhances their ability to describe, explain and share observations and ideas related to key science concepts.

How can you guide from the side?

  • Ask questions that focus children in on the science phenomena they are observing related to key concepts.
    • Encourage children to use all of their senses and invite them to describe what they are doing and noticing. (What do you notice about these seeds? How do they look, feel, and smell? How are they the same or different from other seeds we’ve planted?)
    • Support problem-solving by asking questions beginning with What do you think would happen if… and How do you think we could…
  • Observe what children are doing and saying, and how they use the materials as they engage in exploration in order to:
    • Assess what they are learning, and how their ideas are changing as a result of their experiences.
    • Support children according to their individual needs.
  • Provide experiences that extend children’s thinking. For example, if children are learning about seeds and plants, you might provide an opportunity for children to explore different kinds of indoor and outdoor plants at a nearby nursery or botanical garden.
  • Document what children are doing and saying by jotting down notes and/or taking photographs so that you can notice patterns in their thinking. For example, if you notice that most children think that big items sink and small items float, you can introduce a big item that will float to challenge their thinking.
  • Be a co-explorer. Come alongside children and dig in yourself. Talk about what you see, share your predictions and ideas, and talk about what you are wondering. Model the behaviors of a scientist.
  • Look for teachable moments. Keep your eyes and ears open to opportunities that may emerge, unplanned, during the regular daily routine that you may be able to connect to children’s science explorations. 

What are open-ended questions and why should you use them to guide children’s exploration?

  • Open-ended questions have many possible responses. These questions encourage children to articulate their own observations and ideas rather than give “correct” answers. The questions may begin with words like  how, what, what if, and why do you think…. Because they usually cannot be answered with just one or two words, open-ended questions are one of the most effective ways to encourage science talk.
  • Open-ended questions help to develop children’s abilities to observe, describe, and explain their observations and ideas, and to extend their investigations. These questions encourage children to reason and to develop their ideas based on evidence from their observations. (What did you notice about…? Why do you think that happened? What do you think will happen if we…? How did you figure that out?)

In addition to open-ended questions, what other kinds of intentional conversation and language strategies help guide children’s science exploration?

  • Use the language of science. Even very young children use the scientific process as they engage in exploration. Let them know it. Introduce science process words such as explore, investigate, predict, notice, observe, sort, categorize, measure, compare, represent, discover, communicate, and explain.
  • Name children’s actions in context. Young children learn best when content is taught in context, so the best time to introduce the language of science is when children are actively engaged in a hands-on exploration. For example, when children are exploring things that sink and float, ask, What do you notice about what the rock does in water compared to the piece of wood? and Let’s make a prediction. What do you think will happen to the plastic ball when you put it in the water?
  • Facilitate science talks and provide frequent opportunities for children to share their observations and ideas with one another. Communicating supports children’s reasoning and problem-solving skills and helps them make meaning from their hands-on explorations. Some of this will happen  during the exploration itself, but be sure to plan time for discussion before and after exploration, too.
  • Ask questions beforehand that draw out children’s prior knowledge. (What do you think it means to sink? To float? What things have you noticed sinking? Floating?) Afterwards, encourage discussion with questions. (What did you observe at the sink and float areas today? What did you notice about things with holes? Did they float or sink? Why do you think so?)


Think about the learning environment at your own program as you answer these reflection questions in your Learning Log.

  • How do you guide children’s explorations?
  • What did you learn that you will put into practice in your own learning environment?
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