Young children develop language in order to make sense of their world through a process of inquiry. In order to support our children to develop their language, we need to support their inquiry, for it is a parallel journey.
You only have to spend a short time with young children to notice the steady stream of ‘why’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘who’, ‘how’ and then yet more ‘why’ questions. Children develop the ability to engage others in their attempts to make sense of the world and, as inquirers, need to participate in socially authentic ways (Lindfors, 1999). We need to take our children’s inquiries seriously, and engage the conversations authentically, investigating their worlds, as they investigate ours.
The Reggio Emilia approach to childhood education stresses that we must actively seek out the worlds of children, not as limited versions of an adult world they will one day occupy, but as a legitimate ‘estate of childhood’ that is as rich and as meaningful as the world we are guiding them towards (Edwards, 2011). This is a challenge for an adult, a parent or teacher, interacting with a child’s ‘why’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ questions, as we can be tempted to simply explain, to fill the gaps we perceive in their understanding, when we should be taking these valuable opportunities to explore their worlds.
An inquiry-based approach to education, where a child’s learning is built on their existing knowledge and understanding, respects the legitimacy of a child’s world. For example, if a young child sees see a machine and asks how it works, what sort of response would help them to explore? We need to seek an explanation of the world they have constructed, rather than simply explaining ours to them. It is a subtle, yet very powerful difference in the framing of the conversation with a child. Their explanation of their own world will push their language to its limits, but only if we give them the opportunity. As the complexity of their understanding of their world expands, so does the complexity of the language they will need to explain it to us.
My advice is to dive into their world through your own questioning. Ask your child about; form (What is it like?); function (How does it work?); causation (Why is it like this?); change (How is it changing?); connection (How is it connected to other things?); perspective (What are the points of view?); responsibility (What is our responsibility?); and reflection (How do we know?). These are the eight key concepts that the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program uses to guide the process of structured inquiry in the classroom (IB, 2009). Using these concepts to form questions can help you to explore the inherent complexity of your child’s world and in the process, push the sophistication of the language they are needing to use in their conversations with you.
As was mentioned above, these are parallel processes – making sense of the world through inquiry, and building the language needed to explain this world. Children want us to understand their world. We just need to give them the chance to explain, over and over again. We need to be able to ask good questions to support them and above all, we need to be prepared to take the time to listen, to find out more about their constantly shifting, uniquely personal, and utterly complex childhood worlds.
Wells Lindfors, J. 1999, Children’s Inquiry: Using Language to Make Sense of the World, 1999, Teachers College Press.
International Baccalaureate, 2009, Making the PYP happen: A curriculum framework for international primary education, International Baccalaureate.