Framing & Connecting Learning: Essential Questions in Early Childhood

by Angela McGregor Hedstrom

Essential questions are the framework for curriculum integration, providing a place to organize our enduring understandings and big ideas.  Picture them like a sturdy branch, off of which we can hang mobiles of interconnected ideas, tie together diverse experiences, climb to places of new learning, and swing from question to question.  They connect students to the processes of their place.  They are engaging and inspire inquiry.  Their timeframe is flexible—they can be used for each in-depth unit of study, overlap several units, explore a specific season, and/or to connect year-long learning.  And especially in early childhood education, they can be reflected in everything students do at school from sensory activities, art materials, books available in the library, math investigations, songs and circle time. 

In my classroom, essential questions tend to arc across several units of study.  For example “What’s happening in winter?” supported the big ideas of change, cycles, and responsibility.  This took us about two months as we explored the changing landscape and weather from fall to winter, specifically observing trees, squirrels in our schoolyard, how we take care of ourselves and each other when the weather gets cold, and snowflakes.  Questions like this are open enough to explore many topics of students’ interest, but focused enough to provide that vital place to hang our connections. 

Below are strategies I have found useful for using essential questions in early childhood.

Post the question prominently

We wrote ours on large paper and posted it in our gathering area.  We sometimes made an additional banner to accompany student work displays in the hallway. 

Illustrate the question. 

Start with a simple visual of what the question is about and populate the space as you continue to explore.  For our question “What’s happening up in the sky?” we started with paper cut outs of clouds and as our studies took us to explore birds, we added photographs of birds.  Eventually our exploration took us to the moon.  At this point we added photos and drawings of the sun, Earth, moon, space shuttles, and stars. 

Illustrate the responses. 

Record student responses to the question at various times throughout the exploration to assess evolving understanding.  Sometimes I write what students dictate to me and draw a quick visual to accompany their words.  Other times, I give them index cards to draw their response, and then I document their words to accompany the picture.  These responses stay posted with the questions throughout the exploration. 

Include parents, community partners, and your unique place in essential question explorations. 

To help answer our question “What is wonderful about water?” we met with a grandparent who is a marine biologist, a parent brought in shells and sand from a recent trip to the beach, another parent brought in rocks and logs from the pond near their house, and our music and movement teacher led songs and movement activities about water and under sea creatures.  We collected snow from our schoolyard to explore states of matter. 

Craft questions that reflect students’ own experiences and emerging interests. 

Our question “What’s happening up in the sky?” emerged after “What’s happening in winter?”  I think we were spending so much time looking up at trees and squirrel nests, that when the trees lost all of their leaves we were collectively more aware of the sky—airplane trails, storm clouds, birds flying south, the bright sun on a cold snowy day, and of course, beyond.  Because essential questions undoubtedly lead to more questions, keep track of these and use with students to make decisions about further explorations.

Use words that young children can access and interpret for themselves. 

I like the term “happening” because it’s about process.  How does that work?  Why is it the way it is?  Who is involved?  What does it look, smell, feel, sound, taste like?  How does it change?  How does it impact us?  We could scientifically explain what is happening in winter, but with essential questions like this we really want to engage in the processes though experience, observation, and discovery.  I also like to use words like “wonderful” and “special” to describe a specific theme.  Asking “What is wonderful about water?” and “What is special about seeds?” invites learners to make meaning of the topic for themselves based on experience and sharing ideas with others. 

We concluded our year with the essential question “How does our garden grow?”  With local farmers and gardeners as guest teachers, plant-themed dramatic play, science and math investigations, and growing plants in our classroom, we explored big ideas of interdependence and diversity.  This question also provided the opportunity to reflect on our class as a diverse and beautiful garden, and our growth as individuals and as a community. 

Angela McGregor Hedstrom taught at the Universal Pre-K (UPK), Dryden Elementary School and Happy Way Childcare Center, Dryden, NY 

Download this article here.

Download the entire Fall 2012 Newsletter here.

Share this: