Inquiry-based learning is a child-centred pedagogical strategy. It encourages learners to ask questions and investigate answers through real-life experiences. When children use an inquiry learning process, they engage and actively explore their curiosities.

At Petit Early Learning Journey, our teaching teams guide children through inquiry-based learning. Children develop new critical and creative thinking skills that help them to learn about an interest or topic by asking questions and through investigation and exploration.

This culture article discusses inquiry-based learning with our National Quality & Education Practice Advisor Julie Ker and Petit ELJ Forest Hill’s Interim Educational Leader Belinda Balaam.

A projector screen in the background displays a powerpoint slide with the words Exploring 1.1 - Program under the title, Growing Leaders Conference 2023. A presentor stands next to the screen and beside a lecturn. The table in the foreground has many different items spread across it include coffee cups, water flasks, bottles of water, pens, pencils and markers. To the right and left of the image, educators look engaged in the prsentation which will cover inquiry-based learning.

What is inquiry-based learning?

At Petit ELJ’s Growing Leaders Conference in 2023, Julie described inquiry-based learning as “an approach that focuses on problem-solving, investigation and critical thinking of problems or ideas.”

“Instead of providing the answers, educators ask the question alongside children, supporting them in sharing ideas, researching and problem-solving. Inquiry-based learning allows children and adults to learn together with each other, valuing input from all parties.”

This teaching strategy aims to teach children how to learn, not what they should know. “Petit ELJ explores children’s inquiries by being present with them and using open-ended questions to gather their thinking and wondering (inquiries) to create inquiry-based learning,” says Julie.

Three educators stand next to a bench on which a Studio Program book describes the process and role of the educator in inquiry-based projects. The middle educator is reading from a colourful diagram.

What is the role of the educator?

Instead of providing direct instruction, the educator encourages a positive learning environment by guiding children to discover answers to questions they pose.

“Inquiry-based learning begins with a question, problem or idea,” says Belinda. “It involves children in planning and carrying out investigations. During the inquiry process, children observe, ask questions, reflect on and critique their practices. It is an approach that encourages collaboration.”

“Teachers may:

  • Initiate the inquiry through a question, problem or idea.
  • Support children to hypothesise and wonder.
  • Provide opportunities for children to become more confident and autonomous problem-solvers and thinkers.
  • Organise for learning experiences extending beyond singular activities, that can be repeated or returned to, and that lend themselves to active engagement in purposeful learning.”
An educator is stting on a chair as two children use a tape measure to learn the size of her head as part of a inquiry-based learning project. One child watching is laughing while the other holds the tape up. The educator is also laughing with one hand just in front her head.

How are inquiry-based learning projects and questions selected?

Studio-based inquiry projects and questions focus on the child’s role in the process of inquiry. Julie views inquiry-based teaching as an invitation for children to actively interact with an idea or topic, where they pose meaningful questions and engage in experiential learning, experimenting, and evaluating possible solutions.

“We follow the child’s lead in their inquiries through the use of projects that are driven by the children in their play-based learning environments,” says Julie.

“For example, the children at Petit ELJ Wooloowin were very interested in camping and inquired about nature, how we could camp and how we would stay warm outside at night. The inquiry question then drives how the teaching team will embed play-based learning through a project approach.”

“The Petit ELJ Wooloowin children then participated in projects, learning and play that encouraged them to put up tents and investigate what they would need to take camping and why. They inquired where other children and their families had camped and what can we cook on a fire when we camp?”

“The teaching team provided lots of camping equipment, space, creative art materials and loose parts for the children to explore, play and learn. The teaching team documented what happened through this inquiry-based project learning (small projects that explored the children’s questions, extending their learning and development).”

“Deeper inquiries can come from these projects — like inquiring into animal types — who lives where and why?”

A child sits at a desk participating in a studio inquiry project. On the table in front of him is a cork board with tacts. He holds a tac over a yellow rectangular shape. In his right hand is a small hammer. An educator leands in to the table and holds the board for the child.

How do inquiry projects or questions involve the children?

Children are at the centre of inquiry-based approaches to learningBelinda says, “Children may:

  • Initiate different types of inquiry by posing questions based on personal interests and experiences.
  • Work as researchers, hypothesising, predicting, investigating, experimenting and recording.
  • Use skills in the inquiry process such as decision-making, planning and problem-solving.
  • Reflect and rethink their questions, problems or ideas.
  • Share new learning with others and plan for future learning.”

“The teaching teams at Petit ELJ Forest Hill, especially the 3- and 4-year-old studios,” says Julie, “have been exploring inquiry-based learning and documenting the children’s questions, thinking and inquiries in the Studio Project book to explore and plan how the children can grow their learning and what will they explore next and why.”

“The children’s voice is the foundation for this way of learning. This process of inquiry creates lifelong learners.”

A guest from a science incursion supports children's studio-based inquiry learning activities. Shesits on the floor in front of a child. She holds a metal coathanger. A child stands in front of her. In both hands he holds a piece of string up to each of his ear. The strings are attached to either side of the coathanger.

Studio-based inquiry learning examples:

Exploring light and sound

“Our 4-year-old kindergarten children have been investigating and exploring light and sound by first learning how the overhead projector can reflect shadows on the wall,” says Belinda. They furthered their investigation and curiosity by using small disco balls and a torch.”

“The children could observe how the patterns created from the disco ball changed in size depending on their distance from the wall. We also looked at creating shadows with a torch. The learning then progressed to making shadows with their hands, body and equipment within the studio.”

“They then had an incursion with Carmen from Inquisitive Kids Science. The children learnt that sound travels through objects. They explored listening to different bowls when struck with a stick. Sound was explored through dancing sprinkles, a sound bar, a balloon, and a tuning fork.”

“The children explored light through CDs, torches, and magnified glasses to catch a reflection by capturing the light.”

“Carmen demonstrated how a UV torch shows a different colour light on a tonic water bottle. The tonic water was blue due to the quinine in the water. Everyone got a bracelet with UV beads. The beads will turn purple when outside. The darker the colour purple, the stronger the UV.”

Children stand in front of a wall display with a sign that reads, Zones of Regulation. Beneath the heading are four different coloured posters, red, yellow, blue and green, representing different zones or emotions. Photos of children are pinned to different zones to express how the children are feeling.

Zones of regulation

“Our 3-year-old kindergarten children are currently working on Zones of Regulation”, says Belinda. “They hope their learners use their emerging inquiry skills to identify how they are feeling, recognise how others are feeling and strategies they can utilise to make their way back into the Green Zone.”

“The Zones of regulation are broken up into four different colours. Each colour represents a different zone, feelings and emotions:

  • Red Zone – Angry.
  • Blue Zone – Sad.
  • Green Zone – Happy (Optimum zone).
  • Yellow Zone – Just Okay (Can easily move into each zone).”

“They have begun creating our Zones of Regulation Check-in located at the front of the studio near the calming corner. This check-in will allow children to place their photo in the zone they are feeling upon arrival and change their zones throughout the day as their feelings change.”

Child focused Inquiry-based learning

Although educators guide the process of inquiry, the child’s thinking processes motivate it. “The teacher’s role is that of a co-learner,” says Julie, “guiding children to use their problem-solving skills to explore their questions through play-based and inquiry learning.”

An educator sits on the floor on a mat wtih a group of children inside a studio. They sort through puzzle pieces together. The educator guides the children through the process of their inquiry-based learning as they put the puzzle together.

Open up a child’s world with Petit Early learning Journey

At Petit ELJ we believe children are capable, resourceful and a constructor of their own knowledge. Our qualified educators regularly reflect with children on their learning program and are guided by children’s interests and ideas. What unites us is our passion for children’s care, learning and wellbeing and our shared beliefs to pedagogy and teaching.

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