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Inquiry: How We Come To Know

Have you ever wondered which paper towel brand is the strongest while shopping at the grocery store? Or, have you considered how to best keep those cut flowers on your counter fresh longer? Maybe not, but I'm certain you have made observations and posed questions while walking down the street, driving in your car, or even while watching television. Your children ask questions too, probably even more than you, as they pursue their own curiosities and interests and try to make sense of the world around them.

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Inquiry-based learning is a hands-on and interactive process in which the learner acquires truth, knowledge, and/or experience by asking questions generated from their own interests, curiosities, and experiences (Sincero, 2006). Questioning is at the core of inquiry-based learning. Learning through inquiry provides children with opportunity to construct the understanding necessary to produce deeper learning by investigating to find answers to questions. As adults, we encourage curiosity by providing novel items and experiences for children to explore and investigate. 

So, what can I do as a parent to encourage inquiry-based learning at home?

Ask your child questions, encourage your child to ask questions, and offer many opportunities for explorations and investigations. When your child asks questions, avoid the temptation to immediately provide an answer. Give your child time to process the question and determine the answer on his or her own.  Better yet, find out the answer together! You can create an environment that 'invites' questions by introducing your child to new items and experiences and encouraging your child to make observations and predictions.

What are some good questions to ask my child?

Young children ask questions out of curiosity; as they get older, children begin to understand that the purpose in asking questions is to gain information from other people. You can serve as a role model in asking good questions. As adults, we tend to ask children more closed-ended questions, for example:

- What is your favorite color?
- How many blocks are in the container?
- Have you finished your homework yet?

Closed-ended questions aim at assessing knowledge and comprehension and tend to have one correct answer. Rather than focusing on closed-ended questions, try asking more open-ended questions which require children to think critically by thinking outside of the box and offering opinions. Open-ended questions elicit discussion and encourage children to brainstorm solutions to problems. Some examples are:

- What do you think will happen next?
- How did you create this picture?
- Tell me about what you are doing.

How does inquiry apply to an everyday concept or interest my child may have?

Buoyancy is a concept that intrigues children; even toddlers notice objects that sink and float in the bathtub! You can increase interest in this concept by encouraging your child to experiment with sinking and floating using several household items like a cork, crayon, cotton ball, feather, plastic toy boat, metal toy car, plastic egg, straw, leaf, and outdoor twig. Ask your child to predict what will sink and what will float and ask him to explain why. Do this experiment at home! Set up a large bowl filled with water and have your child place each object on top of the water and observe what happens. Talk about why some objects float and others do not. See the results of our buoyancy experiment here.

Suggested Books on Sinking and Floating
- Floating and Sinking (First Facts, Our Physical World) by Ellen S. Niz [Capstone Press, 2006]
- The Magic School Bus Ups and Downs: A Book About Floating and Sinking by Joanna Cole [Scholastic, 1997]
- What Floats? What Sinks? A look at Density by Jennifer Boothroyd [Lerner Classroom, 2010]

On February 12th celebrate Charles Darwin's birthday by visiting the Adler Planetarium. As an evolutionary biologist, Charles Darwin was an advocate of scientific knowledge, acquired through human curiosity. At the Adler Planetarium, you and your family can follow your curiosity by wondering, observing, and discovering together!

Written by Colleen Incandela, senior educator for early science programs at the Adler Planetarium. Share the results of your experiments with us on Twitter or Facebook using #Science4Everyone!

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