Developing critical thinking, socialization and other skills by asking the right questions

Cindy Terebush, author of Teach the Whole Preschooler: Strategies for Nurturing Developing Minds, on developing critical thinking, socialization and other skills by asking the right questions



Do you want to stretch the thinking of young children? You don’t need fancy and expensive toys, tablets or endless worksheets.  In fact, those items can impede deeper learning.  You need something that cannot be purchased. You need an understanding of good questions.

Good questions make people think.  Good questions in the early childhood years lay a foundation for later reading comprehension and scientific analysis.  They help children to think on a higher level than they would if you were not in the room.  Really meaningful questions cannot be answered with a simple yes, no or one word answer. They require us to take a moment, ponder the situation and consider our reply.  You know what good questions are – they make you say, “Hmm – that’s a good question.  I have to think about it.”

Though we recognize them when they are asked of us, we too often only ask simple, one-dimensional questions when we speak with children.  If you are going to ask a question when speaking with your child and it starts with “What is..,” or “Which one….” please stop.  “What” and “Which one” questions tend to require only a quick answer that doesn’t encourage critical thinking.

I was working with two children who were up to their elbows in paint.  Both young children painted what looked like blobs to me but I know that they are meaningful to the children. An adult came over to the table and said, “What is that?” 


One child responded, “A car.”

The other child pointed to his painting and said, “My dog.”

I turned to the children and said, “Tell me about your painting.”

The first child who had initially simply said, “Car” now added, “It’s a fast race car that goes on a track like my cousin showed me.”  We were able to have a conversation about race cars, her cousin and a new vocabulary word that I introduced – aerodynamic. 

The second child who painted the dog said, “Mine is my dog.  She has a big cone on her head.”  We talked about when the dog got the cone from the veterinarian.  I asked why the dog has the cone and how the cone helps the dog. 


Engage young children’s capacity to think about their actions, help them to learn the conventions of conversation and create critical thinkers throughout the day by asking:

Why? It is their favorite question and should be ours, too.  When young children make statements, I ask, “Why?”  Why are you wearing that headband today?  Why did you go to grandma’s house?  Why do you want to use the Play Doh?  When we ask why, not only do children have to consider their actions, they see us as curious.  Adults who model curiosity help to promote wonder and curiosity in children.

How? and How else…?  Draw analysis out of the children by asking them to consider how things happen rather than telling them.  Ask them how else something might be done or what else they could try.  Analytical thinking will help them with so many school and life lessons as they continue to learn and grow.

Tell me about…  I want to have discussions so I have to encourage children to tell me about objects, experiences and events.  “Tell me about…” encourages elaboration on a thought and descriptive language.  “Tell me about…” includes:

– Tell me about your day.


– Tell me about your favorite part of the day.

– Tell me about your picture.

– Tell me about your favorite part of what you made.

– Tell me about your class.

– Tell me about a funny thing that happened.


– There are so very many “Tell me abouts…”

Any open ended question … that requires more than one or two words to answer.

Any question that does not have a right or wrong answer so children can bravely state their opinions and thoughts about their world.  Not everything should be graded or feel like a quiz and certainly there is room for subjective thinking in conversation.  

In today’s world, young children will need critical thinking skills to discern fact from fiction. They will need to have an advantage if they have developed socialization skills and not just technology skills.  They need us to help them to think more deeply so they can become the creators, innovators and great thinkers in a time when those skills may lack.  Gone are the days of endless socialization outside until the street lights come on.  We learned so much from our interactions out in the neighborhood.  If we are intentional, we can help children to learn those skills from our good questions.

About the Author:


Cindy Terebush, CPC, CYPFC, is the author of Teach the Whole Preschooler: Strategies for Nurturing Developing Minds. She has spent almost 20 years working in the field of education, with experience teaching and directing in daycare, preschool and school age programs. A sought after speaker and professional development provider, she is a Child Development Associate (CDA) Professional Development Specialist & Lead Instructor and a New Jersey Workforce Registry Approved Trainer & Technical Assistance Specialist.

This article appears in our February 2018 special issue on Early Childhood Education.


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