How to Use Open-Ended Questions
In The Early Years
A match made in heaven.

Which of these sounds more powerful to you?

Great rocket drawing Jack! What colour will you paint the windows, green or blue?

Or

Can you tell me about your drawing Jack?

Hopefully, that’s an easy one. What if Jack wants to choose a different colour? What if he’s got something more interesting to tell you than the colour he’ll choose? What if it’s not even meant to be a rocket?

That’s why open-ended questions are a powerful tool in the early years, and we’re here to tell you why.

What are open-ended questions?

Let’s start off with some key features of open-ended questions. They:

  • Can’t be answered with yes or no.
  • Don’t have a right or wrong answer.
  • Encourage discussion, not short answers.
  • Don’t assume too much about the activity or situation you’re questioning.
  • Give control to the child.

Open-ended questions tend to start with a ‘What’, ‘How’, ‘Where’ or a ‘Why’ (and rarely a ‘Which’ or ‘Who’). Great open-ended questions can start with a ‘Tell me about…’ or an ‘I wonder if…’ as well.

They tend to start good conversations and should be about tuning into the child and listening deeply before responding, creating a powerful learning moment.

Close-ended questions, on the other hand, can easily impart our own expectations onto a child, blocking their creativity and their self-confidence.

What if Jack wasn’t really drawing a rocket at all but a pizza restaurant, a park, or a dinosaur museum on Mars? Then our question about the rocket ship has taught him that maybe his ideas are wrong.

Not good.

We loved this example from the US education department so much, we just had to include it:

Adult: Which toy do you like to play with the most?
Child: The boat.
Adult: Oh, the boat is your favourite. What will you do with the boat?
Child: The man is going to ride on it.
Adult: Where is the man travelling?
Child: Into the bubbles.
Adult: The bubbles are dense. Watch out!
Child: Help! The man is falling out!
Adult: Oh no! Who will rescue the man?
Child: I’ll get the whale!
Adult: The whale is the hero!

See how the adult kept the questions open, and allowed the child to take charge? Coupled with some great language extension, what you have is a fleshed-out, engaging conversation between practitioner and child.

Why are open-ended questions so powerful in the early years?

The influential 2004 study on the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education makes some strong claims for open-ended questions:

“In addition to sustained shared thinking, staff engaged in open-ended questioning in the settings where children made the most progress and provided formative feedback to children during activities.”

The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) Project: Findings from pre-school to end of key stage 1

So why are they so beneficial? For one, they help children to learn problem-solving. Instead of giving them the ‘right’ way to do something, open-ended questions encourage independent thinking and guide children towards finding their own truth.

They give children the opportunity to try, fail, hypothesise, experiment and succeed on their own.

They also:

  • Stimulate more language use.
  • Show there’s many solutions to one problem.
  • Affirm children’s self-confidence.
  • Allow children to take charge.
  • Help to encourage creative thinking.

The first part of that quote from earlier is important too. Sustained Shared Thinking is when two or more people are involved in an extended conversation, where both of you are absorbed in the joint problem-solving.

It’s been proven to be a crucial part of early development, and open-ended questions encourage it left, right, and centre. For more on Sustained Shared Thinking, we recommend this great introduction from Kathy Brodie.

The different stages of open-ended questions

Open-ended questions aren’t the be all and end all. Great conversations with children are crucial no matter how you question, and the most important thing is that you listen and respond to children. Open-ended questions are just one of your tools to do that.

These next six categories are rough guidelines for development through open-ended questions. Theoretically, they reflect the learning curve of a child in the early years, but they’re guidelines, not rules.

We know it’s easy to feel overawed by all this information. And it’s not easy to stay in the moment when you’re trying to recall it all!

Try not to worry too much about these ‘stages’. Remember the basic principles of open-ended questions, arm yourself with a few starters like “I wonder if…” and “Can you tell me about..” and you’re unlikely to go too far wrong. Tune into the child, and you won’t be asking them questions they’re not ready for.

With that said, here’s our breakdown of the different stages, for those of you that want a deeper understanding.

1. The Immediate Thinker

The Immediate Thinker is ready to answer questions with stuff from their direct experience.

Your questions should relate to more concrete things that they can see, feel, hear or remember. They are often ‘What’ questions. Things like:

  • What can you hear outside?
  • What do you think it is?
  • Can you tell me about what you’ve made?
  • What does it feel like?
  • Can you find something green out here?

These questions are great because it helps them to explore their sense of self, notice detail, and encourage curiosity in the world around them.

2. The Expresser & Comprehender

OK. So we’re at point number two and we’re already cheating a little because these questions actually have forms at every stage.

It’s just that from here on in we get more specifically into problem-solving, while the questions we want to talk about here are still very much about their concrete environment. And that’s important too!

Moving on from The Immediate Thinker, here we’re asking them about what they think about their experience too. Open-ended questions like:

  • How do you feel about that?
  • What happened when you jumped off the rock?
  • How do you know that?
  • Why do you think that happened?
3. The Clarifier & Grouper

At this stage, we’re dealing with how ideas relate to one another. We’re looking for solutions to different situations. According to ‘What to expect, when?’ from the DfE, these kinds of questions are understood at around 30-50 months.

We’re talking about open-ended questions like:

  • How are these the same?
  • How are they different?
  • Why is this here?
  • What else could work for that?
  • Can you see anything that could help us to do that?
  • What else do we need to make this sandwich?
4. The Experimenter

This is when children start to think about cause and effect in the here and now. They might not be ready for abstract thinking yet, but they can explore their options and think about what might happen when they make an action.

Mostly, this stage is all about ‘What do you think is going to happen?’, but it can be emotional too. When reading a story you could ask ‘How do you think the bear feels?’ or in a real-life situation you can try to encourage empathy by asking ‘How do you think that made Charlotte feel?’. It helps children to begin stepping into another person’s shoes.

5. The Problem-Solver

Now we’re really moving. This stage is all about encouraging children to think about the effect of something, and how they can create that effect.

As ever, it’s important for children to lead the play. But rather than questions like ‘What will happen if we leave the water outside overnight?’ it’s more ‘How do you think we can make this water become ice?’. Also things like:

  • How could we make this structure stronger?
  • What else do you want to add to your creation?
  • What might make Michael feel better?
  • What helps you to feel better when you’re upset?
6. The Predictor & Explainer

Probably the most advanced stage of open-ended questioning, this is all about understanding what might happen under different circumstances. It’s also about understanding why things might have happened.

This can take a lot of cognitive load because they need to both consider situations outside their direct experience, and predict the future in that alternative world. This might seem a simple thing for us to do, but it’s not easy for a 5-year-old. We’re talking about questions like:

  • If that were to happen, how might he feel?
  • Why did the ball fall down the pipe that way?
  • I wonder what would happen if we turned it around? What do you think?
Four ideas to simplify questions

As many as 35% of 5-year-olds are not necessarily ready for stages four and up, so be aware of pushing children beyond what they’re comfortable with.

Of course, reading the child and making sure you’re not causing them distress is the key to getting this right. But if you’re struggling, these four ways to simplify questions might help. Do the opposite, and you have four easy ways to make your open-ended questions more challenging.

  1. Make the question concrete
  2. Relate them to personal experiences.
  3. Choose recent events or objects.
  4. Prioritise familiar vocabulary.
More tips for practitioners

To finish up, we’ve got some extra, short tips for practitioners who want to improve the way the ask open-ended questions. For this, we’re indebted to Professor Iram Siraj-Blatchford’s 2005 presentation “Quality Interactions in the Early Years’ where you can find even more ideas to support quality Sustained Shared Thinking.

  • Tune in – Respect the child and how they’re feeling, including their body language, speech and actions. Don’t get so wrapped up in your own thoughts that you forget to connect with the child.
  • Give your full attention – When children are engaged, try to keep eye contact and affirm with smiles and nods.
  • Don’t push it – If they’re too focused to answer or engage with you, leave them be. Remember, it’s about interacting, not interfering or interrupting.
  • Extend language – Repeat concepts or actions that children are doing with more complex vocabulary to promote richer language.
  • Don’t assume – Keep an open-mind so that you assume as little as possible. This will stop you from closing off your questions.
  • Don’t ask a question that you already know the answer to – You’ll be surprised how easily young children know when you’re doing this.
  • Offer your own experience – Any conversation should be a two-way street. It might be more engaging for a child to hear a little about what you think on the subject too. Just remember to keep it to your opinions and preferences.

Early Years & The ENvironment Guide

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