As I mentioned in another post, allowing your children to explore the world around them is a great way to encourage active learning and strengthen their critical thinking skills. Here are 9 ways you can encourage exploration; none of them take too much preparation. Be forewarned: they DO required clean-up! Most of them foster “free inquiry” (your child defines their own exploration, with very few, if any, instructions from you), but some of them are “guided inquiry” activities that require more direction from the educator and lead to more specific conclusions, but still require exploration on the part of your child to get there!
1. Have dirt and water readily available. I call these the primordial toys. Kids were playing with dirt and water before Toys ‘R Us or any other toy store came into existence. Dirt and water naturally attract kids and give them a plethora of learning experiences.
2. Encourage sensory exploration. Let your kids TOUCH, even if it means getting dirty. Did you just bring back flour, sugar and popcorn kernels from the store? Encourage your kids to feel the different textures.
3. Allow mistakes. Kids explore naturally from the day they were born. Learning how to breathe, grasp, and talk are all forms of exploration. Venturing out from mommy’s lap and crawling around the table for the first time is a form of exploration. We usually don’t have to teach kids to explore; we just have to allow and encourage it. Cracking down on our kids for mistakes is an easy way to discourage exploration and shut down future learning opportunities. Mistakes are a normal part of learning and can’t be avoided. Instead of discouraging mistakes, encourage your children to learn and grow from the mistakes they make.
4. Give your child opportunities to be out in nature. Hikes, scavenger hunts, etc. There’s a wealth of fascinating living and nonliving things for your child to explore in the big, wide world!
5. Encourage your child to act. Whether it’s formally participating in a play, role playing, putting on a skit at home, or just reading something aloud but using different voices, acting helps your child explore self-expression, thoughts and emotions.
6. Put sensory bins out. This is a more directed form of exploration, since you are guiding your child to explore a specific range of objects. It can still be effective, however, especially if your sensory bins give your child the opportunity to explore size, color, texture and shape. Maybe you could even get different scents involved!
7. Give your child a pet. Better yet, take them to the pet store, let them narrow down a few options, go home, do some research about the different options, and then choose their own pet (if you have a very young child, their “research” could consist in just talking to you about the difference between the pets while in the store and making their choice right then). Once they have their pet, you’ve opened the door to a wealth of exploration about animal life, characteristics and behavior.
8. Building things! Give your child a bunch of scrap wood and some age-appropriate tools, and let them have a go at it! They can learn a lot about balance, pressure, force, and useful (or useless!) contraptions by trying to build things. If your child is too young to use a hammer and nails or screws, give them “childproof” building supplies like cardboard and tape.
9. Planting and gardening. By taking a variety of seeds and trying to make them grow, your child can learn a lot about the lifecycle of plants and factors that affect plant growth and well being. This could be extended into an exploration of plant varieties and the differences among them.