Questions: The Heart of Self-Directed Learning

by ChristinaPilkington on May 18, 2011 · 10 comments

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Why do that man’s eyes look funny? How will my cut heal? Will she be dressed up like a mummy (my daughter asked before attending her first funeral).  Most of the time I welcome and enjoy my children’s questions. Sometimes, though, after they’ve asked questions almost nonstop for an hour, I’m left feeling a little exhausted.

It may be difficult at times to keep up with your child’s insatiable curiosity, but answering those streams of questions is just as important as giving your children healthy food choices, comforting them when they’re sick or afraid, and providing unconditional love.

Every time your child asks a question, he makes a little more sense of his world. It’s important to answer his questions in the moment as much as possible because he’s most open, interested and receptive IN THAT MOMENT.  At times that might mean staying up later at night to have a long conversation instead of thinking about how he “really should be in bed right now.”  It might mean taking four hours to watch a two hour movie so you can pause to reflect on what’s going on.

The single most important thing that shapes your child’s learning, provided she’s in a safe and loving environment, is the questions she asks.

If you always answer your child’s questions or show her how to find the answers, she’ll be eager to find out more answers to her questions, delve deeply into topics of interests to her, and to have a deep understanding about how her world works. If she’s used to having her questions brushed off, or worse, laughed at, she’ll view the world as a confusing, fearful place.

Here are five things to remember the next time your child asks a question.

Don’t turn your child’s question into another question.  If your child wants to know the answer to something, answer it. Don’t say, well, what do you think?  My daughter learned to read because she’d ask me, “What’s this?” and point to a word.  I’d always tell her. I never told her to sound it out, or asked her what she thought it meant. She eventually made sense of the patterns of words and had to ask me less and less for help.

I also know a teacher who says she always asks her student why after they make a statement. How would you like to be asked why after everything you said in a conversation? There’s nothing wrong with asking someone to explain him or herself if you’re genuinely confused or want to know more, but don’t ask why as an “educational technique” or because you believe your child needs to explain herself further. Children see right through that and will not open up as much voluntarily after that.

Don’t ask your child a question for which you already know the answer. Children are more than willing to talk with you about an endless variety of topics if they feel it’s a genuine conversation and not a quiz. I’ve seen many parents ask little children, now which one is the red crayon?  If it’s that important to you to know whether your toddler knows what red is, at least just ask them to give you the red crayon.

If it’s important for you to know that your child understands all about the Civil War, it’s better to start a conversation about that topic then start throwing out quiz-like questions.  If you insist on quizzing your child, she will become wary of questions and see them only as a way for someone to measure her ability instead of being a tool for learning about things she’s curious about.

Let your child’s questions be his own; let your question be your own questions. If you’re curious about something, ask questions yourself but don’t expect your child to have that same curiosity. Also, when your child asks a question, don’t turn it into a “teaching” moment. Here’s a quote from John Holt in Instead of Education. “So the way for us to answer a curious child’s (or adult’s) questions…is just answer them…Let the questioner make of our answer what he can.  If it tells him what he wants to know, good. If not, he may ask another question.” Go with your child’s questions as far as they want to go and no further.

Don’t dismiss questions no matter how many times you are asked them.  Kids need to know we take their questions very seriously. If you can’t answer something in the moment, write it down. Help them find their answers. Young children can ask dozens of questions a day and most of them can be answered simply and quickly.  If most of their questions are answered, they will be confident to ask more complex questions as they get older.  Older children learn that parents don’t have the answers to everything but they are willing to help them find the answers.

Ask questions yourself whenever you’re curious about something; look for those answers.  Let your children see you solving your own problems and find answers to your own questions. When you’re reading something new or visiting a new place, voice your questions out loud. As your children get older, you’ll probably find them giving you the answers!

Learning will not take place unless genuine answers are given to authentic, self-directed questions. Otherwise, a child will take in unasked for information just to forget it as soon as it’s not important or useful to him anymore.

I’ve had so many wonderful memories made by answering my children’s questions and heading down the pathways those questions brought us. When your child asks several questions on a topic, you know they have more than just a fleeting curiosity. Then you can offer up places to go, books to read, games, DVD’s, and hundreds of other fun things to do about that topic for her to explore.

With my children I’ve learned about exotic birds, antibodies, how to tell a baby duck from a goose, how to eat peanut butter straight from the jar first thing in the morning, and how to appreciate and even look forward to reading the Captain Underpants series.  As I’ve answered their questions and learned to say yes more, my own world has become richer and more open to me.

Where have your children’s questions taken you?

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Photo credit: Enderst07


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  • Sarah Southcombe

    Today I said a lot of “I don’t know’”s.
    Often I try to help my child find the answer herself (which can lead to quite a lot of creative answers!). We’ll look to find the answer on-line or in a book. Mostly I try to give the best guess I have!
    But I’ve learnt sometimes I have to say “my brain’s not working/tired” in the same way that I prioritise my post-lunch quiet time otherwise I just go a bit mad!
    Do you have any tips on remain calm in the line of fire?
    I just get a bit worn out some days.

    • christinapilkington

      It can be incredibly exhausting. And I agree that if you get to a point where your patience is wearing thin, it’s better to tell your kids that you just need some time/space alone to gather more energy istead of snapping out at them because you’re so depleted yourself.

      I don’t know if I have any great tips about remaining calm. I’m not the model of patience all the time either. Sometimes I’ll hand my kids my I-Phone that has a tape recorder on it and ask them to record their questions sometimes when I can’t answer. And sometimes I just have to have a messier house and focus on the questions. And other times you just have to say that you need a break.

  • Katerina Kolevablisss

    I love this post Christina. Thank you.
    How do you manage to find time and write all this,I can’t even catch up reading it all? :)
    Yes, questions are ever so important!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks! I really am passionate about this topic and writing, so I guess that helps. And the fact that I now have an I phone and laptop to carry around, so I squeeze in writing in 10 minute pockets of time as I can. I love reading and responding to readers,too :)

      • Katerina Kolevablisss

        :) Thank you
        Can I ask you a few questions myself now? Hope you don’t mind.
        First I am looking for a post that I read here a few weeks (months) ago and it was about working from home etc and there were a couple of links for books about simple living. Don’t remember the topic and I can’t find it.

        I have a 5 year old too. We are family from Bulgaria that lives in the UK. He speaks Bulgarian at home with both of us and English in school. I wonder once we take him out how this is going to effect his English language skills. Do you know other be-lingual families? I think it would have been different if at least one of us had been a native English speaker.

        • Anonymous

          Katerina, I’m sorry but I can’t think of the post you’re talking about. I don’t think I ever wrote about working from home. Zen is a really good site about living simply.

          I think the language issue is a tricky one. My children right now do not have a second language, so I haven’t encountered that problem. I do know it’s important to keep them hearing and speaking that language every day in order for them to stay fluent. Is there an English language school or program he could go to for just language immersion for a few hours a week? Also, I would hook up with nearby homeschool groups in your area. Set up times to meet with them. I would also go to They travel full time with their daughter and she speaks three different languages. She has some great posts about raising bi or ti lingual children and what they’ve done to make sure it’s possible. Here’s a link to start off with: I hope this helps.

          • Katerina Kolevablisss

            Thank you Christina. I was sure I have read it here, but I guess I was wrong. Is there a way to see a list of all the articles in your blog?

            The links seem very interesting, I will be looking at them more carefully later.
            As DS already speaks English I hope he will continue to develop it, through films, English speaking friends, Home-schooling group once a week, etc But I really want to find other families with similar experience.

            I really enjoy reading you, thank you for your hard-work. You are such an inspiration!

            • Anonymous

              If you scroll down the home page and get to the end of the page, you’ll see something at the bottom of the page that says previous entries. You can just keep scrolling back that way.

              • Katerina Kolevablisss

                I have found it. This is what I was looking for:

                I know there are exceptions and some parents both have to work full-time, but many people choose to live a life of voluntary simplicity. There are several excellent books out there about this lifestyle including Your Money or Your Life, Voluntary Simplicity, and Choosing Simplicity.

                I probably did not express myself correctly.

                Thanks again

              • Anonymous

                I do remember writing that now. For some reason I was thinking about an entire post about just simplicity. I write so much sometimes I even forget what I write!

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