Moving beyond “Why?” to “What If?”

A few months ago, J and I were reading a book about inventors. It began with the sentence, “Thomas Edison’s favorite word was “why”.”

I almost closed the book and returned it to the library. There’s no way that was Edison’s favorite question. “Why?” implies a concrete, right answer. Why is the sky blue? Why do penguins hold their eggs between their feet? Science can answer those questions.

Edison must have asked much more open-ended questions. He must have explored the “what happens if I…” line of thought in order to create things that had never before been created. This is relevant questioning – questioning that piques ones curiosity.

Consider this example:

What happens if you put silly putty in the microwave? ( you’re intrigued, aren’t you!)

as compared to

Why is it dangerous to put silly putty in the microwave? (curiosity is already dampened, because the thrill of discovery is removed)
How can we point those in our care to open-ended questions that invite further learning?

When I taught high school English, I introduced punctuation review with the following sentence on the board:

A woman without her man is nothing

And then I asked my students to punctuate the sentence. They, of course, were instantly engaged and possibly offended by the message. In the end, we talked about:

What happens if you use an appositive? (A woman, without her man, is nothing.)

What happens if it is a declarative statement?  (A woman without her man is nothing.)

What happens if you use a colon? (A woman: without her, man is nothing.)

And they saw the power of punctuation to dramatically affect meaning. The rules came to life.

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves (aff. link**) is a treasure trove of these examples, by the way.
With my little ones, we use this line of questioning for scientific discovery all the time.

– when color mixing for painting

– when cleaning the windows (with water) and trying to evaluate how far away to stand with the spray bottle

– when building ramps and racing cars

– when throwing rocks into the water at the beach

And so much more.

“What happens if” sparks the question and invites discovery.
The harder part of this, then, is being willing to let your kids take the lead in their own experimentation. (Within safe boundaries, of course!)

What happens if we freeze water beads? Let’s find out!

🙂

 

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Teaching our kids how to look

Children are natural observers. They’re great at noticing differences and asking about them. Most parents have a story about the time their kid asked a stranger about a mole, pimple, or similar taboo topic.

We want to harness this power and help our kids learn how to see.

This morning, my three year olds and I went on a puddle adventure. Sticks in hand and rainboots on, we were excited to see what we would see.


Exploring takes time. You can’t rush discovery. As my girls poked, prodded, splashed, and stepped, I commented on my observations and stepped back to give them space to take it further as they saw fit.

Wow! Look at the bubbles you made!

Did you SEE how the water moved when you ____?

Look at those waves! It’s like the beach!

Oh! I see a worm. What’s he doing?

What happens when you step gently? When you stomp?

For 45 minutes, we watched for cars, found new puddles, swished water around, rescued worms, and created splashes. It was good, and it was enough. We practiced looking at detail, cause and effect, sensory awareness, and more. And then we stopped. No lecture, no formal lesson. We just looked.

Later today we may read a book about dirt or worms, (this one (aff link**) from National Geographic is great!) or we might move on to another interest, but I am content because we stopped. We looked. We listened. And we discovered together.

 

** any links to resources on the Amazon website are part of the affiliate program. We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. There is NO pressure to buy. 🙂 **