I am sure we have all lived through the days when our young children never seem to tire of asking why: why is this leaf green, why do I need to wash my hands, why is this a fork?
It can get extremely tiring answering these questions, and sometimes we don't know the answers ourselves. After all, why is a fork a fork?
If we want children to learn to think and explore things for themselves (which is the basis of creativity and the kind of thinking that has led to exciting discoveries that have changed our world) then we need to use these why-questions as learning opportunities for children.
We don't have to supply the answers all the time.
When we provide an answer, we are simply teaching children that there is a right way of viewing the world, we have access to that right way, and our answers will share that way with them.
Too many adult answers teaches children NOT to think for themselves, but rather to find out from an authority figure what they need to know.
Had Archimedes accepted the 'right' way of viewing his world, he might never have had his 'eureka' moment.
Without the ability to think for herself, Marie Curie might never have fought for a university education in an era where women were not admitted into most higher education institutions, and the world might never have learned that exposure to radiation destroyed tumour-forming cells.
To encourage children's creativity and their ability to think outside the box, we can challenge children to explore the issue that has raised their curiosity. I have written before about asking wondering questions.
These open up opportunities for an ongoing conversation where children are challenged to share their thinking. The response to: "Why is a fork a fork?" might be "I wonder if our ancestors used forks that looked like they do today" or "I wonder if there are other shapes that people use to eat?" or "I wonder if there are things you like to eat that don't work so well with a fork?"
The kinds of wondering questions you can ask are shaped by what you know of the child and the child's level of understanding.
A 3-year old probably might not be interested if forks looked the same in the past, but an older child might, and might be sufficiently interested to explore the internet to find out more about forks and fork design.
A younger child might enjoy a discussion about how to eat spaghetti with a fork, which might lead to an experiment with playdough: making spaghetti shapes then trying different ways of picking them up with a fork.
In addition to a wondering response to why-questions, you might instead respond with some kind of acknowledgement, leaving it open for the child to continue the discussion or move on to something else.
Let's face it, too many challenges to find out more about every question asked can be tiring for children, so there are times when we simply hand back control over where the question might lead to the questioner.
You might say things like: "Gosh, I hadn't thought about that," or "That's interesting." Alternatively, you might decide that the question provides an opportunity for children to practice listening to each other, experiencing different perspectives and collaboration. If this is your goal then you might answer a why-question with something like: "I don't know.
Look, Sam is here listening, let's ask him to see what he thinks." It might be appropriate to involve a larger group of children. "Hey, wouldn't it be interesting to see what others think. I wonder how many different ideas we can hear. Shall we go and ask this group here?"
Listening to different ideas, and learning to respect ideas that are not the same as yours, is a very important skill, one with which many adults struggle.
When we can create opportunities to do this with children, we are teaching them a really important life lesson. It is important that we support children to listen to different ideas without denigrating the person with the different idea.
We can model acceptance: "I hear Jack saying that his mum eats spaghetti with her fork, but Mary says that her mum gives her a spoon to eat spaghetti. What about you Joseph? How do you eat spaghetti?"
And, "There are lots of different ways to eat spaghetti. No-one so far has said they eat spaghetti with chopsticks. I wonder if that is possible? You know what, Sam's parents use chopsticks a lot.
"Shall we ask his mum when she comes in today if she can eat spaghetti with chopsticks? I reckon it would be pretty cool to be able to do that. What do you think?"