Asking questions is one of the ways in which we learn about things. Children ask a lot of questions as they seek to understand the world around them. One study, for example, found that children in their study asked about 76 questions seeking information in an hour's active engagement with an adult.
Questions are not just about seeking attention (though they can be) they offer information about children's interests, the things about which they are curious. Thus the questions asked can be used to provide engaging learning opportunities.
Questions provide a framework for learning. The answers provided to questions children ask create a bridge between what children know and understand, and what adults know and understand.
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Answering questions therefore helps children's cognitive development; shifting their understandings towards those of the adults around them.
There is a process involved in constructing and asking questions. Firstly, children need to realise they lack information about something of interest to them. They then need to formulate the question.
This involves figuring out how to ask the question to get the information they seek.
The importance of developing skill in this area cannot be under-estimated. We all know how frustrating it is trying to get the information we need when we cannot figure out the right way to ask the question or even what question needs to be asked. Then children have to ensure that the way they ask the question is understood by the audience.
I am sure we have all experienced the frustration of being on the end of children simply asking 'why' when we have no idea what it is they are asking, and the consequent frustration of children when they do not get from us the answer they are seeking.
Part of the skill here is identifying who is most likely to answer the question, an assessment of who is likely to know enough to answer, and who is appropriate to ask (there might be social rules about who can or cannot be asked certain things).
Finally, the answer needs to be evaluated to determine if it addresses the need, or if further information is required.
There is evidence that children as young as three years of age are able to make these evaluations and determine the effectiveness of the answer.
One study demonstrated that children were more likely to trust a clear answer (that is a spoon) compared to a more tentative response (I think that is a spoon) and that they are able to choose their audience (they were more likely to ask adults questions about food and their peers about toys).
Preschool aged children are more likely to ask questions of their parents and factors in the home (such as socio-economic status, parental stress levels and parenting styles) influence the type and frequency of questions children use in their homes.
A recent study indicates there are gender differences in the types of hard questions asked by preschool children. Sak and ahin-Sak found that girls tended to ask questions about sex and fertility more often than boys, where as boys tended to ask more questions about religion, science and nature. Sex and fertility questions tended to be directed more often to mothers than to fathers, whereas religious and daily life questions tended to be asked more to fathers.
School and early childhood teachers tended to be asked more science and nature questions than were parents but less questions focused on religion, sex and fertility.
Adults are not always comfortable answering some of the difficult questions children ask but researchers suggest that giving clear and understandable answers is essential as these provide opportunities to share values, experiences and beliefs, and help children learn the information they need to function appropriately in their social and cultural contexts.