Sound inquiry–open exploration and direct teaching?

As early childhood educators, no matter what program we teach in or administer, we want to help children build knowledge of the world through experiences, teacher-supported investigations, and direct teaching. A conversation I had recently with a teacher made me think about how we balance direct teaching with open exploration:

Teacher: So, as I thought more about your question about what scares me about teaching this new science unit, I think I crystalized it more. I hate to be the one shoving information down to the children. I love it when they discover new things—learn something exciting. When I don’t know the information as well, I am not as comfortable with their discovery process. I’m sure that’s being an old dog learning new tricks, but I think that’s more what I’m feeling.

Peggy: One thing that comforts me when I am teaching children and I want them to get science content knowledge as well as experience, is remembering that this is just a beginning not high school graduation. They will have time to learn more facts and understand the concepts. I am not their only chance! Thank you for being brave and exploring new territory. The NSTA position statement on Early Childhood Science Education affirms that children are capable, often more capable than we teachers realize. When we check for understanding through conversations, reflecting on photographs, or having them draw and talk about their picture, we can find out if our teaching is effective.

I was reminded of how children will continue to build their understanding as they move through their school years when following a discussion on the NSTA physical science education listserv about teaching ninth graders about sound. I thought, “Children begin that work in infancy and I help them build on it in their preschool years!” The NSTA member listservs provide a wonderfully supportive community for growing as a teacher of science.

Given how much the two-to-three year olds that I work with love to use musical instruments, I thought exploring how metal objects sound in water would capture their interest and focus. This activity was inspired by the work of Alec Duncan, early childhood educator (and musician) in western Australia, who uses many instruments, makes instruments and explores sound in unique ways. Alec has a wealth of information and experience that he generously shares on his social media sites, including a blog post and video about making sound at the water table.

Children stirring the water and metal bowls in a sensory/water table.

Very interestingly, both the 2-3 year old and the 4-5 year old children did tap on the metal bowls but they were mostly interested in stirring and mixing and creating imaginative meals! While stirring and pouring, they observed the flow of the water and we briefly discussed volume–how much water could fit, interweaving science and math into the imaginative play about making meals. I wonder what the next step might be? Add measuring cups with numbers on them? Make the water deeper? Add real drumsticks instead of chopsticks to promote more tapping?

Like the teacher in the conversation quoted above, I feel I may be going too fast, trying to impart information before the children have had time to understand the properties of the objects and water through open exploration. I’m going to re-read the “Resources” section in Exploring Water with Young Children (Young Scientist series) by Ingrid Chalufour and Karen Worth to refresh my understanding of science inquiry in early childhood. “Inquiry is about questions, but it is hard for children to ask questions about something if they haven’t had a change to get to know the thing or the materials or the event, whether it is balls rolling, snails, or water flow. So the first stage in the framework is to engage, notice, wonder and question—it is a time for children to play, to see what they already know, to mess about in a rich environment with little direct guidance or structure.”

What next steps would you suggest?


Chalufour, Ingrid and Karen Worth. 2005. Exploring Water with Young Children (Young Scientist series) St Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

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3 Responses to Sound inquiry–open exploration and direct teaching?

  1. Edward Hessler says:

    Since you used the word “mess,” I can’t resist (always good sign I should) quoting Kenneth Grahame on messing about (The Wind in the Willows). It suggests the direction I think worth considering rather than trying to teach them something.
    “Is it so nice as all that?” asked the mole, shyly…
    “Nice? It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat Solemnly, as he leaned forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
    “Simply messing…about in boats — or with boats… In or out of ’em it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.”
    “Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together and have a long day of it.?”
    To provide some direction though on possibilities, an essay I love was published in Science & Children (1987) by F. James Rutherford. It is titled ‘The Character of Elementary School Science.”
    Add more stuff for them to “mess” with and trust them or give them the opportunity for many experiences with this wonderful water trough found in the picture. Certainly not measuring cups or volume or….

  2. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    Thank you for reminding us about Kenneth Grahame’s wonderful book, The Wind in the Willows, which speaks to our delight in open exploring, whether we are children or adults. Messing about seems to immerse children in the media. I thought the measuring cups might meet the children’s interest in imaginary play about preparing food. Maybe a runcible spoon will be next (to continue on the topic of animals in boats).

  3. Cindy Hoisington says:

    What this beautiful reminds me of is how powerful the teacher’s prepping of the environment is in setting the stage for the type of play, experiences children will have. The metal bowls and wooden sticks prompted children to mix and pretend play about making food and to tap and play drums. So why not add measuring cups? or squeeze and squirt bottles…or plastic gutters…or runcible spoons (though i confess to not knowing what they are!) .or things to sink and float with (preferably not all at one time!). What came first..the children’s interest in pretending to make food OR the materials? Why not see what types of play and learning other materials might provoke and then figure out how to provide materials in ways that support all types of play?!

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