At the 2.5 year mark, my toddler peppers almost every sentence with a "why", "what" or "how". I hadn't expected this frequency, to be bombarded with a dozen questions before I have had my breakfast coffee! But it is most absolutely normal for them to ask lots of questions in this developmental phase.
Why Children Ask Questions
- Young children ask questions because they are processing things about the world and environment that intrigue them. This is a display of their innate curiosity and interest in why and how things work, as well as what new things are.
Satisfying their inquisitiveness helps them build technical knowledge of the workings of the world. Beyond the technical information, it is about stroking lifelong inquisitiveness, encouraging them to continually seek out answers for what they don't understand.
- Young children could also be asking questions to communicate feelings, like uncertainty or concern.
When we just moved houses, my toddler frequently asked, "Why is this our new house?" This was her comprehending the concept of a "home", something she had always thought was a constant but turned out to be a variable. Giving her thoughtful responses to assuage those emotions is important for her emotional development.
Respectful & Mechanistic Responses to Toddlers' "Why" Questions
Responding to Children's Questions
Admittedly the questions can get too frequent leaving no stones unturned, asked at inappropriate times, or are generally repetitive. But I remind myself that repetition is key to how children internalise and remember knowledge. Sometimes children just need that psyche for repetition satisfied before they can move on to process other information.
Take a deep breath to muster the patience and gentleness required.
This is the consistent manner I strive to respond to my toddler's questions:
- I use a respectful tone: I seek to answer each question in a way that shows I value it as important. No question is stupid.
Growing up, I've had questions brushed aside, or been mocked for asking "simple" questions, that scars me to this day and hampers my curiosity and "need to know". Negative reactions can have lifelong impact.
We are often our children's first teachers. We want to model the right way of treating others and being treated. Most importantly, we want our children to be confident to ask questions and seek the answers they need.
- I give prompt responses: At this age, toddlers pretty much expect instant answers. They also have short-term memories and attention span, so if their questions go unanswered, they might jump to the next interesting thing and never ask the same questions again, which equates to lost teaching moments.
Therefore if I can be fully present, I would respond quickly in the moment.
If I'm preoccupied, I'll make sure to note it down so I could follow-up. I like to furnish a notepad and marker (or my phone's drawing app) for my toddler to 'draw' it out so we can remember to come back to the question soon after.
- I try to inspire two-way communication: Sometimes instead of going straight to the answers, I prompt my toddler to think of possible theories by asking, "What do you think happened?" or "Do you think it's because..." This reveals prior knowledge my toddler has already acquired pertaining to this subject matter so I can work on connecting the dots or furnishing lacking information.
This also cultivates a habit of letting the child brainstorm and throw out different ideas which might eventually lead to the answer.
When my toddler replies, "I don't know" (which is pretty often), I'll encouragingly say, "That's alright, we can look it up in our books/ research online to learn about it together!"
- Mechanistic language: I strive to use real and clear language that offers detail and explanation to help my toddler gain understanding.
I don't simplify it or shorten my explanation. I explain it like I would to another adult.
My belief is that while my toddler might not understand the full content right now, the use of mechanistic language builds neural pathways in her brain, increasing her exposure to new key terms and helping her draw associations/connections. One day it would click. Fatherly has an article on how mechanistic language raises high-achieving children.
I'm really not bothered by whether my toddler "remembers" the content. My focus is on growing her appetite for learning more things. I like that mechanistic explanations provoke further questions, building it into a rich dialogue, that develops thinking and communication skills.
Concrete Ways for Learning Extension
- Child-led science journal
I started recording the repetitive questions my toddler asks and I penned explanations in a designated sketch pad. I also added illustrations to make the explanations appealing and visual.
When my toddler repeats the same questions, sometimes I redirect/guide her to refer to this science journal to remember and seek out answers on her own.
These are pages from our science journal:
This entry was made when my toddler took out a pack of dry tissue paper from my bag, pulled it out and asked, "Why do you use tissue paper?" I reframed the question into a "What is tissue paper used for?" to show the properties of tissue paper and myriad uses.
This question came about when my toddler read a book that showed an illustration of a child in a wheelchair and pointed it to me.
I felt this was an important question to bring to her attention how everyone has different needs, so as to respect everyone's diversity and differences.
- Unit studies
When many of the questions revolve around a certain theme or subject matter, this can evolve into further reading or themed activities to explore and flesh out that topic.
Some examples of the unit studies I've done with my toddler are on the human body (digestive system), space, teeth and dental health, germs and hygiene (triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic), and frogs.
- Science experiments
Through observing many things around her, my toddler asks questions about the laws of physics and chemistry.
I like to show her the answers in a more hands-on, visual and tactile approach and science experiments are perfect for explaining those theories.
- Site visits
Much learning takes place outside of the home, in the external environment.
Questions pertaining to nature are best answered in the outdoor classroom of nature. We're thankful to be living a short drive away from nature spots, so we can take trips to mountains, forests, rivers etc to physically experience and derive the answers.
Questions about animals can be done in zoos, animal farms, or quiet nature spots where wild animals can be sighted.
Sometimes the travel doesn't even have to be intentional. We could be walking past a construction site and I would point to the construction vehicles and say, "Remember you asked why crane trucks are so tall?"
Every now and then, my toddler asks existential questions that catch me by surprise, like "Why are you my mother?" or "What happens when the spider dies?"
I focus on explaining the relationships and keeping to the facts instead of delving into topics like religion.
For instance for "Why are you my mother?", I would share that we conceived her in my womb and I birthed her, making me the mother and her my daughter. Maybe when she's older to formulate her thoughts, we could discuss about affinity.
For "What happens when the spider dies?", I would explain that spiders lose their ability to move and breathe when death happens, and death happens because of old age, illness or accidents. Maybe at an older age, we could talk about whether a higher being exists.
I hope these suggestions are useful! Let's raise little curious humans together!
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Hi! I am Yunnie. I am the newly minted mama to a little baby girl and a mum friend to everyone on this special (and many times scary) journey of motherhood. Also a graduated bride with a penchant for weddings.