The Zoo Inquiry: Getting Started with Inquiry-based Learning

Emergent Curriculum: The Zoo Inquiry from An Everyday Story

“[It] evokes the idea of a dynamic process, a journey that involves the uncertainty and chance that always arises in relationships with others. Project work grows in many directions, with no predefined progression, no outcomes decided before the journey begins.

It means being sensitive to the unpredictable results of children’s investigation and research. The course of a project can thus be short, medium or long, continuous or discontinuous, and is always open to modifications and changes of direction.”

~  Carlina Rinaldi on ‘Project work’ (progettazione) from The Hundred Languages of Children (pp. 111-112)

Emergent Curriculum: The Zoo Inquiry from An Everyday Story

It’s been a little while since I’ve shared one of our inquiries, hasn’t it? And this time it’s for Sarah (4 yrs). Right now she has a zillion questions mostly relating to zoos and animals; her first focussed inquiry.

But first, a little about getting started with inquiry-based learning…

Inquiry Based Learning - Zoo Inquiry - An Everyday StorySo how do you start an inquiry?

Essentially I think the child starts the inquiry; they notice something, ask about something, recreate their understandings through play…. and the adult? The adult is the careful observer; watching and listening for questions which they can use to explore the topic more deeply.

We don’t jump on a topic and plan the next four week’s activities; we listen, take notes and identify a few key questions or areas of interest to offer back to the child to investigate further. Like Rinaldi said:

“Project work grows in many directions, with no predefined progression, no outcomes decided before the journey begins.

Emergent Curriculum: The Zoo Inquiry from An Everyday StoryAn inquiry has twists and turns. It can be a little unnerving at first (especially if like me, you’re a trained teacher who is used to guiding the learning in different directions), to take it one day at a time.

Rather than planning our sessions a week in advance with which books our child will read and which activity will follow, inquiry-based learning (or project work), requires us to make observations of the learning which is unfolding during the session and reflect on those observations in order provide provocations for the next session.

And provocations are quite often very simple, like:

  • a reminder of a question which was asked yesterday and offering a book to read together
  • showing your child photos of their work from the previous session and providing new materials to expand on that work – maybe a different kind of block, or some chalk pastels, or maybe some clay to represent a sketch they did
  • following up on a question with a YouTube video – I’m going to write more on how we are using YouTube in another post
  • Rephrasing back to your child a thought which your child expressed last session and offering materials to explore more deeply – “Yesterday you were wondering why….., maybe these materials could help us find out.”

Emergent Curriculum: The Zoo Inquiry from An Everyday Story

“The teachers [and parents] need only to observe and listen to the children, as they continuously suggest to us what interests them, and what they would like to explore in a deeper way”

~ Malaguzzi talking about choosing projects

Sarah’s inquiry so far:

We know that she loves animals and so decided to take a family trip to the zoo for her birthday. Since then,

  • We talked about our experiences at the zoo – memories, thoughts and questions
  • Sarah recreated the zoo using DUPLO – she created enclosures for the animals. She was wondering why some animals had small enclosures and others had very big
  • Based on this, I offered her some books on animals and habitats along with some playsilks, animal figurines and blocks – she used them to create grasslands, polar regions and the ocean
  • I noticed she kept going back to enclosures – particularly for African animals so I put a large piece of paper out with some pencils, fine-tipped markers and a copy of the National Zoo map.

Emergent Curriculum: The Zoo Inquiry from An Everyday StoryEmergent Curriculum: The Zoo Inquiry from An Everyday Story

  • Sarah drew a map of the zoo with enclosures for the animals. I noticed that she also gave some animals bigger enclosures, along with grass and water. (Here’s a short Instragram video of her drawing). She worked on this drawing on and off for about three days.
  • Next session I added a few more animal figurines to the basket along with this book, My First Animal Alphabet. Sarah chose to match the figurines to the pictures.

Emergent Curriculum - Zoo Inquiry from An Everyday Story

  • Jack (6yrs old) mentioned that Sarah had to move her zebra away from the tiger because the tiger would eat it; this inspired some conversation about predators. The following day, I offered her a book on predators.

And so this is about where we are at now; looking at predators – particularly hyenas. Yesterday we watched a YouTube video on how hyenas laugh which inspired a lot of imaginary play.

I have a book of African folk tales which has a story about a hyena and a tortoise. Tomorrow I think I might retell the story using animal figurines, playsilks and a few loose parts.

And then I guess we will see where we go from there.


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9 Replies to “The Zoo Inquiry: Getting Started with Inquiry-based Learning”

  1. This sounds wonderful! My Atlas and your Sarah would have a grand ol’ time together. His favorite place is the zoo. We have season passes to the Calgary Zoo, which is less than an hour away, and we go fairly regularly. Atlas often mentions the zoo and different animals in his daily prayers, “And bless the zoo. Bless the giraffes. Bless the hippos…” and so on. I will have to try some of your ideas! Thank you!

  2. Thanks for this clear explanation. This process has been incredible for us. The breadth and depth of knowledge they develop is simply amazing. Molecular structure, Roman architecture, fossil ammonites, the Nutcracker, the difference between steam and electric train engines . . . who knew we’d be researching all of that with a 4 year old?
    Your recommendation of Lori Pickert’s Project Based Homeschooling has really changed what we do on a day to day basis. Observation and valuing children’s interests – and feeding those interests – brings such respect as well as excitement into everyday learning.
    My only difficulty is finding enough books quickly enough to support interests, esp with a small rural library. It’s a huge temptation to spend up big at Book Depository and so on – but that can get out of control quickly!

  3. Such a lovely way to let it unfold, but encourage gently. And love that you will doing a story 🙂

  4. Thank you so much for this post! Project work is something I’ve been working on understanding and getting better at facilitating over the past few months! There have been so many amazing moments for me on this journey it is such a wonderous thing and it has so much to give my children! Being child led is very important to me for many reasons but it’s knew nothing (really) about in the context of learning, I have much to learn and this path all started for us when I found your blog!

  5. This was a very helpful post. I have been homeschooling for over twenty years and I still learned a lot that I can use in our school.

    1. Hi Phyllis. Thank you 🙂 🙂 Wow. 20 years. What an incredible wealth of experience you must bring with you. How many little ones do you have with you now? Even though I was teaching before I had children, I still feel like, only being in our second year homeschooling, that I have so very much to learn. I am really enjoying these early years…. I am really curious though about what your days will look like in 5 years time.

  6. Thanks so much! This was a great description of this can work. If your inquiries take you into more African folk tales, I put together a list awhile back you might find helpful. 🙂

    1. Thank you Kelly. We are actually really enjoying the African folk tales – I have to change a few words here and there because I think they might be intended for older children, but my kids are really captivated by them. I think it might be because they are so new and interesting. I will definitely check out your link. Thank you.

  7. Great post. I’ve been enjoying your website as a new homeschooling mother of a 2.5 and 5 year old. My question is what do you do when your children are at a loss as to what to do with materials? I don’t always offer such an elaborate set-up but sometimes my 5 year old struggles with transferring information from our readings to something like a drawing. He also loses interest quickly. I teach most things based on his interest cues but it doesn’t seem to lead to anything as enriching as what you’re describing. I’ve only been at it a few weeks but I’d love any tips you have!

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