Inquiry Learning

Children solve complex problems using skills and knowledge gained before and during the project.

The National Association for Gifted Children, our country’s main resource for research and information about gifted education, supports an Inquiry Learning teaching model. Inquiry Learning is characterized by long-term, open-ended, in-depth projects.

We use an Inquiry Learning approach to early childhood gifted education

Gifted preschool education takes many forms, from traditional academic classrooms with an emphasis on rapid acceleration to play-based programs with an emphasis on child-chosen activities. We are fortunate in the Seattle/Eastside area to have many high quality early learning options for highly capable children, spanning the range from highly teacher-directed preschools to play-based child care.

Gifted education serves children whose needs are outside the norm. They enter a regular classroom already knowing most of what will be taught that year. Yet these highly capable children, the same as all children, deserve a learning environment that supports their individual growth. They don’t need a program with the word “gifted” in the title. Certainly at the preschool level they don’t need to be labeled “gifted.” But they do deserve to be challenged, supported and nurtured instead of held back to the standards for a typical preschooler. For their social development – which is the foundation of preschool learning – they need to be around true peers, not just age peers,

We are influenced by the Reggio Emilia philosophy

The early childhood education method developed in the Reggio Emilia region of Italy after World War II has been adapted for use in preschool and primary gifted classrooms in the U.S.  The approach emphasizes:

  • The hundred languages of children: Children are encouraged to explore, revise, and express their learning in endless ways (including speech, writing, science experiments, counting, patterning, drawing, sculpture and drama)
  • Teachers as learners: As one of our Bellevue Discovery teachers said, “I never thought I’d be going home at night and researching things for my preschoolers – this is not the standard preschool curriculum!” Our teachers at BD need to be as interested in learning new things as the children we serve
  • The classroom as community:  Children thrive when teachers and parents form a caring community to support their development
  • Long-term projects:  Spending several weeks or months on a topic allows children to experience real-life problem-solving, to make connections between what they already know and what they are learning, to engage in both breadth and depth in their learning, and to see their interests and ideas expanded upon in the classroom


How we frame our Inquiry Learning: PROJECT-BASED LEARNING

Long-term investigations allow highly capable preschoolers to explore more complex subjects than could be supported in a regular preschool curriculum. With Project-Based Learning, children don’t simply stick with a theme: they solve weekly problems related to their long-term investigation, gradually building the 21st Century Skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creative production, and self-management.

Project-Based Learning is when true gifted education comes into play. Teachers support investigations in which both the process and the final product are valued. PBL is ideal for highly capable preschoolers because projects are open-ended with multiple activities, providing a range of difficulty and catering to individual learning styles. Our younger children tend to explore shorter investigations as they build their PBL skills, and our older children engage in a year-long investigation, culminating in a final project presentation for their families.

Our teachers work to support the creativity and interests of our children, as well as to introduce a wide range of concepts that will provide a foundation for future learning.  Projects tend to be more teacher-directed at the beginning of the year, and more child-directed as the children develop the skills needed to investigate topics and document their own learning.


Sample long term Inquiry-Based Learning Project at Bellevue Discovery (ages 3½ to 5)

  • A typical long-term project, such as Cities, is divided into shorter problems for children to solve:

Why are roads important? 
What are the different parts of a city? 
How do stores work?

  • The shorter problems lead up to the children’s culminating event, which might be:

What role will I play in our city?

  • Project Learning takes place in small groups, usually eight children with two teachers. The groups may be mixed-age and children stay with the same group for the entire project. For shorter project activities (one or two weeks, with several activity times each week), the learning begins with children’s literature. The different groups may have the same book focus or may choose different literature, but all of the groups focus on the same overall theme for the short project.
  • After interacting with the book, the teacher will ask a question that sets up a problem for the children to solve. The children are encouraged to use divergent approaches to solve the problem. The activity takes place over several days, giving the children the chance to revise their work and incorporate new ideas. Toward the end of the activity the children reflect on their work, for example through journaling, representational drawing, and gallery tours of each other’s projects. Our goal is to encourage independent thinking within a framework that supports growth.
  • After two to three months of these problem-solving activities, our projects conclude with a culminating event for parents to celebrate what the children have learned. Long-term Projects at Bellevue Discovery have included: Machines, City Day, The Enchanted Forest and Planet Earth
  • We start with a Driving Question and explore ideas related to that question for a few months.

For our Planet Earth project, our Driving Question was, “What is a planet?”

  • We explore multiple topics related to the Driving Question.  Teacher-guided activities provide opportunities for advanced thinking and open-ended problem solving, while being developmentally appropriate for preschoolers.  Challenges are introduced to engage children’s hearts, minds and bodies, and to inspire them in their individual and group pursuits.

During Planet Earth we explored gardens, rocks, fossils, geography, volcanoes, inside planet Earth, and outer space.

A typical short-term project begins with Language Experience: we read a high quality children’s picture book, looking at themes, content, writing mechanics, and phonics.  We immerse ourselves in the story, adding song, movement, drama, and art to our exploration.

The teachers then introduce a problem related to the literature for the children to solve.  After many weeks, our work culminates in a Project Presentation in which the children showcase their learning for their families.

For our Planet Earth Project Presentation, each child designed an imaginary planet, complete with
2-D and 3-D representations and a planet report. 

On Planet Day our families attended the presentation as space travelers: talking with the children about their discoveries, writing
comments in the Planetary Guestbooks and collecting passport stamps as they visited the planets.

Here are two of the themes we explored during our investigation of Planet Earth:

Garden Theme

Bellevue Discovery’s fenced outdoor area includes a “pea patch.” At the beginning of the year
we love to take nature walks through the garden.

Drama Club
The Children brainstormed role plays about planting a garden.  The teachers took notes as each group came up with a role play plan.  Some of the groups acted out growing growing as seeds.  Other groups went to the store to buy seeds, then went to their garden to plant the flowers and vegetables, then time passed and they watched the garden grow.

School Skills
As a fine motor assessment, the children cut circles out of colorful paper to make flowers, and cut leaves, stems and grass out of green paper.  They thought about how to place the shapes on paper, then glued the shapes down to make a garden.

Science Lab
The children read the non-fiction picture book From Seed to Plant, by Allen Fowler, and planted a lima bean in their own little planters, which they lined up along the window sills.  In later weeks they observed how the lima beans grew.

Preschoolers’ Hypotheses

  • I’m sure it’s going to open up like a clam and maybe something different will come out of it.
  • I think my plant will have flowers.
  • I think my lima bean is going to grow taller and taller.
  • I think my lima bean plant will grow into a strawberry.

Preschoolers’ Observations

  • I made a lima bean and it’s not growing up.
  • I see the seed sprouting.
  • I’m taking the dirt off.
  • Look how mine is! It’s growing very well.
  • I am going to taste the lima bean when I take it home.
  • This is exciting!

First Literature Experience
We read Up, Down, and Around by Katherine Ayers, a rhyming picture book about life in a garden: plants, bugs and children.  After listening to the story the children acted it out, referring to the pictures to remember what happened next as well as diverging into their own version of bugs playing in a garden.  They used plastic fruit and vegetables to act out planting and harvesting a garden.

The children also observed real produce with their senses and used observational drawing to sketch one of the fruits or vegetables.

Problem Solving
Since it was the beginning of the school year we kept our problem simple:

What kinds of bugs can we make with our fingerprints?

The children had painted the backgrounds for garden murals in the Art Studio during Discovery time. Our goal was to fill the garden murals with helpful insects.

The teachers modeled used ink pads as an art tool: using one finger (or a thumb) and carefully placing fingerprints on the paper to form worms and other little bugs. The children used markers to add eyes and legs.

Our preschoolers were highly motivated to fill the garden with fingerprint bugs. They told the teachers where they wanted their bugs in the garden – crawling on the ground or up the flower stems, or flying in the air.

Second Literature Experience
The children read 
Dandelions: Stars in the Grass by Mia Posada, a rhyming picture book about how dandelions grow. The children acted like dandelions growing into flowers, becoming seed heads and floating around the room.

The children looked at big posters our art specialist made about the parts of a dandelion and talked about what they saw on the posters.

The children became bees and other flying insects. Each child had a straw to be his or her proboscis. They flew around their homerooms from flower to flower to sip the nectar. The teachers had taped up a few flower pictures, but the children found other flowers in their classrooms: on the rug, their garden murals, the paint sponges, and in books.

Some of the Child Insects wanted to gather pollen.  The teachers quickly found contact paper to make into bracelets for the insects’ arms, and distributed pollen (pom poms) around the room.  The Insects gathered pollen (which stuck to their bracelets) while they sipped nectar from flowers around the room.

The children learned a bit about how people use plants to dye clothing, then used the yellow petals from dandelions to create stain paintings. They put petals in a piece of folded paper, then pounded on them or used rolling pins to create Stained Art.

Problem Solving

What can I discover when I dissect a dandelion?

Each child chose a dandelion to dissect. They used magnifying glasses to observe, and pulled apart the different parts of the flowers to see what they could discover.

The teachers recorded what each child discovered.

  • I saw something new and slippery – the inside! Inside the root is white.
  • I think I see silver and golden purple.
  • I’m seeing an ant. I’m seeing a little pink.
  • Pretend your hand is a magnifying glass to look at it.
  • These yellow petals … [petting them] … like cat’s fur.
  • I can kind of see a straw like you drink out of, which holds the flower.
  • It looks like a carrot – it’s a root.


Fossils Theme

Drama Club
The children took a field trip on Bellevue Discovery’s Magic School Bus. They went back in time to see the dinosaurs, then returned to our time to work at an archeological dig. The children became archeologists and used their tools to dig for real fossils (mostly marine fossils and plant fossils) that were buried in our touch tables. The little archeologists uncovered the fossils, carefully brushed them off, and tried to figure out what the fossils were: A clam shell? A fern? A marine snail shell?

Math Games 
The children learned about tally marks and, after sorting the plastic dinosaurs by color, used tally marks to record how many dinosaurs were in each pile.

Science Lab
The children looked at lots of kinds of fossils from a teacher’s personal collection. She described how a few years ago she chiseled sandstone rocks out of a hill in Fossil, Oregon – and now those rocks were here in our classroom. The science teacher told a story about how a leaf fossil was made, millions of years ago, acting it out with a fern leaf and layers of paper.

The teacher had the children put on safety goggles, then she took a hammer and broke open one of the sandstone rocks to see if there was a leaf fossil inside: there was! The teacher had prepared sandstone rocks for each child to take home so that their families could also break them open with a hammer to see if there was a fossil inside.

School Skills
The children created “fossil prints.” First they observed some real fossils of ferns and other plants. Then the children chose evergreen, deciduous and fern leaves. They painted the leaves black and brown, then carried them from the painting table to the printing table. At the printing table the children carefully arranged their leaves on paper, covered the leaves with another piece of paper, and used rolling pins to make a fossil print.

Literature Experience
Then the children explored a pile of real fossils (marine and plant fossils). The children called out what kind of fossils they thought they were:

I think I see a plant!” “I think I see a dinosaur!”

Later the children sang “I am a Stegosaurus” and stomped around on all fours like a Stegosaurus. After singing and stomping, they settled in to read two books called Fossil. One is a rhyming non-fiction picture book by Claire Ewart, and the other is a wordless picture book by Bill Thompson.

At each new page of the wordless book the children helped the teachers “read” the story. When they finished reading the children were full of questions about the dinosaurs turning into fossils.

They also read Dirt: The Scoop on Soil, a non-fiction picture book by Natalie Rosinksy. The children had questions about dirt, mostly related to how when dirt covers dinosaur bones it can “turn them into fossils.” We tried to introduce the concept that minerals replace the bones and the minerals become fossils … but that’s a pretty advanced concept.

Clay Play
We started with clay exploration, including having the children make their first pinch pots. A teacher demonstrated how to make big pots, little pots and pots up on feet. They also used big plastic dinosaurs to do some “dinosaur stomping” in the clay.

After the clay play the children mushed their clay into a big pile of “shared clay” so they could use it again.

Problem Solving

What is my fossil?

Each child was given a small slab of clay. The children thought about what fossils they wanted to make, then carefully arranged natural objects on their clay. The children left imprints of leaves (ferns, chestnuts, rhododendron, pine, witch hazel), shells, and little plastic dinosaur bones.

After describing what their clay fossils were to the teachers, the children enjoyed more clay play, and this time they got to keep a little bit of clay instead of putting it all in the “shared clay” pile. They put some clay in a baggie and took it home for more clay exploration. 


For more information about Inquiry Learning, see these resources:


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