Differentiating Inquiry and Theme in Kindergarten

With the shift towards inquiry based learning in Kindergarten, I’ve seen some really wonderful things happening in classrooms. Teaching to the interest of the children opens doors to some really authentic, meaningful learning and quite honestly makes our job pretty fun. Educators have the ability to cater their program towards certain interests and often get quite creative in bringing these interests to life in their learning environments.

When classes get right into an inquiry, it can completely take over the classroom. Dramatic play centres are turned into elaborate submarines, dinosaur museums, space stations – you name it! Almost all areas of the classroom get retrofitted to go with the inquiry: the sensory bin, the library book selections, literacy materials, the block centre, and so on. All of these things are wonderful, but I find myself wondering a few things.

At what point does an inquiry become dangerously close to being a theme?

Kindergarten educators have a guilty pleasure for theme based teaching. It’s easy, it’s organized, it makes sense, it follows rules, it’s pretty and it all matches! It just makes sense that we have a harvest inquiry in the fall and a plants inquiry in the spring, but do they come about authentically or because we secretly want them to? We need to be careful not to turn our inquiries into themes.

Why? Themes aren’t meeting the needs of all of our learners. When we start an inquiry based on the observation of a few students displaying an interest, we’re doing a wonderful job meeting their particular needs and encouraging their learning. What about those few (or sometimes more than a few) students in our class that aren’t really interested in insects, arctic animals, structures, flight or whatever it happens to be? Sure, they will benefit from the exposure and probably take part, but for them the time spent during that inquiry isn’t as valuable as it could be.

An illustration of this is when we’d spent hours creating an intricate veterinarian’s office dramatic play centre and many students turned it back into a home living area whenever they used the space. This is mostly, I think, because they didn’t know how to take on the roles in a veterinarian’s office, but also because they weren’t really interested in that and just wanted to role-play home living like they’re naturally inclined to. Perhaps we build these beautiful inquiry related areas in addition to their usual dramatic play area, and not instead of?

This leads me to my second thought. We know that we have a diverse group of students with a variety of interests, levels of understanding and learning needs.

Why does everyone need to participate in the same inquiry, all at once? 

Children could participate in inquiries with small groups or individually! This is something I have been trying to encourage in my classroom and I’ve been finding great results. Students are more motivated and engaged in their day’s work [play]. We currently have a few inquiries on the go: some learning about the ocean, some about flight/airplanes, some about otters, some about hockey teams and one student who is individually researching The Tragically Hip. Again, got to love Kindergarten!

I’m not saying that whole group inquiries don’t hold value, because they certainly do when every child is engaged by them. We’ve had some wonderful experiences with the entire class engaged in the same topic for extended amounts of time this year. Our inquiry on music was a very rich experience and all of our students were genuinely interested in some way. I’m saying that whole group is not the only way to do inquiry.

Opening doors to more than one inquiry at a time will open the doors to more authentic and meaningful learning for all students. Yes, it will be messy and scattered and unorganized. For some, it might be a step out of a comfort zone but isn’t that what learning is supposed to be?



Updated: May 4, 2018 — 1:09 pm

The Author

Laura Bottrell

Laura is an LTO teacher with HWDSB. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Youth & Children's Studies and is a Registered Early Childhood Educator. Laura is currently enjoying teaching grade 1/2, after teaching Kindergarten, 2/3 and 5/6! With a passion for the arts, Laura is an advocate for the arts in education and is currently the director of a theatre performance program for Kindergarten aged students!


Add a Comment
  1. Andrea says:

    I’ve noticed that my students’ interests change frequently, so my partner and I don’t spend as much time creating elaborate accessories for the drama centre as we might have in the past, but instead let the students create them (e.g. They took boxes we brought in for construction, used them to make a store and made their own money. The next day the store was back to being a house).

    One of the challenges with having several smaller group inquiries happening at the same time is in documenting and guiding the learning. Any tips for how to manage a number of inquiries at once? It’s difficult when most students need help to record their ideas or to extend their thinking.

    1. Laura Bottrell says:

      Hi Andrea,

      I agree that we don’t need to spend so much time outfitting dramatic play as we might think! Allowing kids to reinvent objects to meet the needs of their play can be really powerful. Personally, I like to keep my dramatic play centre set up with elements of a home for home living play, which is where most kids gravitate to naturally. That being said, our “house” changes many times a day to a variety of things! In terms of documenting and providing support to multiple inquiries, it can sometimes be tricky! We use SeeSaw in our classroom which is a great tool for organising entries by student or groups of students. We try to make ourselves available in the room to insert myself into different inquiries, but sometimes students need to work independently if one of us isn’t available. One day, I had a line up of students at the computer wanting to research a variety of topics with me and print out their findings. At some point, you just kind of find your flow! I’d also say that not all inquiries need an abundance of adult attention – perhaps its just accompanying them to the library to take out a related book, or directing them to a website or iPad app. Most often, kids will find their own ways to explore topics they’re interested in!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Solve before submitting! *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

© 2015 The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario | ETFO Website | RSS Feed | Login