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Planning for Inquiry in Preschool: How to Decide What to Teach

Parents and fellow practitioners often ask what curriculum I use in my forest preschool program. The reality is that there is no such thing as a pre-packaged curriculum for a child-led, inquiry-based program. We do follow daily routines, have weekly rhythms, and always keep kindergarten readiness goals in mind when planning. However, how we reach those goals – the actual curriculum and individual investigations—is determined each year by the ways the children interact with the natural world, each other, and their teachers.

While I cannot provide step by step lesson plans for practitioners wanting to start their own forest schools – or who strive to bring more nature and authentic child-led inquiry to existing programs, I can explain my blueprint for the process we follow with each new investigation. In blog posts over the next few months, you will be able to follow Wildwood Nature School’s preschoolers and me as we conduct this winter’s investigation of mud and dirt. The current post covers “setting the stage” – developing routines and determining inquiry subjects. Subsequent posts will cover generating interest from children, co-constructing inquiry strands with the children, documenting discoveries and progress, and celebrating new knowledge.

In order for inquiry to be successful with young children, it is important to have a set of routines and structures to follow. The routines act as a scaffold, enabling both children and teachers to feel comfortable allowing curiosity to guide daily work and play. Therefore, we spend the first month or so of each new school year doing a “nature detectives” unit. It is the only unit that is pre-set by the teacher, and it is designed to introduce children to school routines and hone observational skills.

During the nature detectives unit, we introduce the visual chart that shows the flow of our day, choose our sit spots, practice garden procedures, prepare our nature journals, share ideas about our first Talking Box, and record thoughts and observations in a Floorbook. (Talking Tubs and Floorbooks are innovations developed by Claire Warden, which will be discussed in further detail next month.

If you would like to learn more, she offers training on her Mindstretchers Academy website.) We practice using our five senses to gather information about nature, learn how to care for and safely use tools, like magnifying glasses, trowels, and collection tubes, and record information using visual organizers like T-charts, webs, and graphs.

After we finish the nature detectives unit, the rest of our investigations are determined by the children. Sometimes the children collectively show interest in the same phenomenon. This year’s group spent the entire Nature Detective unit pointing out every spider web, insect, and worm they saw, which made it very easy to decide to focus our first investigation on “Bugs.” When a collective interest is not as obvious, we have a discussion about what we might want to investigate. Our dirt and mud investigation sprang from such a discussion.

During our bug inquiry, we had learned that as the cold winter weather approaches, many bugs find places to hibernate under tree bark or deep underground. The children wanted to know more about what was happening underground. They also started sloshing in all of the mud our late fall and winter rains create. So, when I asked, “What do you want to investigate next,” the answer was “mud and dirt.”

The children come up with some initial questions they want to explore regarding their topic. The teacher’s job at that point is to find books, plan some experiments, lead observations, and provide art supplies that will help the children investigate their questions. Those experiences, in turn, lead to new questions and new lines of inquiry.

A Reggio inspired educator describe this process to me as akin to playing with a ball. First, the children have the ball. They toss around some ideas and then toss the ball back to the teacher. The teacher comes up with some provocations based on the children’s interests and questions and then tosses that ball right back to the children. Thus, the investigation, and the curriculum itself, is a continual give and take learning process involving both the children and teacher in equally constructive roles.

We follow each investigation for as long as there is interest and the children still have questions, so there is no specific time frame for each investigation. Some last weeks. Some last months.

My goal in the next few months is to use this blog space to follow our group through one complete child-led investigation, from our first Talking Box to our final celebration of all we have learned. In the process, I hope you will gain a better handle on how to approach inquiry-based education with your own preschool class.

Nicole Fravel

Wildwood Nature School



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