PRIMARILY PLAY
INDEPENDENT INQUIRY: PLAY IN THE
PRIMARY GRADES
Inquiry is a process of intellectual activity
fundamental to all learning. Inquiry is born of
play and at any age, from birth to maturity, play
with materials, ideas, and relationships, nourishes
inquiry and refines the ability to think with increasing
complexity.
Children are compelled to play by a deep curiosity
and need to explore and understand their world. This
is the genesis of inquiry and remains so throughout
life. Through play as inquiry, the learner strives to form
new relationships between ideas and to synthesize
these into an existing cognitive framework. For this
reason, inquiry at its best is independent and self-
generated.
Independent inquiry is a teaching strategy designed
to provide opportunities for self-directed learning
through play. It can be used with students at all grade
levels, from grade one on. The role of the teacher in
independent inquiry is create an environment for
inquiry, to help the children articulate their questions
and their learning, and make sense of their discoveries.
The goal is not to tell them what to discover but to
invite them to share and reflect on their experiences.
Why is independent inquiry important in school?
Learning through play during independent inquiry
will involve all of the essential skills needed for
tomorrow’s workplace. It is a forum for peer-supported
learning, and it can accommodate children who are at
varying levels of development. By being self-directed,
each individual takes from the experience what she
needs.
Inquiry engages children in the following:
• Asking and answering questions.
• Making observations, (verbally, in written form or
pictorially).
• Using various skills, (comparing, sorting,
classifying, predicting, interpreting, recognizing
patterns, using and creating data, drawing
conclusions, justifying, hypothesizing, etc.)
• Collaborating with others.
• Problem-solving by applying known strategies
and using new ones.
• Using tools to gather information depending
on the inquiry, (measuring devices, magnifying
lenses, sorting systems, etc.)
• Recording or representing information, (through
sketches, drawings, graphic organizers such
as webs, labeled diagrams, writing, drama,
movement, music, etc.)
• Planning, (thinking through where to begin,
what is needed, choosing a direction, evaluating
a process that did or didn’t work).
• Using imagination.
• Developing personal skills, (perseverance, risk
taking, independence, etc.)

PRIMARILY PLAY
WHERE TO BEGIN?
To begin with, the focus should be on the
process of learning. For the educator, this
requires planning to ensure children learn
what is expected from the curriculum, and at
the same time, engage in self-directed learning.
Self-directed learning involves making decisions,
based on such strategies as weighing options,
listening to perspectives, having a rationale, etc.
Educators need to provide guidance in this process
as it cannot be assumed that children instinctively
understand how to make good decisions. Also key
for self-directed learning are social and inquiry skills.
Some children will need more support and guidance
than others as they experience a different way of
working than one to which they may be accustomed.
For their part, educators must fine-tune their skills
of observation and assessment. It is important for
educators to refrain from bringing preset assumptions
to their observations of a child at play which could
influence their assessment.
As a starting point, it may helpful for educators to
reflect on the following questions to determine a
focus for their observations:
• What are the children interested in?
• What are they doing well?
• What are their understandings? What are their
misconceptions?
• How do they use language?
• What is their use of vocabulary, particularly in
relation to content areas?
• What do they do when faced with a problem?
What problem-solving strategies are they using?
• How do they apply what they know?
• What connections are they making?
• What mathematical processes are they using?
• What inquiry skills do they use?
• How do children use higher level thinking skills?
The initial focus on process does not mean that
content is ignored. By attending to the process,
content can be dealt with in a meaningful context.
Once the children are comfortable with the freedom
to play and become engaged in projects of interest,
content can be introduced, incidentally at times, and
deliberately at other times.