Introducing the Students to
Independent Inquiry
Prepare students through a whole class
discussion on the purpose of independent
Set out several basic rules for
participation in independent inquiry:
• Must make your own choice of activity.
• Need to respect others and share materials
and space.
• If there is a problem, need to try to solve
it yourself.
(These can be revised after a few days with
input from the children.)
Respect and child-initiated problem-solving
should be standard practice in every classroom
environment. Should these qualities not be
prevalent, there may need to be an emphasis
on modelling and providing extra support.
Let children play, and have the freedom to
choose what and with whom.
Children may continue to choose the same
thing over and over. This occurs for a variety
of reasons; they may be comfortable with
this activity or material, they may have
experienced success and want to repeat
the experience, they may be overwhelmed
by choices, or they don’t know how to work
with others, or they are unsure about what
is available. In knowing the individual child,
educators can determine when to provide
guidance and when to invite the child to try
something new that is out of their comfort
Assess the outcome and make
necessary adjustments:
• Is there noticeable improvement in how
the children interact with one another?
• What are the most frequently selected
• What do the children do?
• What are they learning?
• What needs to be changed, (materials,
routines, working areas, …)?
Things to Remember:
• For the first few days to a week, the
children will tend to sample the various
activities before settling into something
substantial. Some children may require
more guidance, particularly if they have no
confidence in themselves or have not had
the opportunity to play or make choices.
This is a time for the teacher to step back
and observe what the children are doing
with as little interference as possible. She
may begin to collect observations in a
journal for later assessment.
Facilitating Learning
through Debriefing
Debriefing with the students following
a period of exploratory play is one
way of helping the players articulate
what they are learning. This is of
particular importance when the exploration
involves science concepts. The debriefing
of learning through play can be done
spontaneously with an individual or small
group while they are engaged in the activity
or at a later time. The debriefing could take
the form of a Think Pair Share where each
child has the opportunity to talk to a partner.
It can also be done with the whole class, as
in the zoo example. For those who use the
community circle, the focus might be on a
new discovery or learning, with each child
having a turn to share or pass if they wish.
The debriefing provides valuable feedback
for the educator as well as the children, and
helps with planning. It also provides the
opportunity for the teacher to direct play
toward mandated topics, without interfering
or controlling the activity.
In her book, Serious Players in the Primary
Classroom (1990), Selma Wasserman, an

eminent Canadian educator, describes a
process of learning through play as play-
debrief-replay. Wasserman suggests that
successful interaction during a debriefing
begins with the skill of attending, which
involves listening closely to what the student
says about her discoveries.
• Make and hold eye contact.
• Listen to what is being said. Be naturally
interested and show with your body
language that you care about what the
student is saying.
• Discern the tone and the nuances of
• Avoid interrupting or commenting on the
student’s ideas.
• Avoid giving you own idea in response.
• Make it safe for the student to risk
presenting her ideas.
• As you apprehend what the child is
saying, begin to think about formulating
a response that does not evaluate the
student’s idea.
There are three types of facilitative responses:
• paraphrasing the student’s ideas;
• requiring the student to be analytical;
• challenging the investigator to dig deeper.
The first type of response is paraphrasing.
This allows the teacher to listen carefully
to what the student says without having to
formulate a question. A paraphrase can be a
concise telling back, or it can be interpretive,
whereby the teacher interprets the student’s
response in a way that shifts focus and leads
to a formulation of a big idea that the student
would be unlikely to express independently.
This intuitive response is quite sophisticated.
Responses that require students to analyze
what they discovered prompts habit of the
mind that teaches children:
• to take ownership for their ideas;
• to examine alternatives;
• to base arguments on data.
Children in the primary grades are not too
young to begin this thoughtful process.

Thinking Skills
Sample Questions
Generating a basic hypothesis
Interpreting data
Identifying criteria for making judgments
Why do you think … ?
What do you think ... means?
How do you know …?
Applying principles to new situations
Explaining how a theory may be tested
Creating new and imaginative plans
What would happen if …?
What other ideas do you have for…?
How else could this be used?
The third type of response is the one that
challenges the student to think more deeply.
In the primary division, this means making
inferences from the data, explaining how the
theory might work, and thinking about how to
test the theory. The following chart provides
terminology to generate this higher level
The teacher might prepare a “crib sheet” with
several of these open-ended questions to
get the debriefing rolling. These questions
will ensure that the teacher is moving the
students’ thinking toward big ideas and new
How do you talk about play with your
students? How does that support their
Things to Remember about Implementing
Independent Inquiry
Establish a protected time each day
for uninterrupted play. At first, the teacher
will need to adjust the amount of time spent
on the core subjects, but what occurs during
the independent inquiry integrates learning
from all of the subject areas.
There needs to be suffi cient time for
students to fully explore their ideas.
There needs to be suffi cient number of
choices to allow every child the opportunity
to pursue her interests and needs.
Generally the ideas for what they
do come from the children themselves. The
activities should not simply be workbook-
like tasks presented in a different format.
Learning is focused through the selection
of the materials. The teacher may want to
present a specific challenge from time to
time, but on the whole she does not suggest
what will be done.
Independent inquiry is not a time
when the teacher can mark books, put up
a bulletin board, or kick back and relax.
The teacher should be busy observing,
interacting, serving as play partner, assisting
with problem-solving, and so on.
If students have not had the
opportunity to learn through play in school
since kindergarten, or perhaps not even then,
allow time for the students to sample the
various activities and explore the materials.
Generally, this should be a matter of days, but
some individuals may take longer.