Messing About- Cultivating Learners Through Inquiry

“All children are competent, capable of complex thinking, curious, and rich in potential and experience.”
(The Kindergarten Program, 2016)

One of the most rewarding parts of my job as a Kindergarten teacher is observing children in play.  The joy and curiosity they bring to rich, authentic play experiences illustrates so much about their past experiences and who they are as individuals.  Our team recently reflected on how powerful it is to sit back and just listen to the conversations happening around our room.

At the Creation Station…
“Let’s use sticks and tape to create the armour so we can defeat the creepers”

At the Dramatic Play Area…
“My baby is so sad. I think we should give her something to drink.”
“Maybe she is tired and we should put her to bed instead.”

At the Blocks Centre…
“Why does this tower keep falling?”
“I think you need a bigger base so it’s more stable.”
“Can you make it bigger? I’ll hold it up so it doesn’t fall down.”

Can you see why we’re so excited?!  From social skills to problem solving, fine motor growth to oral language development, our students are brimming with excitement and learning.

Laura Friedman’s article, What’s in a Meaning? Defining Play points out that there is often a misconception that play is frivolous or what happens after real learning takes place.  Most teachers however, know that this isn’t true.  As the famous Mr. Rogers said,

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” – Mr. Rogers

When children play freely, they become researchers who are immersed in a world of new experiences.   They naturally engage in the inquiry process by starting with what they know, exploring, experimenting and testing out their ideas to see what happens, which leads them to draw new conclusions.  As Friedman says, “Every action is constructive action.” (Friedman, 2011)  Each new interaction builds upon their past experiences and the learning cycle continues.   As children play around or “Mess About” with materials, they consolidate what they know which leads them to ask more questions.

The concept of exploring  or Messing About is one that beautifully describes the inquiry process. David and Frances Hawkins define Messing About as, “A three phase cycle of exploring a material or idea in order to make meaning and raise further questions.”

Phase 1 – a time for unstructured, open-ended play while teachers observe the children’s work.

Phase 2– a time for differentiating work by identifying and pursuing multiple possibilities based on observations

Phase 3 – a time for unpacking and verbalizing theories that have developed through discussion among children and teachers

Children require ample time to explore all phases and may not explore these areas in a linear way.  The path in how they learn will vary based on their age and developmental stage.

What Role Does an Educator Have?
It can be challenging to know when to step in and extend a child’s thinking or when to simply observe and document their learning.  As teachers, we need to know the curriculum well enough to be able to notice and name learning as it happens. We need to know our students well enough so that we can provoke new learning within their zone of proximal development. We also pay attention to their interests and use those as a way to promote new learning.

Interests in the World of Inquiry
A common difficulty educators face when using an inquiry model is that they feel overwhelmed by following all of the fleeting interests of children.  In an effort to recognize and validate a child’s interests, teachers pay attention to what excites the students in their classroom and then they try to create activities connected to those topics. Imagine a class full of 25+ students who are all interested in different topics!  Rather than follow a child’s interests, Luke Touhill points out that we should use their interests as a starting point in a co-constructed learning experience.  We cannot minimize our role as educators in being critical about which interests to use and which are worth expanding upon.  Touhill also suggests that there is nothing wrong with a teacher introducing a new idea or topic.  The source of the interest isn’t as significant as the path the learning takes.

Touhill suggests that when deciding which interests to follow we should consider which:

  • have the most potential to be extended
  • might have a wider appeal to other children
  • link to other learning opportunities you have offered and
    consolidate or extend children’s current learning
  • link to the curriculum

One final aspect that all researchers agree is necessary in an inquiry based learning environment is that teachers need to be active participants.  It’s not enough to provide our students with a few resources and assume meaningful learning will take place.  Loris Malaguzzi, David and Frances Hawkins, Touhill and Friedman all remind us that effective teachers are also learners.  When we learn alongside our students, we share in their passion and curiosity as they explore the world around them.  We model our thought process and extend their thinking by wondering, clarifying, and working together to create a shared learning experience.


Friedman, L. (2011). What’s in a Meaning? Defining Play. Play,  2011.
Retrieved from

Hawkins Centers for Learning. Cultivate the Scientist in Every Child: The Philosophy of Frances and David Hawkins.
Retrieved from

Touhill, L. Interest Based Learning. 2012
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