Learning to question is an important part of learning to learn. Children who ask questions are demonstrating an intrinsic motivation to learn. There are all kinds of good questions, but “what if…” questions are really special. They occur at the intersection of imagination and logic and help children practice creative fluency and logical reasoning at the same time.
When my daughter was little and we were making long commutes to and from graduate school, we would play a “What If…” game in the car. One of us would pose a question—the more absurd the better—and the other would say what the outcome might be. A favorite type of question for her might be, “What if a carrot traded places with a pencil?” And the answer might be, “Then Bugs Bunny would chew on pencils and we would write stories with a carrot.” For a little guy, this was high humor and we would laugh and laugh at our own cleverness!
Imaginative play, according to Vygotsky and others, is a leading activity in a child’s cognitive development and is the beginning of abstract thinking. At first, a broom is just a broom and a child learns to recognize the shape and movement and other characteristics of the broom. But something wonderful happens when a child realizes that a broom can be a horse. There is not a real horse there, of course, but the child’s imagination has transformed the broom into one. It is a cognitive milestone when the child can think abstractedly about something that does not exist in the here-and-now. Vygotsky says that in imaginative play, it is as if the child is “a head taller than himself.” Imagination allows the child to operate on a high cognitive level and begin to understand more and more complex processes.
The imagination that comes with “what if…” questions will lead to innovation by “thinking outside the box.” The logic that is called upon will help a child, not just in math and science, but also in reading, where he is asked to make inferences about what is happening and what might happen, what a character is feeling, what the sub-text is, and so on.
A game I have played many times with older children is to fill in the blanks of the question, “What if a _____ was ________ .” We begin by generating a bank of nouns that start with the same letter and then a bank of adjectives that start with the same letter. We make random (or conscious) choices from the banks and fill in the blanks. Then the children are challenged to draw pictures and/or tell stories (or even make up songs) to express the results.
Try your own “what if…” questions, using content your child enjoys. Ideas:
A circle came to life?
A paperclip grew one hundred times bigger?
Your pet shrank to the size of your thumb?
Steel disappeared from the world?
Everyone rode horses to school?
You add a little vinegar to baking soda?
When someone made you mad, you did something different?
Everything was the same color?
You were ruler of the world?
Dinosaurs were still around?
You lived on the moon?