How A Teacher’s Questioning Affects the Math Concepts Discussed During Play (Voices)
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Questioning During Children’s Play: Introduction to Kayla Halls’ Article | Megina Baker, Voices Executive Editor
Adopting an “inquiry stance” and seeing oneself as a teacher researcher can lead to transformative shifts in practice, opening up possibilities for purposeful listening to children, thoughtful reflection on teaching, and intentional planning of next steps in teaching (Cochran-Smith & Lytle 2009; Perry et al. 2012). Imagine the possibilities when a brand-new teacher learns to be a teacher researcher while learning to teach.
In this piece, Kayla Halls shares her first teacher-researcher experience, which she undertook during her final teaching practicum as an undergraduate. Tapping into the power of learning through play (Whitebread et al. 2017), Kayla focuses her research on posing questions and listening to children’s ideas in order to foster their understandings of early mathematics. Her research offers a strong reminder about the importance of taking the time to be with children in their play, listening with curiosity and a pen in hand to document their thinking and make their learning visible (Project Zero & Reggio Children 2001; Rinaldi 2006).
Through play, young learners use their innate curiosity to experiment, explore, and problem solve, creating natural connections to academic content areas (Zosh et al. 2022). For example, constructing houses out of magnetic tiles helps children begin to understand spatial relationships and geometric thought. Crafting long magic wands out of plastic pieces connects to quantifying and comparing lengths. When teachers have a comprehensive understanding of the intimate relationship between play and content learning, they can intentionally adjust their practices to support children’s play as well as their academic growth (Bjorklund, Magnusson, & Palmer 2018; Zosh et al. 2022). This includes the area of mathematics.
During the final semester of my early childhood teacher preparation program, I interned at a Florida early learning program. There, in the pre-kindergarten classroom, children enjoyed three, one-hour periods of center time each day to engage in child-initiated play and exploration. Upon careful observation, the play scenarios they created appeared to be rich with opportunities for mathematics content learning. However, I wondered if I could expand on or extend the children’s learning by asking questions about their mathematical understanding as they played:
- What math concepts were they practicing, as reflected in standards outlined in Creative Curriculum (which my preschool used)?
- How could my questions draw on children’s social and cultural contexts to support their thinking during math play?
- How would they respond—both verbally and behaviorally—to my questions?
This inquiry began as a final assignment for my undergraduate degree in early childhood education. The aim was to conduct teacher research to reflect on and improve the application of teaching practices learned over the course of the program. The assignment allowed me to engage in the research process, finding tangible ways to refine my practice. Drawing from my prior five years of teaching experience with children ages birth to 6 years old, I conducted this study from the perspective of a Black, queer, interpretivist (or people-centered) educator. Because of my identity, I deeply value the diverse truths that children hold within themselves and aim to understand scenarios from their perspectives in order to celebrate the unique ideas they bring to any situation.
As I read the research, I discovered several key factors that eventually influenced how I gathered, analyzed, and interpreted the data to answer my questions. These included social interactions, mathematizing, reciprocal communication, and lived experiences.
By asking questions to advance children’s mathematical understandings, I was entering a social relationship of sustained, shared thinking that both I and the children would contribute to, develop, and use to extend our thought processes (Bjorklund, Magnusson, & Palmer 2018). When children extend their thinking, they incorporate new ideas into their daily experiences, which teachers can then support. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development speaks to the power of interactions with a knowledgeable other—like a teacher—who scaffolds a child’s thinking and takes them to the next level of understanding (Bredekamp 2017). When scaffolding occurs within the context of play, a common ground (the play scenario) is established between teacher and child. This prompts children to share their thinking with teachers, allowing for teacher support as they navigate the challenging terrain of mathematics content learning (Magnusson & Pramling 2018).
From my perspective as a preservice teacher, entering into play scenarios to extend a child’s math content knowledge initially seemed positive for content learning but detrimental to play. Play is a space where children exercise their agency as they craft scenarios of their own choosing (Wood 2014; Zosh et al. 2022). Math concepts (such as counting and shapes) are naturally woven into these scenarios, thereby creating a fertile space for teachers to make connections to math content standards (i.e., the benchmarks developed by states, districts, and other organizations) (Stipek 2017; Zosh et al. 2022). However, if teachers completely alter play scenarios in an attempt to align them with these standards, they may dilute the richness of the play and restrict the child’s agency (Goouch 2008; Pyle & Danniels 2017).
Interestingly, research shows that it is possible for play to continue when a teacher introduces math concepts within scenarios that children have already created. This idea of “expanding the play and helping the children to understand the surrounding world” is called mathematizing (Bjorklund, Magnusson, & Palmer 2018, 470). To mathematize, teachers must immerse themselves in a play scenario to see the important content knowledge lying beneath the veneer of building blocks and magnetic tiles. Once engaged in that play, teachers can use tools such as rich math language and intentional questioning to create a bridge between play and content learning. This helps children explore reasoning through imagination in meaningful ways (Vezzani 2019). The key is not to overpower the interaction. Instead, teachers should remain acutely aware of children’s voices, following the examples they set in order to keep children’s agency intact.
This inquiry explored how questioning techniques can support mathematical thinking in play while valuing children’s agency and voice.
As teachers authentically engage with children in this way, children can speak both from within and about their mathematical play scenarios (Magnusson & Pramling 2018). For example, if a child crafts magic wands out of plastic pieces, they may speak from the perspective of a fairy as they compare wand sizes. However, if a teacher asks to join their play, the child can step out of their fairy role to share critical information that the teacher needs to enter the play scenario. This showcases a complex form of metacommunication: children explicitly share their math knowledge with others, which enables teachers to scaffold the child’s current level of understanding (Magnusson & Pramling 2018).
In both of these examples, the child already has thought processes in place; the teacher’s role is simply to make that thinking visible. Therefore, teachers’ intentional questions based on play and children’s responses can elicit complex answers from children, helping them express their current level of knowing (Vezzani 2019). This reciprocal communication scaffolds children as they express their ideas and sets the stage for expanding their math knowledge.
To support children academically, educators must know them personally (Moll et al. 1992; Arthur et al. 2003; Lerkkanen et al. 2021). This extends to the social and cultural influences that children encounter in their daily lives, such as race, religion, gender identity, familial structure, and conversations and activities that occur at home or school (Moll et al. 1992; Arthur et al. 2003). These shape how children interact with the world and specifically within the context of classrooms. They shape who the child is and how they learn, making it imperative that educators take social and cultural influences into account when creating an authentic teaching approach (Moll et al. 1992; Arthur et al. 2003; NAEYC 2020).
My Role as a Teacher Researcher
These four foundational findings from the literature zeroed in on productive ways to enhance children’s mathematical thinking, but they did not address the role of specific teacher questioning techniques during play, something Trawick-Smith et al. (2017) cited as important for future study. As a final semester intern, I found myself in a unique position to address this point. Thanks to my coursework, I had been exposed to recent literature on the topic of math and play in the early years. My intern status also meant that I could focus on data collection more easily than my lead teacher counterparts: my responsibilities lay more in engaging with the children than corresponding with families and other educational partners. This empowered me to look at the issue of math questioning techniques with fresh eyes, using my previous years of teaching as a guide. I could approach the topic from a new, nuanced perspective and add to the ongoing conversation.
Instead of viewing children as students to be studied, I see them as people to be understood. Therefore, as I conducted this inquiry, I aimed to keep their voices at the forefront. I directly quoted their words during data collection and in this article to accurately and authentically share their ideas.
The preschool where this teacher research study took place is located in Florida and operates under a project-based curriculum, meaning children undertake in-depth explorations of meaningful topics (The Project Approach, n.d.). The school deeply values play-based learning and allocates ample time each day for children to engage in child-directed experiences. It uses the Creative Curriculum and that program’s standards to measure children’s progress throughout the year.
For my research, I focused on one prekindergarten classroom of six males and four females ages 4 to 5. The class consisted of children from various cultural backgrounds: Black, White, Latino/a, and South Asian/Indian American. Half of the children, while fluent in English, also spoke another language, such as Spanish, Russian, Swedish, or Hindi.
In this setting, I acted as researcher, scaffolder, play partner, and teacher. During morning centers, afternoon centers, and outdoor play time, I observed and tried to enter play scenarios that seemed to have potential for math discussions. Sometimes, the children preferred to continue playing independently. However, if they accepted me into their play, I engaged in the scenario while asking intentional, math-focused questions. These questions stemmed from my knowledge of good questioning techniques but were always responsive to the play scenario and the child (Strasser & Bresson 2017). My lead teacher, who documented a few data samples, followed the same procedures.
When I observed the potential to explore math concepts during play, I collected data through a variety of means:
- I captured anecdotal records in a plain notebook while engaging with children.
- I used my phone camera to capture photographs that supplemented or clarified the notes taken.
- I used my phone camera to record videos when the play was too long and complex to fully understand via notes and photographs.
Ultimately, I collected data during 44 play-based scenarios over eight weeks in early 2021. Specifically, I focused on the patterns that occurred in teacher questioning, children’s math knowledge, and children’s play behaviors. Each play scenario ranged from five to 15 minutes in length. I collected five video recording transcripts, 55 photographs, and 39 anecdotal records.
During the data analysis period, I transcribed all of the data captured through anecdotal records, photographs, and videos so they could be analyzed in relation to play, math, and questioning. Then, based on my research questions, I coded the play scenarios as follows:
- Connections to lived experiences: This referred to funds of knowledge, or the unique social and cultural influences children encountered in their families, communities, and daily lives that had the potential to shape how they perceived and interacted with the world, specifically within the classroom (Moll et al. 1992).
- Creative Curriculum standard addressed: This code referred to the Creative Curriculum standards and allowed me to clearly pinpoint math concepts as they appeared during play.
- Teacher questions about math: These were direct questions about math, such as “How many do you have?” or “What is the name of this shape?”
- Teacher questions about play: These questions focused on the play scenario at hand rather than specific math concepts. Examples of this included “Could you tell me about what you’re making?” or “Where are the pirates going in your game?”
- Children’s extension of mathematical play: This code captured when children actively reflected on and made changes to their play; for example, a child adding new pieces to a marble track to change the marble’s direction.
- Children’s reflection on play and math concepts: This code captured moments when children made their thinking visible to adults—both when they reflected on the math concepts within play or just on the play itself.
After coding each scenario, I tallied the frequency of each code and compared it to its counterparts in search of overarching themes.
Findings and Discussion
Through my data analysis, I discovered nuances in how teacher’s questions influenced the math concepts that children discussed during play. The most prevalent themes that emerged were interdisciplinary learning, connections to lived experiences, and the effects of teachers’ questions on children’s responses. A discussion of each—tied to my initial research questions—follows.
Research Question: What math concepts are children practicing, as reflected in standards outlined in Creative Curriculum?
Brandon concentrates on creating an outline with thin, wooden blocks. I observe him quietly at first, giving him space to build his meticulous structure, free from adult influence. Brandon pauses, then starts filling in the outlines he has made. He looks at me and asks, “What does it look like from this side?”
I tilt my head sideways, examining the figure on the table. I feel myself searching, trying to imagine what Brandon thinks the form could be. “It looks like a bird,” I say. “The squares are the tail, and the rectangle is the body. What do you think?”
Brandon shakes his head, laughing. “No, that’s silly. Birds have circle bodies. This is a tractor.” I chuckle in response, and Brandon adds on more sections. “What does it look like now?” he asks.
I see the squares placed carefully on top of each other. “Like the outside of an apartment building that is one, two, three, four, five stories high,” I say, pointing to each level of squares and rectangles as I count. Brandon looks up from the table, his eyes wandering across the space above our heads. “So, it’s as high as this ceiling.”
During this interaction, Brandon and I explored both cognitive and math standards as we discussed his block structure. When Brandon asked the questions “What does it look like from this side?” and “What does it look like now?”, he was examining his creation in a new light, showing that he was thinking through every angle of what he made and what it could be. This aligns with the Creative Curriculum cognitive standard “shows flexibility and inventiveness in thinking” (Heroman et al. 2010), in which children show creativity in tasks and think through different scenarios, problems, and solutions in a unique way.
In Brandon’s play, this cognitive standard was intertwined with the math standard “explores and describes spatial relationships and shapes” (Heroman et al. 2010). To think through the different iterations of his creation, Brandon had to demonstrate an understanding of the shapes he used and those shapes’ relationships to each other. As he added more sections, he recognized that it changed the shape of his work, prompting him to ask, “What does it look like now?”
Acknowledging, embracing, and building on the interdisciplinary nature of play create spaces for richer, more meaningful math content learning.
Understanding how cognitive and math standards complement each other in children’s play changed the way I viewed mathematics content learning. Real-world knowledge is not compartmentalized into categories; in actuality, ways of knowing overlap. This points to the importance of interdisciplinary learning. For authentic, meaningful learning to happen within early childhood, children should be encouraged to understand the connections that exist across domains (Hafidah et al. 2020). When this occurs, they are more likely to remember and apply their experiences. Acknowledging, embracing, and building on the interdisciplinary nature of play create spaces for richer, more meaningful math content learning.
Connections to Lived Experiences
Research Question: How can questions draw on children’s social and cultural contexts to support their thinking during math play?
It is a busy center time, and all the children are engrossed in their self-directed play. I sit with Erica and Stephanie, who have chosen separate puzzles to solve. Stephanie starts with the edge pieces while Erica begins solving her puzzle in a random manner. Curious, I ask, “How are you solving the puzzle?”
Stephanie responds first. “Well, I’m getting all these pieces. Ms. Gina told me to do the edge pieces first.” Then Erica chimes in: “And Mommy told me to do the shape pieces you can’t quite get last.”
In over half of the play scenarios I observed, children used their lived experiences to support their play and, by extension, their mathematical thinking. In this example, I was curious as to why Stephanie and Erica were using two different techniques to solve their puzzles—an activity rich with opportunities to problem solve and explore spatial relations. Upon inquiring, the children referenced lived experiences: Stephanie referred to advice received from a classroom teacher; Erica pulled from conversations held at home. Each came from a unique place centered on their own experiences.
Asking how Stephanie and Erica solved their puzzles helped me not only understand the techniques each was using, but also the roots of those techniques. This, in turn, allowed me to individually support them in their mathematical play while acknowledging, respecting, and valuing their chosen methods of approaching the task.
Austin and Stephanie are playing with marble tracks in an open space when Austin yells, “The floor is lava!”
“Oh, no!” I respond. “Maybe you can add something to your track so your marble does not hit the lava?”
“We won’t,” Austin says, pointing toward Stephanie’s tracks. “The lava is over there.”
Stephanie glances up, overhearing our conversation. She puts a green magnetic tile under the front, pink part of her marble track, creating a barrier between the marble and the pretend lava. “Look!” she says. “Now the marble won’t touch the lava!”
“That is so cool!” I lean forward, examining her structure more closely. “I notice the marble does not leave your structure. Why does it stop at the end?” Stephanie points to the raised pink bar. “Because of this.”
“So, is it bigger than the marble?” I ask. “Uh huh,” she says.
In this example, Stephanie and Austin are operating under a shared lived experience involving a game called the floor is lava. The entire class, including myself, played this game nearly every day. Because of their mutual understanding of the game, Stephanie and Austin created a joint play scenario where they used their knowledge of quantifying, comparisons, and spatial relations to help them avoid the lava. Additionally, I used my understanding of the game to question the children in a way that was cohesive with the play scenario yet addressed key content standards.
This example highlights the importance of teachers understanding the lived experiences of their children to support their learning (Moll et al. 1992; Arthur et al. 2003; Roe 2019). The floor is lava became a shared platform, enabling the children to make numerous connections between their daily lives and math content knowledge.
Overall, both of these scenarios illustrate that, to support children academically, early childhood educators must know them personally (Arthur et al. 2003; Lerkkanen et al. 2021). Teachers can use questions as a tool to gain a deeper understanding of children’s lived experiences. Additionally, the questions asked to support math play should be intentional, meaningful, and value and support children’s individual needs while acknowledging and building on the significant themes in their play.
Effects of Teachers’ Questions on Children’s Responses
Research Question: How will children respond—both verbally and behaviorally—to my questions?
Justin is arranging magnetic tiles during center time. While sitting with him, I ask, “How many triangles did you need to make that shape?”
“Six!” he responds.
I ask if he knows the name of the shape. Justin hesitates, then counts the six sides of the shape he made. He looks quietly at me. I let about a minute pass, providing ample wait time. I then say, “I can help you! How many sides did you count?”
Justin points to the shape and says, “Six, so that’s a . . .”
“That is called a hexagon,” I finish for him.
During my data collection, content-related questions about math (“How many do you have?”; “What shapes do you need to make this?”) led to student reflection in nearly every scenario. They prompted children to pause, think about what they had done, and share their thoughts with the teacher. This revealed the current level of understanding each child possessed regarding the math concepts in their play. However, these types of close-ended questions rarely led students to extend their mathematical play.
Conversely, when teachers asked about the play surrounding math content (“What would the emergency be in your game?”; “How is your playdough like a crocodile?”), children reflected on their actions more than half of the time and more frequently extended their mathematical play.
During morning centers, Charlotte plays with colorful, plastic math manipulatives. As I sit next to her, I ask, “Can you tell me about what you’re making?”
“I’m making food!” she responds.
“Yum! What kind of food are you making?” I ask, leaning in to take a closer look at the math manipulatives on the table.
“I’m separating it, so it doesn’t get messy,” she replies, carefully placing the colored pieces with their corresponding group.
I ask, “What will you do with the separated food?”
“Put it in the oven. I need to get all the lines out of here because I don’t know what I’m doing with them yet.”
I sit silently with Charlotte, giving her space to continue her work. As she continues to add the red pieces to their group, they spill off the paper and onto the table. “The pieces keep falling!” she says in frustration.
“Why do you think that is happening?” I ask calmly.
“I don’t know. . . . I know! There are too many pieces!”
I smile at her. “So, what would the solution be?” Charlotte is already in action as she replies, “To take off some pieces.”
In this conversation, I primarily used open-ended questions about Charlotte’s play to scaffold her thinking. These questions encouraged Charlotte to classify and problem solve—essential skills for mathematical thinking. Instead of a simple exchange of information, Charlotte actively reflected on and adapted her play scenario based on her responses to my questions. Additionally, the learning concepts within the play shifted as the play itself changed: as a sorting activity moved into problem solving, Charlotte was able to build foundational skill sets and seamlessly make connections between these two areas.
To provoke reasoning skills and reflection, ask questions about math such as “How many do you have?” and “What shape is this?”
These examples along with other data I collected suggest that to have children reflect on math concepts during play, it is arguably better to ask questions (open-ended or closed) about mathematics. However, to have children extend their mathematical thinking, it is more beneficial to ask children about their play. As the play evolves, so do the math concepts embedded within it.
This inquiry explored how questioning techniques can support mathematical thinking in play while valuing children’s agency and voice. Based on my findings, I began to look for ways to extend children’s thinking in my own practice. For example, I set up spaces with magnetic tiles and natural materials such as sticks and leaves to encourage children to use both math (understanding shapes, spatial relations, etc.) and cognitive skills (problem solving, symbolic thinking, etc.). I purposefully worked to acknowledge and value children’s experiences, leveraging their daily lives as a conduit for authentic mathematics learning. Finally, I crafted intentional questions based on children’s play scenarios to encourage them to extend their mathematical thinking.
To adapt these findings to their own settings, early childhood educators can take a number of steps:
- Set up interdisciplinary provocations to stimulate mathematical thinking. For example, educators could set up spaces with playdough and math manipulatives like marbles, buttons, or bottle caps to encourage counting, problem solving, and symbolic thinking.
- Stay up to date on children’s lived experiences by talking with them during lunch and playing with them outside. Additionally, stay in communication with families through weekly updates. This could be through photos of engaging activities done at home or quick conversations during drop off.
- Be intentional with questioning techniques. To provoke reasoning skills and reflection, ask questions about math such as “How many do you have?” and “What shape is this?”
- Extend children’s thinking by asking questions about play, such as “What would happen if . . . ?”; “Can you tell me more about . . . ?”; “Why do you think . . . ?”
I conducted this study in an effort to develop my teaching skills and become a responsive, intentional educator. Planning, executing, and publishing my research has led me to deeply value the importance of inquiry in early childhood education. Now when teaching young children, I find myself viewing them through an inquiry lens, aiming to better understand each child’s ideas, strengths, and needs. Our children are unique, agentic beings who hold a world of knowledge within themselves; my work will continue to value this, demonstrating how to support children in intentional, meaningful ways.
I would like to acknowledge my university professor, Dr. Ilene Berson, who guided the conception and design of this study during my undergraduate degree. She also provided invaluable knowledge regarding the nuances of teacher research and the publishing process.
Voices of Practitioners: Teacher Research in Early Childhood Education is NAEYC’s online journal devoted to teacher research. Visit NAEYC.org/resources/pubs/vop to
- peruse an archive of Voices articles
- read the Fall 2021 Voices compilation
Photographs: Header image © Getty Images; all others courtesy of the author
Copyright © 2022 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
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Kayla Halls, MA, has six years of classroom experience with children birth to 6 years old and a passion for researching teaching practices in early childhood. Currently, Kayla is an education research fellow at Middlesex University in London, England. [email protected]