Open-Ended Questions a Guide to more Meaningful Conversations with Preschoolers

open ended questionsWe should all be looking for ways to create more meaningful conversations with our preschoolers.  Open-ended questions are a wonderful way to keep the conversation going by stretching children’s curiosity, reasoning ability, creativity, language development and independence. Asking open-ended questions gives you an opportunity to see what a child is thinking and feeling.  A simple pause after a question, that moment of silence can draw a longer explanation and a more complex answer and reasoning from children. When you ask an open ended question children are encouraged to think about their answers and give details to answer the question. Their answers become rich with details, express thoughts and may offer an opinion that might not be expressed if given a simple close ended question. Asking open ended questions enables children to be creative, think of new ideas, use imagination, and to give more information. You will be amazed with the stories ideas and creativity you will hear coming from the children when they are given the opportunity to express themselves. Children’s problem-solving skills and use of their cognitive skills will be exercised as they search for more meaningful answers to the questions they receive. Open-ended questions encourage children to use language, children will search for vocabulary and form sentences which convey thoughts, opinions, and detailed ideas.  Instead of just answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’, children give fuller answers that draw on a wider range of vocabulary and thought. When you start using open ended questions more often and freely you will also build relationships. Children become more invested in the conversation when they have to actively engage in it. They are able to relate something of meaning and respond with active communication. In this way, open-ended questions can be used to build positive secure relationships.


Why Are Open-Ended Questions Better Than Closed-Ended Questions? Closed-ended questions limit answers to one word and don’t allow for opinions, thoughts or the expansion of ideas and concepts. Closed-ended questions do not require the child actively engage in the conversation, so they often remain disassociated. The thinking behind answering closed-ended questions needn’t be in-depth or take any great effort.
When children are asked open-ended questions, it shows them that their opinions, ideas, thoughts, and feelings, are important. Asking open-ended questions says to a child that their contribution matters, you want to know what they think and that you value their opinion. These ideas and concepts strengthen the child’s positive self-esteem and self-image, as well as strengthening your relationship with the child. Questions that have more than one right answer or ones that can be answered in many ways, are open-ended questions. This way of asking questions stimulates more language use, acknowledges that there can be many solutions to one problem, affirms children’s ideas, and encourages creative thinking.


Let’s get started here are some examples so you can see the difference between these two types of questions.

Here is an example of a close ended question “What color is that crayon?”
This question evokes a one word answer. So it is a CLOSE ENDED QUESTION

Here is an example of an open ended question “Tell me about what you are drawing”
This simple, slight change in questions encourages children to use their language to describe what they are creating, thinking, and to problem solve an answer. There is no right or wrong answer to an open-ended question so all children can be successful in answering them.


Here are some general open ended questions you can use in conversations with children to help boost their thinking skills and to create more meaningful conversations.

Can you describe what happened?

Can you think of a new way to do it?

Can you help me think this through?

Do you have any other ideas?

How are they alike, different?

How could we make it work?

How could we work together to solve this?

How did that happen?

How did you feel when you finished it?

How did you get that to work?

How did you know that?

How did you work it out?

How do you explain it?

How do you know that is the right answer?

How might you do it differently?

Tell me about how you worked together.

Tell me about it.

Tell me about the character (books, child stories, etc).

Tell me about what you built/ made/ created.

Tell me about what you saw.

Tell me more.

What can we do to get it to work?

What do you think will happen next?

What did you see happening?

What do you like best about it?

What is your favorite part (of a story, art work they created, etc)

What do you notice about ____?

What do you think caused it to change?

What do you think would happen if you ______?

What do you think will happen next?

What happened at the beginning, middle or end of the story (books)?

What did you learn/ observe?

What is your hypothesis (educated guess) …We teach the vocabulary early and then ask this during science experiments

What makes it work?

What did you notice happening?

What problems did you have?

What was easy? **If they give a one word answer say “Tell me more”

What was hard for you to do? **If they give a one word answer say “Tell me more”

What would you do different next time?

Why do you think_____?

Why did you choose _____ over ______?

Ask questions which help your child relate a story to their own life and experiences.
What would happen if …… came to your house?

How would you (hide the strawberry from the big hungry bear)…?

**If they give a one word answer for ANY of these questions say “Tell me more” you can also allow a pause in the conversation children will want to fill that pause with more words.


Use Paraphrasing by repeating what the child has said. Then add extra information, vocabulary, and/or more open ended questions to keep the child thinking. Adding new vocabulary such as using words the child may have never heard or used like “hypothesis”, “observe”, texture words (sticky, rough, silky), measurement words (gigantic, tiny, humongous, minuscule), etc. When we repeat and extend what children say we will help build upon what the children have already said by making new more meaningful connections and building upon their vocabulary.

Challenging children by posing thought-provoking, open-ended questions that are rich and clear can stimulate and push at the edges of children’s development (scaffolding). These questions are often expressed in conditional form “What will happen if you…?”

Types of open-ended questions that are challenging include:

Making predictions
What do you think will happen if you keep adding water to the cup?

Stretching thinking
What would happen if there were no cars, trucks, buses, planes, or boats?
How would we get around?

Considering consequences
What would happen if you left your drawing outside and it rained?

Assessing feelings
How would you feel if that happened to you?
How do you think MIkey feels?

Thinking about similarities and differences
How are these two blocks the same?
What makes these things go together?

Applying knowledge to solve a problem
What could you do to keep the paint from dripping on the floor?

What made you decide to pick this book to read? How did this make you feel?

Open-ended questions require more “think” time so be patient as you wait for children to respond.

the Connections Project; Learning Communities for All Children, California Institute on Human Services, Sonoma State University



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