Skip to main content

When my oldest son was five, he asked me whether the leaves were falling because the air was getting colder or because the sun was setting earlier. We gathered leaves. We conducted experiments. We looked at maps of leaves and sunlight and temperature. He wasn’t reading but he was doing research.

When my middle son was around the same age, he asked why metal things (like the laptop) seem to feel colder. Are they actually colder or does it just feel that way? Do they get colder faster? We held up different objects and talked about them. We talked to the best science geeks we could find. When I realized that I didn’t have a thermometer that would detect the temperature of objects, we went online and found this great video that explores the concept. He wasn’t reading but he was doing research.

Now my daughter is in kindergarten and she is always asking, always investigating, always exploring. She might find pictures from a book or find objects or ask experts. What was life like before the internet? Was there a time when pink or purple weren’t considered “girl colors?” Why do stars twinkle? She isn’t always reading but she is often doing research.

I mention this because someone recently asked, “In design thinking, do you just have the younger students skip the research phase since they can’t read at that level yet?”

I responded with, “Kids can research without reading It might have to be a little more guided. You might have to look for resources. You might have to help navigate the information. However, research isn’t dependent on written text.”

Children are researching years before they learn to read. Watch a toddler investigate the bugs in the backyard and you’ll notice that curiosity is deeply human. And while we want students to learn some of the harder, more complex aspects of researching (such as determining the loaded language and bias in a source), my hope is that they retain some aspect of this curiosity as they get older. On some level, I want my current graduate students to research like a toddler.

When I was a kid, I had “research in life” and “research in school.” These were vastly different scenarios. At school, the teacher chose the topics, asked the questions, determined the process, and limited the sources we used to print material. At home, it was a messy process where I didn’t have to take meticulous notes and “show my work.” I could skip back and forth between ideas, making connections along the way. I dreaded school research papers but I loved to research geeky interests at home. I didn’t get the chance to do “research in life” at school until Mrs. Smoot and Mr. Darrow provided an outlet for me in the History Day project my eighth grade year.

Research should be fun. When we allow students to ask the questions, choose the sources, and own the process, they view it as a mental playground. It stays fun. Forever.

Get the Student Research Scaffolds

Enter your email address below and receive the Student Research scaffolds. I will also send you a weekly email with free, members-only access to my latest blog posts, videos, podcasts and resources to help you boost creativity and spark innovation in your classroom.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit
John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • It’s interesting that, over time, “research” has become synonymous with “reading and searching for information.” In our definition, research is an investigation, and there are multiple methods of investigation. I absolutely love the examples of what your children are doing! I find the same situations in teaching 5, 6, and 7 year olds to investigate in an inquiry-based school. A lot of our activities include learning trips, experiments, and building/creating to find answers to the topics that interest us. Yes, we read information sometimes, but not all of us are ready for that. The kids learn very deeply when they’re involved in their learning – I can’t imagine waiting for a child to learn to read before she’s allowed to actually do anything. EVERYDAY is a new investigation for them, and how happy is that?

    • John Spencer says:

      I almost used your class as an example, Michelle, because it has shaped so much of what I believe on this topic. I love the inquiry, research, and explanation cycle that occurs in your school.

  • Helen Sharrock says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It is a great article for parent workshop ideas

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.