Top 5: Inquiry

This post is authored by preschool educator, Katie Heimsath. Katie has been at SEEC since 2015, teaching both toddlers and three-year-olds. Katie has used an emergent style of teaching and learning with young infants through kindergarten in Texas, Chicago, and Washington D.C. While at SEEC, Katie has found a passion for using the community, including the natural world, to foster curiosity, agency, and a respect for ourselves and others.  

At SEEC we think of inquiry not just as asking questions, but seeking an answer through exploration, experimentation, books, images, trusted experts, and more. Fostering wonder in young children doesn’t need to be difficult or time consuming – it can be integrated throughout the day in many ways. Here are some ideas and techniques we use at SEEC to encourage an inquisitive environment:



1. Inquiry Tree or a Question Wall


Writing down a child’s question or curiosity and displaying it somewhere in the classroom is an easy way to honor their ideas and curiosities. Using post-it notes makes it easy to reorganize questions or bring along an individual question to another space. If you’re working at a center or table to answer a specific question, it’s simple to pull the post-it out and reference it directly. (1)

2. “What do you see?” “What makes you say that?”

Two simple questions can illicit deep thinking and rich conversation. When we visit an object or art piece, we always start with, “What do you see?” This question encourages children to look carefully at what is in front of them, while identifying what they see and imagine. “What makes you say that?” as a follow-up question encourages children to communicate their thinking process.



3. Thumbs Up


For younger age groups, using “thumbs up” or “likes” can help less verbal children communicate what they’re interested in learning more about. Several of our two-year-old teachers posted illustrations of familiar topics to choose from, which allowed their class to express their interests and direct the learning experience.


4. What I know, What I want to know

When exploring a specific topic, it can help to categorize thoughts and questions. Question asking is a learned skill, and a chart like this can help distinguish between a statement and question. It also allows both the educators and class to learn what knowledge the class may already have on a topic, allowing for a deeper and more specific exploration. (37)

5. Loose parts and real life materials

At SEEC we believe strongly in the power of play as a tool to enrich understanding. Providing many different kinds of materials and loose parts allows children to experiment with concepts in their own way. In the photo on the left, two three-year-olds built a rocket out of chairs and other objects on the playground after studying parts of a rocket. The photo on the right shows one of our four-year-old classes using lots of recycled materials to create a fanciful structure in the style of Antoni Gaudi. Both situations occurred during unstructured play time, which allowed freedom and flexibility to investigate big concepts like space travel or architecture in ways that is meaningful for them.

Honoring Adults and Children: Family Workshop Philosophies

2At SEEC, we believe that children are much more than cute. We believe they are curious learners who should be respected in the same way we do adults. Honoring our young learners has long been a hallmark of our school and it is no different in our weekend programs.

Our weekend family programs are an extension of our school’s pedagogical model so that we can effectively incorporate the caregiver in the learning experience. Our programs have three goals:.

  • Create community with our families.
  • Support the cognitive, physical, and emotional development of young children.
  • Support family experiences that promote a love of learning in a variety of environments.




This Saturday we will spend time with our weekend faculty thinking about how we support these goals in one of our staff development sessions. We will specifically be thinking about the power of inquiry and curiosity. Although our lessons are written ahead of time, we feel it is important to incorporate our students’ perspectives and experiences into the learning process. We will also spend time discussing how we support community. The weekend faculty is always excited when they see returning families and we want to make our participants feel comfortable and welcome. Finally, we will spend some time considering the language we use in the classroom, what it communicates to children and also how we can work together with the caregivers to support positive outcomes.

We are excited to begin another year together. We hope you will join our community for a workshop sometime soon.

If you are new to our programs, this guiding document below will help you understand our core beliefs as educators and what to expect from our family experiences.

We Believe

  • …that children are individuals who develop and learn differently. If you let them choose what speaks to them, you will set them up for a lifetime love of learning.
  • …that caregiving is a hard job and is not to be judged.
  • …that young children are developing their ability to sit, listen, cooperate, and control their emotions. As adults, is it important to remember that this is hard work and we should try to balance our expectations with a child’s individual progression.
  • … that weekends are for fun and family.
  • …that playing is learning.CORNER TAB (1)
  • …in playing with children, being silly, singing, having fun, and getting dirty.
  • …in asking open-ended questions and wondering out loud, even with infants and toddlers.
  • …in taking time to stop, look carefully, and describe the objects we encounter in the classroom, community, and in the museums.
  • …in encouraging children to try new skills and not be afraid to fail.
  • …in a community of learners. Learning truly begins at birth and should continue into adulthood.
  • ….that having a calm body and an adult hand will keep us and the objects we visit safe, but this will not preclude us from looking, talking, singing, and playing during our museum visits.

How We Teach

Not all children will be interested in ALL of our teaching methods so we use a variety of techniques to engage them. Follow your child’s lead and be flexible; there is no one way to learn.


The world is our classroom and we not only use museums, but parks, stores, libraries, and beyond.


Objects help engage the senses and provide a concrete and memorable learning experience. They are more powerful than words and pictures alone and children are more likely to remember and connect with the experience.


Observation encourages our minds to focus, eyes to look closely, and brains to develop a deeper understanding.  We often start lessons by asking, “What do you see?”


Questions require children to be active participants in the learning process and because of this, inquiry is more powerful than simply sharing information. We also ask questions as a way to create dialog and cultivate flexible thinking. Thinking out loud helps us see how others are thinking and therefore, expand our own thinking.

Non-verbal Learners

Posing questions to children who are non-verbal is still important. Look for non-verbal cues such as pointing, looking, and giggling, and respond to them.


Experimentation is a process by which children explore a topic. Children experiment as a way of understanding cause and effect relationships or as a way to solve problems. Anything a child does more than once can be considered an experiment. We will ask, “What would happen if …” as a way to harness a learner’s natural desire to experiment.


Exploration allows children to discover and learn about a topic in a variety of ways. While exploring, children may engage in the following activities …


Math concepts are interwoven into lessons. Examples you might observe are: counting, representing quantities, noticing differences in quantities, observing patterns, and categorizing.

Fine motor

Fine motor activities allow children to use the small muscles in their hands to help them learn how to do things like dress independently, and write.


Gross motor activities engage a child’s large muscles, for example running, jumping, and climbing. Movement helps children learn what their bodies are capable of, as well as provide necessary and fun outlets for physical movement.


Our art activities focus on the process, rather than the outcome. Participating in process-based art encourages creativity and problem solving and develops fine motor skills.


Sensory activities are those that stimulate a child’s senses. Young children have a more meaningful learning experience when their senses are engaged.


Play can be defined in many ways, but typically involves some element of imagination.  Play helps children explore roles, ideas, and situations, and often builds social skills as they navigate play with peers or adults.


Research has proven the importance of reading with young children, and that positive experiences with books help create a love of reading.


Singing is important tool with young children, science has proven that music helps children better remember concepts and vocabulary. It also helps children transition from one activity to another.




Classroom Updates for a New School Year

Can you believe it? Another school year is here! Last week our faculty was busy partaking in professional development workshops, and also getting their classrooms ready for the new school year. There were many exciting new additions to the classrooms, and here are a few examples:


Bulletin Board in Twos Room

This new bulletin board display in one our twos classrooms is at eye level for the children. The teachers Brittany Leavitt, Brittany Brown, and Rosalie Reyes, created it by painting different skin tones and adding photos of people. Brittany Leavitt, one of the twos teachers explains,”One of the biggest ideas I want to always bring in the classroom is the beauty and importance of accepting and appreciating everyone around us. I want to pass along the importance of the phrase, ‘We are all the same. We are all different.’ That having curly hair is beautiful. That wearing a dress to school is cool, doesn’t matter what gender you identify with. That family lifestyle and up bringing should be acknowledged.”


Bulletin Board in Toddler Room

While we follow an emergent curriculum at SEEC, we often start the year talking about our community. To bring the DC community into the classroom, toddler teacher Erica Collins created a street of row houses and stores on her classroom’s bulletin board.


She included lots of details that provide opportunities for careful looking and observation with the toddlers.


Paint Display in the Art Studio

Carolyn Eby, our art educator, spends time in the beginning of the year reorganizing her studio in order to make it an inviting and functional space for creating. She used wood and paint to create this paint brush display in a rainbow pattern, modeling her own creativity for the children.


Relaxation Nook in Fours Room

PreK four educators, Jessie Miller and Will Kuehnle, think strategically about how they organize the space in their classroom to create multiple areas for the children to interact, play, and relax. This is a new space they created after a trip to Ikea. By using a rug and a curtain hung from the ceiling, they defined this nook area from the rest of the classroom, even though it’s in the middle of the room.


Exhibit Case in Kindergarten Room

We have several museum cases across our school that children use to display an object collection of their own. To begin the year, kindergarten teacher Cathryn Prudencio brought in a collection to help introduce herself to her new students. Can you guess which DC sports team Cathyrn is passionate about?


Birthday Display in Threes Room

Birthdays are such an important part of growing up, especially for young children. Most of our classrooms display the birthday months of each child, and celebrate their special day together as a class. In this threes room, called the Koalas, teachers Katie Heimsath and Morgan Powell have dressed up their koala friend for a party, with their students’ birthday months surrounding him.

Are you an educator? What new classroom elements are you excited about for this year? Leave a comment below!

Also, check out our classroom environments Pinterest board for inspiration!

Class Exhibits of the 2017 – 2018 School Year

Every year each of our classes holds an exhibit that highlights the learning that took place over the course of a unit. The children are engaged in helping set up, and for the older children, deciding what will be exhibited and how. The children become curators and docents as they welcome their families and peers into their classroom-turned exhibit space. As our school year comes to a close we thought we would take a look back at the exhibits from our 2017 – 2018 school year.

Cottontail (Infant) Class – Hats Exhibition 

CORNER TAB (5).png

Our youngest class became very interested in hats as they began wearing sun hats in the spring and summer months. This interest turned into a unit, and the group enjoyed finding hats in the museums and the community. Their exhibit featured photos from their visits, hat art, hats they love to wear, and an interactive piece where children and families could create their own hat out of bowls.

Duckling (Infant) Class  – Healthy Living Exhibition (31).png

The Duckling class spent a few months learning about aspects of healthy living including exercise and food. Their exhibit included lots of helmets (one of their favorite items from their lessons on bikes), bread dough that they made, and the “Duckling Bodega” full of pretend food the class had explored.

Toucan (Toddler) Class – Space Exhibition 


The Toucan class went out of this world for their space unit. They set the mood for their exhibit by dimming the lights, and having lots of options for the children to play with, while also showing their families about which concepts they had. For example, there was a moon surface sensory bin (kinetic sand and rocks painted by the children) and a box with string lights for imaginary stargazing.

Dragonfly (Toddler) Class – Nature Exhibition 


The Dragonflies were very busy this year learning about all things nature. They took their exhibit outside of their classroom and into our school garden. They displayed art including; snail sculptures, nests and flowers. The children and their families also had several activities to partake in together such as, planting a flower and making lemonade.

Penguins (Twos) Class – Garden Exhibition 


The Penguin class was also influenced by the warm weather and put on an exhibit about gardens. They showcased their many artworks pertaining to gardens including mosaic sunflowers, a flower collage and painted butterflies.

Firefly (Twos) Class – Hats Exhibition (32).png

When a child is two-years-old they become more aware of their bodies and all they can do. The Firefly children were no exception, and their interest in their bodies led to a unit exploring bodies inside and out. Their exhibit included large outlines of their bodies with organs they had learned about over the course of the unit.

Koalas (Threes) Class – Ocean Exhibition 


The Koalas dove deep into the ocean this year and put on a splashy exhibit for their families and friends. Their exhibit showcased photos and descriptions from the many concepts they explored and had activities for the families to do together such as,sailboat making. They also sang a song about pirates to top it off!

Wallaby (Threes) Class – Food & Restaurants Exhibition 


The Wallaby class spent much of the spring learning about food and restaurants. They visited many local restaurants and even started their own herb garden. During their exhibit, the classroom featured artwork and photos, while another part of the school was transformed into an Italian Eatery complete with homemade pasta (with the herbs they grew).

Cinnamon Bears (Fours) Class – Performing Arts Exhibition 


The Cinnamon Bears spent the cold winter months learning about many aspects of the performing arts. They wrote their own play, Three Little Aliens, based on The Three Little Pigs. They created their costumes and sets, and performed their play at the National Museum of American History for their families. Afterwards they had a cast party and exhibit in their classroom featuring photos that documented their process creating their production.

Honey Bear (Fours) Class – Film Exhibition 


Meanwhile, our other four-year-old class, the Honey Bears, also spent their winter learning about performing, however they focused on film making. They wrote and starred in an original movie, Super Honey Bear Magic Forest, based loosely on Super Happy Magic ForestAfter premiering their movie at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, they came back to the classroom to share  how they made their movie with their families.

Kindergarten Class – Hats Exhibition (36).png

To round out their year, the kindergarten class wrote and performed the play, The Case of the Missing Teachers. The play recapped their major units of exploration throughout the year including, Ancient Egypt, Hawaii and human origins. They even included a Pepper character as they had recently met Smithsonian’s robot, Pepper, and were keen to include her!

We can’t wait to see what will be explored in the 2018 to 2019 school year!

Top 5 – Back to School Edition

Fresh pens, paper and backpacks at all the stores. Heavier traffic in the mornings and afternoons.  Cooler weather.  All tell-tale signs of another school year beginning.  We’ve compiled a Top 5 list of Back to School ideas, which will hopefully inspire you and get your school year off to a great start!

1. Nose wiping station.  The start of fall brings refreshing breezes, but also germs.  We love this idea for a Nose Wiping Station that we found on Montessori Mama and How We Montessori.  Pick a corner of the classroom and set up a shelf with tissues that the children will be able to reach.  Hang a mirror above the shelf so children can see themselves as they wipe their nose to make sure they clean it sufficiently.  Not only will this station keep germs from spreading, it will also encourage self-help and health skills. (Image from How We Montessori).


2. Class collage. This SEEC 3-year-old class made a class collage at the beginning of the year to honor individuality while also creating a classroom culture. Using collages are a great way to talk about multiple, unique parts that make up a whole. The class visited and observed “Dam” by Robert Rauschenberg at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and made their own class collage, complete with photos of their faces.

3. Documentation.  Documenting can seem daunting when you’ve got so many other things going on at the beginning of the year, but these ideas could make it easier, while making learning more visible in the classroom. The image on the left is from the TransformationEd blog and features their Rabbit Road, which depicts their learning process during their inquiry on Rabbits. Displaying the journey on a linear road is a concrete way that children can see their work over time as they explore a topic.  The image on the right is from the Science Notebook, Teaching, and Technology blog, which depicts another documentation idea – choose a space in the classroom (that children can see) to display blank sheets representing each month of your school year.  At the conclusion of each month (or throughout) add images or work that share what the class has been doing.  Keep them up all year long, even as you switch out other displays and documentation, to help children see their work and progress over the whole school year.

4. Organizational hacks.  In our opinion, there are few greater feelings than starting a new year with an organized classroom.  This yahoo list has 15 organizational hacks from around the web that will help you feel fresh and ready. (Image on left from Motherhood On a Dime, image on right from Organized Cassroom)

5. Exploring Questions.  Fostering a sense of wonder and curiousity is something we take very seriously here at SEEC.  One of our four-year-old classes spent a considerable amount of time exploring questions last September and October to set them up for an inquisitive year.  To read more about their unit, click here.

For more Back to School ideas, visit our Pinterest board here.  Happy Back to School everyone!

We the People DC Takeover Recap

We the PeopleOn July 17th, SEEC was featured on the We the People DC Instagram handle, a community photo project that aims to share the lives and perspectives of people living and working in the district.

Through our posts we advocated for the early childhood field, which can still be undervalued in our society through posts about our teachers, and their thoughtful and intentional lesson planning. We also highlighted that  children, even infants, are never too young to benefit from learning in museums and other community spaces. At SEEC we witness the amazing capabilities of young children everyday, and were excited to share our student’s enthusiasm, bravery, perseverance, and motivation for learning throughout their school day.

During the takeover we were happy to engage with DC as well as, current and past SEEC families. Some of the comment highlights included:

“I was one of those kids a really, really long time ago! SEEC definitely shaped my life and how I look at and appreciate the world around me.”

“SEEC is such an incredible program for young children!”

“Used to work at SEEC – it was my favorite job ever.”

“My daughters went to SEEC and are now teenagers and I’m an alum SEEC board member. What a special place.”

Below are our posts from the day (to see all the photos be sure to hover over the photo and click the arrow button). And be sure to follow SEEC on Instagram  to see more from our daily life.

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Did you know that there are many early learning programs across the @Smithsonian? For example, at @NMAAHC, the educational programming is grounded around the Frederick Douglass quote that “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Here Shannon and Emily prep instruments for Harambee! with Baba Ras D – a program that encourages young children to express themselves through movement and songs. There’s another performance coming up on August 18th – get your free passes online in early August. There are lots of early learning opportunities across the @smithsonian including story times at. @airandspacemuseum, @hirshhorn, @smithsoniananacostia and @nationalpostalmuseum, shows at @smithsoniandiscoverytheater, and spaces at @smithsoniannmai, @smithsoniannpg, @smithsoniannmnh and @amhistorymuseum. Do you have a favorite place to visit with young ones?

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Why is Play on the Decline?

A few weeks ago, we had our annual Play workshop and for the first time, we added a component about how caregivers feel about play. Earlier in the summer, we shared some of our initial thoughts on the topic and wanted to follow up on our conversation and results from our survey. *


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The evidence from our survey and other sources suggest that caregivers do indeed value play.** I have to admit that I was surprised by the evidence because my impression was that caregivers don’t always see the full benefits of play. It made me think that we, the educators, need to dig deeper in order to understand how our caregivers really feel about play.

Play Workshop 2018_African ArtSo, if we all recognize the importance of play then why is play on the decline? Together our group of educators hypothesized what factors may be contributing to this decline.

  • There has been a shift in how we parent. The old adage, “It takes a village.” is no longer the case. Today, many caregivers don’t have family and/or neighbors to rely on and according to Allison Gopnik, many of us think of parenting as a job and want to do all the right things so they can mold their child into a successful adult.
  • Many caregivers feel compelled to fill their child’s time with structured activities. The variety of choice and intensity in which children participate in adult-led activities leaves little free-time.
  • Caregivers are more fearful of sending their children outdoors. Our attitudes about playing outside without adult supervision have changed drastically in recent decades. This reticence limits playtime and opportunities for children to interact on their own.
  • There is competition with screen time.
  • Success in many of schools today is largely defined as being able to sit still, listen, and test well. Admittedly that is a generalization, but I think it is fair to say that caregivers worry how their children will perform in traditional classrooms where much of the instruction is didactic.
  • We also wondered how caregivers defined success and whether they connected play as an element that could help their children grow up to be successful.


IMG_1841.HEICAt the end of our discussion, we felt we had a better understanding of caregivers and their perspectives. It was clear though that more thinking needed to be done. We wondered how we could help shift not just caregiver perspectives, but the attitudes of policy makers and stakeholders. How can we help these parties recognize the benefits of play?

We shared with the group SEEC’s parent education communication strategy. SEEC tries hard to embed information about play and other topics about early childhood education in our programs. We often use signs and ask our educators to share informally with caregivers during our classes. We also think strategically about the content of family newsletters and social media outlets. We had hoped to delve further into these strategies, but as often happens, we ran out of time. For the future, our team would like to consider other strategies and evaluate how well our current methods are working.


As usual, we would like to hear your thoughts. Do the caregivers with whom you work value play? How can we reach out to caregivers and build partnerships that will support play? How can we get stakeholders to understand that play is learning?


*The survey polled 93 families. Families were invited via SEEC’s family newsletter, school e-mail, and social media outlets.

**Fisher, Kelly R. Hirsh-Pasek, Kathy. Michnick Golinkoff, Roberta. Glick Gryfe, Shelly.(2008). Conceptual split? Parents’ and experts’ perceptions of play in the 21st century. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29, 305-316.

O’Gorman, Lyndal. Ailwood, Jo. (November 4, 2012). They Get Fed Up with Playing’: parents’views on play-base learning in the Preparatory Year. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, Volume 13, 266 – 273. Retrieved from:

Whitebread, David. Basilio, Marisol. Play, culture and creativity. Retrieved from:

Time to Play: A Study on Children’s Free Time: How It is Spent, Prioritized and Valued. (2017). Gallup Poll and Melissa and Doug, August 2017. Gallup USA, Inc. Retrieved from:

Parents’ Play Perspectives. (2015). The Genius of Play and PlayScience, October 2015. The Genius of Play. Retrieved from: