Investigations: A Responsive Approach to Infant Curriculum


Mary Jane Maguire-Fong
American River College

What are infant investigations?

Planning curriculum to meet children’s needs requires the outlook of a scientist. Just as scientists uncover and discover the workings of things, teachers understand and make sense of how and in what way children are building their knowledge and skills. As scientists, teachers uncover and identify children’s processes of learning.

Mother Nature provides infants at birth with strong curiosity -- a powerful motivator for learning and a powerful guide for charting their learning. Teachers need only engage this natural curiosity to design effective infant curriculum. By observing and listening to children, we as teachers see and hear what it is that children are curious about and ready to master. Observation is our key for unlocking children’s own guide to developing curriculum. Once we know the areas infants are ready to explore, we can provide encounters to challenge their emerging skills and ideas.

Children learn best when they have connected experiences, which allow them to build a framework of understanding. This requires time for infants to fiddle around with materials, to experiment with them, to leave them and return to them later. Learning isn’t a "one-activity endeavor." Learning happens best when an engaging series of experiences allows children to wrap their minds around something – to experience and investigate it deeply, broadly, and from new perspectives.

Selecting an investigation

Curriculum that engages children in investigation is a ready fit for children’s natural learning style. A good place to start planning for such investigations is to ask, "What is it that children seem to be interested in?" Watch them at play. Listen to their ideas. In time, you'll discover a topic or aspect of learning that keeps recurring in some way and will form a good foundation for building greater knowledge. Examples of investigations that emerge from observing children at play:

Another possible starting point for an investigation is some aspect of children's learning or behavior that you wish to understand better. An area of current interest in early childhood education is that of literacy and language. What early stages of speaking, reading and writing are emerging in the work of the children? Can you set up opportunities to engage children more deeply in exploring the tools and the materials of writing and reading in order to watch for and collect data on the developmental patterns emerging? Or you might find yourself fascinated with the way children use art materials. Are there any patterns? Are there developmental stages you can identify by watching and collecting samples of their work? You could pursue the same type of inquiry with blocks, puzzles, and other construction toys. Examples of investigations, which emerge from this route, are:

Brainstorming and making a web of possible learning encounters

Once you have chosen a topic to investigate, your next task is to explore possible directions for investigating the topic. Drawing from what you know about children's interests and curiosities, brainstorm ideas with your colleagues. Ask, "What kinds of activities could we prepare for children to give them greater and more in-depth exposure to the topic?" The attached Planning web provides a guide for recording possible learning encounters for an investigation. Learning encounters may be activities, but they might also be materials or furnishings you add to the play space or interactions you want to facilitate. Consider these aspects in planning:

Projection of what you will do – a timescape

Once you have brainstormed possible directions for the investigation, you are ready to select the learning encounters you’ll offer and plan a potential sequence. The attached Projection of Investigation: A Timescape serves as a guide to this step. This is a projection of what you expect might occur. What actually occurs is yet to be seen. Effective teaching is responsive and reflective. Therefore as an investigation proceeds, the children may respond differently than you had anticipated, and you may need to change the plans as you go along. Once you complete the first activity with children, reflect on what happened, discuss your observations with colleagues, and decide where to go next. As a result, your original projection may change.

This flexibility in planning assures that you are providing children connected experiences that build in a meaningful way on their most recent experiences. The learning encounters you provide are much like "stepping stones" over which children walk, making a connected path as they go. The path is not cast in stone. Your projections are a "best guess" of what you will do. Responsive curriculum planning means that you continually refine your "next steps" in order to offer encounters which help children connect one idea to another and thereby construct their understanding.

For each activity, prepare by writing down key things you need to do. The attached Work plan: Learning Encounter is a guide to covering the essentials of planning. Once children are engaged in the experience, the attached Observation and Interpretation provides a place to jot down notes on what children do. Camera, tape recorder and video recorder may at times be added as observation tools, helpful in interpreting how children respond to an activity.

Including Parents as players in the project

As you plan each activity, look for ways to include parents as a resource to the investigation. Suggest to them that they may have resources or ideas that could add to the children's exploration of the topic. Let them know you will be posting regular notes at the end of each day about the work children have done that day on the investigation.

Applying emerging skills and concepts

Look for opportunities for children to apply their emerging skills as they pursue the investigation:

u SCIENCE: How can the project offer children an opportunity to apply skills and concepts of science? For example, what cause and effect relationships are children pursuing, or how might this project give them greater understanding of how things work or what they are made of?

u LANGUAGE / LITERACY: How can the project offer children a chance to apply skills in language and literacy? In what ways might children read about their experiences in story?

u MATH: What math skills might be used? What opportunities does the project offer for children to count or to put things in relationship as to size or quantity or color?

u SOCIAL SKILLS: How does the project invite them to use their emerging social skills? How does it help them to build secure, trusting relationships? Are there opportunities for children to work and problem-solve together?

u THE ARTS: How might children use art media, dance, song, or drama to represent ideas and feelings about the topic?

Telling the story of the investigation

As you plan the investigation, also plan for telling the story of the investigation in a way that all can understand. By telling the story in photos and in writing, you clearly communicate children’s learning to parents and visitors and invite them to become part of that learning. Simple wall panels or books work well, ones that tell significant parts of the investigation. For teachers, such documentation provides a way of tracking the learning experiences, visually making the connections between what children experience and grasp in one activity and how they build on this in a subsequent activity. For children, it allows them to see their ideas and their work valued and put back into circulation to be revisited and enjoyed time and time again.



Topic: Exploring Balls

Balls are enduring toys that engage the interest of people from infancy through adulthood. We thought it would be interesting to watch toddlers explore novel encounters with balls. This would help us see how toddlers begin to make sense of how things move in space and how their actions impact how things move in space. We predicted toddlers would have the following challenges:

As they tackle each of these questions, toddlers will be doing simple experiments in cause and effect, a primary building block of SCIENCE.


Investigation topic: Exploring Balls

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

Description of Activities:

Bring in novel balls – each day 3-4 new balls and containers






Description of Activities:



Add long, narrow tubes

Add long, wide tubes

Add clear plastic tubes

Description of Activities:

Add aiming targets for throwing –

  • large open hoop
  • basketball hoop
  • laundry baskets

Visit the basketball

Description of Activities:

Rolling ball painting using small and large cardboard boxes lined with paper

Small boxes on table first day – golf balls, ping pong balls.

Large cardboard boxes on ground second day – basketball, soccer balls, tennis balls.

Why you selected these activities:

expand ball play options


Why you selected these activities:

Add challenge for exploring how balls fit in spaces and move in space

Why you selected these activities:

Expands throwing and aiming options

Why you selected these activities:

Provides chance to use balls as an art tool


1. Describe the learning encounter.

Bring in a wide variety of novel balls – of different sizes, textures, and shapes. Some that make sounds, bounce in odd directions, & have unusual surface textures.

2. How will this learning encounter help infants reach goals you have for their development and learning? (Check all those that apply.)

3. Explain how this experience connects to your prior learning encounter and why you have chosen it as the next step in your planning.

Extends recurring play with balls in toy collection.

4. List all materials you need or preparation you will make for this learning encounter.

Football, waffle balls of all sizes, clear ball with items inside, knit and cloth balls, etc.

Plastic and straw baskets to hold balls in play space.

5. Name the adults involved and their role:

Sue: collects and sets out balls. Takes photos.

Ann Marie: writes observations.

6. How will you include parents in this experience?

Ask parents to loan balls for use at school


Learning encounter: Exploring new balls Date: October 15, 1995

Children involved: The older infants


Describe significant aspects of what the infants do (or say.)

INTERPRETATION: Note here why you think your observations are significant. What do they tell you about what children know? Does it lead you to a follow-up activity?


The toddlers sort through this new collection.

Shauntia and Zachary carry them from the open space to the playhouse.

Eric drops the tennis balls through the opening in the gate.

Ana throws the knit ball to Sue. It drops a foot from Ana’s shoe. Sue picks it up and throws it back.

Dylan takes the balls out of the basket one at a time and names each as he tosses it aside – "football… …baseball … basketball."



Putting things into containers and taking them out -- exploring how things fill and fit in space.

Making the balls disappear and then finding them again – playing with object permanence. What if we add tubes to put balls into?

Throwing – still working on. Could we add props for them to throw balls into?

Much new vocabulary. Include these words in the photo book that tells the story

Where might you go next with the investigation?

Add props (tubes of varying sizes) to use with the balls to provide cause and effect experiences.


Copyright 1999: Mary Jane Maguire-Fong
Posted on this web site with permission. Printing and copying for educational classroom purposes only. This document is not to be published in any form without written consent of the copyright holder.