Lessons ready to teach critical thinking in early childhood classrooms

  • Published on July 5, 2019

lessons ready to teach critical thinking in early childhood classrooms

Even young children in early childhood classrooms can be taught to think critically about material that is presented to them. Being able to discern the accuracy of what they read is increasingly important in this era of fake news.

In this post, I provide some suggestions with lessons ready to teach using children’s picture books. The types of questions and ideas can be applied to other books for checking the accuracy of information.

To assist in verification of information, children can be encouraged to ask and answer questions such as:

  • What do we already know?
  • Does this match what we already know?
  • What do we want to find out?
  • How can we find out?
  • How can we be sure the information is true?
  • Is it fact or is it fiction?

Children, and adults, need to be aware that misinformation, often cleverly disguised as fact, is available everywhere, including on the internet. Being able to navigate one’s way through it all is a very important skill, regardless of age. This article by Tech Teacher Jacqui Murray has some useful advice about Fake News or Fact? How do you tell?

We don’t need to present young children with fake news stories to teach them the skills of critical thinking. We can begin with discussions of stories and information we present to them each day.

Note: Some of the following ideas were first presented in a previous post Teaching critical thinking in early childhood classrooms with The Very Hungry Caterpillar and are available as a downloadable resource Using picture books to teach critical thinking in early childhood classrooms.

use picture books teach critical thinking

Teachers and parents can help children develop critical thinking by:

  • pointing out and discussing inaccuracies and inconsistencies that occur in texts;
  • encouraging them to think about what they are reading and hearing and to evaluate it against what they already know;
  • supporting them to verify the source of the information and to check it against other more authoritative or reliable sources; not everyone is an expert;
  • helping them to recognise that every author has a purpose and to identify that purpose;
  • inviting them to ask questions about what they are reading and to interrogate the content;
  • letting them know that it is important to not just accept everything encountered in print.

Of course, I am not suggesting that every text read must be interrogated relentlessly. Reading for enjoyment is of the greatest importance. However, being aware of and using the teachable moments as they appear are effective ways of tuning children into any inaccuracies and misinformation that occur.

Investigating butterflies: fact or fiction

I have previously discussed the value of developing science biology units that provide children with opportunities to observe the life stages of minibeasts, including butterflies, in the classroom. The observations are most effective when supported by access to information in non-fiction books, and stories about minibeasts and butterflies are shared.

very hungry caterpillar

Though published in 1969 and celebrating its fiftieth birthday this year (also the year of the author’s ninetieth birthday), The Very Hungry Caterpillar continues to be extremely popular, and with good reason. With its colourful illustrations and engaging text, it is loved by children and adults everywhere.

According to the website of the author Eric Carle, the story has been translated into more than 65 languages, and over 46 million copies have been sold worldwide. It ranks highly in the Wikipedia List of best-selling books.

Early childhood teachers already use The Very Hungry Caterpillar in Mathematics lessons for counting activities and for teaching the days of the week. They use it in Literacy lessons for shared reading, encouraging children to join in, predict and read the familiar text. They use it for storytelling and performance. They use it to stimulate a vast range of craft and art activities.

But have you considered using The Very Hungry Caterpillar as a resource for teaching critical thinking? I’ll show you how to do so as part of a science biology unit.

Towards the end of the unit, when the children have learned about the life stages of a butterfly through observations and reading, introduce the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The children may already be familiar with it. That’s okay. We’re going to ask them to think about it a little differently, to think critically, rather than simply for enjoyment.

With their knowledge of butterfly life stages, it usually takes little prompting for children to notice the inaccuracies in the story.

eric carle fact or fiction

They often want to write to the author and tell him of his mistake.

However, when told that he already knows and that he isn’t going to change it, as confirmed in an interview reported on the Scholastic website, they are often incredulous.

Eric Carle cocoons

“Why would he do that?” they ask.

When told that he doesn’t care that it isn’t quite right, they are indignant.

Herein lies its value:

Their knowledge of butterfly life stages can be affirmed and, more importantly, the understanding that just because something is in print doesn’t make it true can be developed.

Discussion of this one point can lead children into a whole range of critical thought, including questions such as:

  • When you read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, did you think caterpillars ate a lot of different food? Did you think butterflies came out of cocoons?
  • What do you now know?
  • Do picture book authors have a responsibility to ensure information shared is factual?
  • What is the purpose of fictional picture books?
  • Is a butterfly coming out of a cocoon the same as stories about giants and unicorns?

An additional benefit is the development of a need to know, of verification of information. When children are presented with false information, they may be stimulated to seek out correct information and write books of their own, both fiction and non-fiction, that present the facts. For example, they may wish to investigate questions such as:

  • What is the difference between a cocoon and chrysalis?
  • How do butterflies and moths differ?
  • What do butterflies eat?
  • What do moths eat?
  • What do butterfly caterpillars eat?
  • What do moth caterpillars eat?

Children realise early on that animals don’t really behave like humans and wear clothing. They don’t expect their toys to come to life and start talking. They quickly understand, when it is explained to them, that unicorns and dragons are mythical creatures and, to our knowledge, don’t exist.

Children are not likely to say that elephants wear dresses because they saw one in a book. However, they may think that butterflies come out of cocoons if the error is not discussed. Does it matter?

Maybe not, but what does matter is that we teach children to be discerning rather than unthinking consumers. Inaccuracies such as these in books that are familiar to them, no matter how seemingly innocuous, are a good place to start teaching critical thinking in early childhood classrooms.

For other suggestions, check out Using picture books to teach critical thinking in early years classrooms.

For the record: I am not for one moment suggesting that we get rid of picture books and stories. I love them! And as I have said and will repeat—they are essential to a child’s learning and development. There is no such thing as too many or too often with picture books.

Instead, I would like you to consider the misconceptions that may be developed when the content of picture (and other) books may be misleading, and how we adults should handle that when sharing books with children.

What’s the difference—chrysalis or cocoon?

For a series of beautiful photos showing the last moult of a caterpillar as it becomes a chrysalis, and another series showing a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, click here.

Or watch this video by Strang Entertainment showing the caterpillar becoming a chrysalis

or this one by Neil Bromhall showing a butterfly emerging

A moth’s caterpillar does spin a cocoon and does nibble its way out (think of a silkworm cocoon and moth).

This video shows silkworm caterpillars nibbling hungrily away at the mulberry leaves. Then when a caterpillar is fully grown (about 2 mins in) it spins a cocoon.

Compare the process with that of a monarch caterpillar forming a chrysalis. It is a very different thing.

I also urge caution when accessing information from websites, or books that attempt to guide your use of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. Not all present accurate information. Just as you need to think critically about the accuracy of the information, so do children.

The purpose of this post has been to discuss the importance of critical literacy and the necessity to teach children to

  • think critically;
  • not accept everything that is presented in text (oral, visual or print);
  • evaluate the source of the information and the intent of the author;
  • match incoming information with prior knowledge; and
  • question, question, question.

For a lengthier discussion of this topic, please read

Searching for meaning in a picture book — Part A

Searching for purpose in a picture book – Part B

Searching for truth in a picture book – Part C

Finding power in a picture book – the main event

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    Wow Norah – valuable lessons here. Children will also get to learn hopefully that not everything that those in authority say or do is ‘right’ – critical thinking is essential from an early age. Thank you…

    Thank you so much for your support, Susan. It’s always valued. 🙂

    Excellent lesson Norah. It’s funny how we came from a different digital-less generation yet, we have to think advanced to how the children grow up in this digital world. 😉

    That’s true, Debby. I think children are exposed to much more now than we were, but we still had to be able to separate fact from fiction.

    This is a very important skill to attain, Norah. Critical thinking skills will be the back bone of a digitalised future work environment. Excellent post and adults can learn from this too.

    Thank you so much, Robbie. I think it is very important for all readers to assess information for its authenticity and not believe everything that is read or heard.

Please share your thoughts. I love it when you do.

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