How to Teach Critical Thinking in Preschool

What is critical thinking and how do you explain it to a class of four and five-year-olds? One of my students summed it up best when she said, “Mr. G! My brain is talking!”

Yup, that’s pretty much the best explanation of “thinking” I can imagine. And it got me thinking, “Critical thinking must be when  your brain isn’t just talking; it’s when your brain is asking all the right questions!”

So how do your students go from “my brain is talking” to thinking through and answering super high-level, open-ended questions on their own?  Find out in this week’s episode: How to Teach Critical Thinking in Preschool.

Socrates once said, “Understanding a question is half an answer.” This is 100% true in preschool! Whenever you ask an open-ended question, it can be hit-or-miss: students either respond in a hurricane of answers or you are met with blank stares and silence.  Here’s an example. When I would ask my students, “What are all the animals that live in the ocean?” I may one or two answers of “fish” followed by blank stares and silence.

And that’s okay! I’ve been there! Sometimes, it almost makes you want to shy away from asking these open-ended questions because that silence can be so uncomfortable. But the trick is to take Socrates’ advice and help your students understand the question! Ask it again and again and again and put it in their terms. Get on their level! Reframe and rephrase and lead them down the right path until the question clicks for them!

Kids know plenty of ocean animals; they are just not coming to mind right away because students starting off preschool and pre-k need a little help making those connections! They need help knowing what questions their brains should be asking. Always assume your students know the answers; they just need help realizing that the information in their heads in their heads is linked to what you are asking. So help them out by asking the follow-up “Socratic Questions!”

For example, after asking, “What are all the animals that live in the ocean?” I would then try to ask the question in as many different ways as I can to help my students make the connections from what they already know to what we are talking about right now! Here are some questions I would ask to help model the thinking process and set an example for the questions they will start asking themselves:

  • Who are some animals that live with SpongeBob in the ocean? What are some animals in Finding Nemo or Finding Dory?
  • What are the biggest animals in the ocean? What are the scariest? The weirdest?
  • What are some animals with shells? What are some animals that aren’t fish but still live in the ocean?
  • What are some kinds of fish? What fish do you have for pets? What are some fish that you eat?
  • Describe specific animals that they may know but didn’t already get. See if you can give them clues to guess. i.e. seahorse, octopus, shrimp, etc.

These are just a few examples of the questions you can ask to help your class start answering any open-ended question on any theme. By asking follow-up questions and reframing your original question, you are teaching your students what kinds of questions to ask themselves “in their brains!” You are modeling the thinking process and helping kids make connections they will remember the rest of their lives. And once they start making these connections, they don’t want to stop! They feel so great when the puzzle clicks in their brain — I mean they just took knowledge from a favorite TV show (SpongeBob) and applied it to the stuff they are learning in school!  How cool is that!?

When you model the thinking process and ask these questions, not only do you teach students HOW to make connections, you also teach your class that learning is everywhere! 

Critical thinking is about making connection. It is about knowing the right questions to ask yourself when confronted with new information and putting it into a story that makes sense.  These “Socratic Questions” help kids do just that! So if you want to help your students remember that starfish and crabs live in the ocean, you may ask, “What kind of animal is SpongeBob’s friend Patrick?” or “Who is SpongeBob’s boss?”

You are asking these questions with the end in mind and helping students make connections they never did before, just as Socrates did to the poor Athens nobility. (By Socratic Questions, this is what I mean — asking questions with an answer in mind; leading students to the right answers by helping them make their own connections from previous knowledge to what you are learning today.)

In this episode, teach your kiddos critical thinking with open-ended questions of the day! When you teach your students to not just answer questions, but how to ask the right questions, that is a skill that will carry them throughout their whole lives. Give them the critical thinking skills to understand the world as we dig further into the Age of Too-Much-Information.

If you are enjoying this podcast and want more ideas Socratic Questions, download our Free Full Year Curriculum Plan below. This plan includes 175 Questions of the Day ranging across 35 themes to jump start your students’ imaginations. Also, while it may seem advanced, I can assure you– my preschool classes answered every question in this curriculum, so it is all totally possible! You can do it!

If you would like more of the follow-up “Socratic Questions” as well as answers to the Questions of the Day, you can purchase our complete weekly lesson plans here. These plans contain the same Questions of the Day that are included in the Free Full Year Curriculum Plan, but they also include answers, socratic questions, a scripted hook, video resources, and much more!

Get the full scoop by subscribing to the Punk Rock Preschool Podcast.

Resources and People Mentioned in this Podcast:

Show Notes (w/times):

  • 1:37 – Introduction
  • 2:00 – Example: What are all the animals that live in the ocean?
  • 5:30 – Mindset Shift – Help Students Make Connections
  • 7:49 – Strategies
  • 12:00 – Example: What makes a good friend?
  • 16:00 – Actionable Next Steps
  • 21:40 – Major Takeaways

Thanks so much for joining us this week! Did you think of some important skills I missed? Would you mind sharing in the comments so all the great teachers can use it too!? Thank you!

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it using the social media buttons you see at the bottom of the post. Also, please leave an honest review for the Punk Rock Preschool Podcast on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are super helpful and greatly appreciated and I will read all of them!  If you have any questions or want to learn more, head on over to! And finally, don’t forget to subscribe to the show on iTunes to get automatic updates!

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