Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Focused Exploration: Building Structures

Focused Exploration

  • Focused Exploration focuses on a specific task or challenge.

  • Science Talks are used to share experiences and ideas, and to introduce a challenge.

  • Exploration becomes more teacher-focused and more teacher-directed, while still validating students' ideas and theories.


Inquiry Science is a great way to get preschool students to work together. These students use tools for their building.

Transitioning from Open Exploration to Focused Exploration 

During Open Exploration you introduced materials for students to explore building structures, and offered them ample time to have undirected play with those materials. As you spend this time observing the students, you will begin to notice a few changes.

  • Some or all of your students will have gained confidence and familiarity with using the blocks.

  • Some or all of your students may have specific questions about the blocks that reveal their engagement. Why did this fall? How do I get my animal in and out of the zoo? 

  • Some or all of your students will start to explore new uses for the blocks on their own.

Begin the transition when you notice these deliberate changes in your students' play. Notice what your students are interested in and let their interests guide your Focused Exploration. For example:

  • If your students are becoming interested in building tall towers, begin Focused Exploration with a Tall Tower Challenge.

  • If your students are becoming interested in building houses for their animals or people, begin Focused Exploration with an Enclosures Challenge.

Drafting a Plan

Before your challenge, have students draw a "plan" or a picture of what they plan to build. A great way to do this is to set up clipboards or table space near images of buildings for inspiration. Talk with them about their plan. Show them what you notice about their plan. This gives students a chance to think about what they are doing. Remember, as with adults too, the plan may look completely different from the actual building, but planning and reflecting are a part of the inquiry process! 


Challenge 1: Tall Tower Challenge

Build the tallest tower you can with your materials - but don't let it fall! 

This student explains, "This is my garage. The cars will go in it. There is a bridge on top for the metro train." 

Challenge 2: Enclosures Challenge

Our animals need homes! Create a home that will protect your classroom toy animals from the rain and wind, will let them get in and out, and look outside.



Science Talk Ideas

  • Have students sketch or take a photo of their structure and share with the group. 

  • Discuss with them what their greatest challenge was when they were building.

  • Ask them how they would change their structure next time. Why?

  • Go on neighborhood walkabouts - looking specifically for either tall towers or enclosures.

  • Share books, pictures, photographs or posters of buildings.

  • Invite visiting experts. Invite family or other staff from your building that work in construction, architecture or other building related fields to talk to students about building. 

  • Create or share two- and three-dimensional representation of buildings.


A Teacher's Role

  • Give students ample opportunities to explore and ask questions.

  • Offer them guidance throughout the inquiry process. Perhaps they have questions, but have trouble articulating their questions. Help them observe what they are doing, and work together with other students.

  • Encourage students to try ideas again and again, especially students who become frustrated. "Back to the drawing board!" becomes positive.

  • Continue to offer students small challenges to deepen their inquiry. You may offer "What if" questions such as "What if we add another animal, do we have enough room in our home?". "What if" scenarios are an excellent way to open the door for students to reflect and explore. 

Remember the Science Goals.