Planning a Virtual Unit of Inquiry for the Early Years

Cathie Matthews
3 min read

Simon Sinek shared the importance of sharing your purpose in his inspiring and thought-provoking talk: Start with why – how great leaders inspire action. Therefore, when Toddle invited me to share the process and strategies for how I approached the creation of a virtual unit for 5-6-year-olds, I knew I should first start by explaining my ‘why’.

I created a virtual unit on Goods and Services on Toddle Community and by sharing my process of creating  this unit, I want to:

  • support the PYP Early Years learning community in implementing remote learning more meaningfully,
  • share authentic examples of inquiry and play-based experiences that have worked in a real classroom which will bridge the gap between planning and execution, 
  • promote play as the primary driver for inquiry,
  • develop age-appropriate inquiry-based learning experiences to set students up for success as they move to grade 1,

Before I start sharing the planning process, I think it’s important to consider ‘The Early Years Learner’. Loris Malaguzzi from Reggio Emilia says “Your Image of the Child is Where Teaching Begins”, so we must understand the needs and interests of our students to design authentic and meaningful experiences. The young learner is strong, intelligent and beautiful, with ambitious desires and requests and as teachers, we need to keep their choice and agency in the centre of the learning process. 

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The enhanced PYP emphasises the importance of play and the need to promote student agency and interests for the learner in the early years. When designing the unit plan for How We Organize Ourselves, I kept my EY learners at the center to ensure that my personal beliefs about how young children learn match the PYP enhancements, and they do! 

As a trained early childhood teacher, with over 30 years of experience, I am an advocate for play! My image of a 5-year-old child is very similar to that of Loris Malaguzzi’s. Whilst designing the learning experiences, I thought a lot about the Reggio Emilia approach and the wise words of Malaguzzi. I aimed to “produce situations in which children learn by themselves, in which children can take advantage of their own knowledge and resources autonomously, and in which we guarantee the intervention of the adult as little as possible. We don’t want to teach children something that they can learn by themselves. We don’t want to give them thoughts that they can come up with by themselves. What we want to do is activate within children the desire and will and great pleasure that comes from being the authors of their own learning” (Malaguzzi, 1994).

Planning Process

Planning in the early years is like playing a game of snakes and ladders. Keeping play at the centre, I thought of the planning process as a game of snakes and ladders. Similar to the game, my planning process did not follow a linear progression – I found myself going back to add details, then leaping ahead- all to achieve a clear goal (which in my case was the ‘Goods and Services’ unit on Toddle Community’

Click on the tiles to explore different steps of the process. As you go through this, you can consider what these “steps” might look like in your setting. Wonder about “have I considered agency, have I justified chosen concepts,” and so on.

Step 1
As we begin planning a unit of inquiry, it is important for us to be aware of the updated guidelines and resources for the Early Years. The IB’s Programme resource Centre is a great starting point for you to upskill yourselves. When designing the virtual unit on ‘Goods and Services’,

I referred to many of the IB documents and found “Examining Learner Agency In my Setting” very useful.
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Step 2
Before planning a new inquiry, I spend some time reflecting on past successes and areas of improvement. Like most experienced teachers, I have a bank of successful learning experiences and tools from past inquiries. I started by reflecting on my past teaching experiences and I recall one of my proudest days as a KG teacher was the ‘ECC Market day’. This experience motivated me to share and adapt the ‘Goods and Services’ unit, originally created in 2018 with colleagues from UNIS Hanoi.

I also asked myself:
  • What previous learning experiences were most successful?
  • How might they be adapted to suit the virtual learning environment?
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Step 3
As I started to think about my Goods and Services unit plan on Toddle, I considered several big PYP ideas including how to make it play-based, how can space be used, and how to explore student agency. I used the Think Puzzle Explore thinking routine by Harvard's Project Zero to help me move forward in the planning process. This thinking tool enabled me to connect to my prior PYP knowledge and gave my research a clear direction.

I asked myself the following questions:
  • What do my students already know about the central idea and the concept of ‘Goods and Services’?
  • Since this is a virtual unit, what might parents need to know and understand about learning and teaching in the Early Years?
  • What learning goals and success criteria could I map to this unit?
As you plan your unit of inquiry, you can use the Think Puzzle Explore routine to ask yourself similar questions.
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Step 4
Since I had already taught this Goods and Services unit in the past, it was now time for me to re-look at it in the context of virtual learning and reflect on whether the central idea and lines of inquiry still met the criteria of relevant, significant, challenging and engaging. I wanted to put these puzzle pieces together to create a unit that teachers could get inspired by, and use in their own classrooms. So, I asked myself:
  • What was puzzling me?
  • How can we plan for an uncertain future?
  • How can I design a plan for students I don’t know?
  • How can one unit plan meet the needs of an unknown global learning community?
  • How can I help EY teachers who have a range of experiences and different levels of understanding?
  • How can teachers make their thinking about the planning process visible for parents doing virtual learning?
  • How can teachers design a plan for families they don’t know yet?

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Step 5
As I looked at the puzzle pieces, I identified two main questions I wanted to explore. The first was, how do I make my thinking about the planning process visible? Since I’m a visual learner, I decided to do so by connecting my thinking to the idea of a jigsaw puzzle, bridge, and a snakes and ladders game.

The second question I asked was, how can student agency be supported in a virtual learning environment? According to the IBO, “Agency is present when students partner with teachers and members of the learning community to take charge of what, where, why, with whom and when they learn.”

Student choice, voice and ownership are integral to the learning experiences I designed. Students make choices by using a choice board, identifying the good or service they want to explore within their community, selecting how they want to showcase their learning, and by making decisions about what, where, when and with whom to play.

You can use the learning experiences I designed in your own units and share them with your families using the Toddle Classroom Feature. For when you’re back to in-person school, you can also explore how to Set up your own Market Stall with your students.
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Step 6
Consider Perspectives
While planning a virtual unit, it is important to keep all stakeholders in mind, especially parents. Therefore, I created learning experiences with details that would provide adequate support to parents.

As I created this unit plan, I was thinking about the needs of:
  • Beginning teachers who are new to PYP and planning for virtual learning
  • Parents who have more than one child to supervise at home
  • Parents whose home language is not English
  • Our energetic five and six years old remote learning from home
  • A classroom full of Early Years students
  • Administrators who do not yet fully understand the value of play
Below are a few learning experiences you can read and use from my unit that actively consider perspectives of parents and other community members:

  • The learning experience ‘Services for the Community’ gives students an opportunity to role-play and consider different perspectives.
  • ‘Through the Needs and Wants- Scavenger Hunt’, we get students to understand that needs and wants might vary.
  • ‘Markets around the world’ helps students consider the needs and wants of producers and consumers.
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Step 7
Plan a Provocation
To plan an exciting provocation, I kept in mind the developmental needs of Early Years learners. I wanted to pique their curiosity so they’ll be excited about the unit- ready to engage with big ideas, ask relevant questions and be motivated to inquire and explore further. I also considered the needs of our learning community and decided to plan a provocation for parents who are monitoring their children’s learning at home.

The learning experience, Play with your parents can be used as a provocation for both students and parents. You will also find resources and instructions for parents in the learning experience planners, to support them.

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Step 8
Use the PYP Planning Prompts
I found the in-built planning prompts on Toddle very helpful when developing questions, provocations and learning experiences that support knowledge and conceptual understandings. Using the planning prompts helped me create authentic opportunities for students to develop and demonstrate approaches to learning and attributes of the learner profile.

The planning prompts can also be used to have discussions with colleagues as you consider ways of:
  • Building in flexibility to respond to student's interests, inquiries, evolving theories and actions
  • Integrating languages to support multilingualism
  • Identifying opportunities for independent and collaborative learning, guided and scaffolded learning, and learning extension.
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Step 9
Revisit Central Ideas and Lines of Inquiry
I reflected on the central idea with a virtual learning lens to check if I could find ways to make it more relevant, significant, challenging and engaging in its context.

I wanted my central idea to also meet the following criteria:
  • One sentence that expresses concisely an enduring understanding
  • Substantial enough to generate in-depth inquiries
  • Concept-driven
  • Promotes the ability to think critically.
  • Challenges and extends students’ prior knowledge
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Step 10
Consider Playful Learning Experiences
The enhanced PYP focuses on learning experiences that allow for uninterrupted play, symbolic exploration and expression.

I asked myself:
  • What is play?
  • What does inquiry through play look like?
  • How can parents support their children’s inquiry through play?
Inquiry through play: supporting PYP parents is a resource by the IB that describes what play looks like, explains ATLs and gives examples of questions that parents can ask to support children in play.

Through learning experiences like Set Up Shop, I explored play and inquiry. In Set Up Shop, students visit the school canteen to observe their school’s food service. This learning experience can also take place at home with students observing the food needs of their family. After their observation, students engage in dramatic play in their classrooms or homes.

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Step 11
Consider Learning Spaces (virtual and in-person)
The way a learning space is used provides teachers with important information about learning. We observe the use of learning spaces, asking ourselves the following questions:
  • Is there a sense of focused engagement?
  • Are there opportunities for independent and collaborative explorations?
  • Do children have diverse opportunities and resources to creatively express themselves and their developing understandings?
  • Is there a range of choices to inspire children to follow their own ideas?
  • Are there inviting opportunities for collaboration in a social context?
(Inquiry in The Early Years 2019)

As I reflected on learning spaces for the Goods and Services virtual learning unit on Toddle Community, I considered how indoor and outdoor learning spaces and materials in the early years promote play for inquiry. I thought of objects and artefacts that get kids interested, using powerful pictures and a wonder wall to pique their curiosity. Role-play learning experiences are also a good way to encourage children to have some ownership over their learning space. In the learning experience, Kindergarten bakery, students engage in playful inquiry, make choices and further develop ATL skills.
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Step 12
Begin to sequence the flow
I tried to sequence the flow using Kath Murdoch’s inquiry cycle - Tuning in, Finding out, Sorting Out, Going Further, Making Connections and Taking Action. However, inquiry can look different in different classrooms and these learning experiences can be interchanged depending on student interests and questions. You can use the following questions when mapping learning experiences to stages of the inquiry cycle.

  • Tuning In (The Provocation) -What do our students know?
  • Finding Out - What might our students want to learn?
  • Sorting Out- How can we use existing student knowledge?
  • Going Further - How can we expand student thinking?
  • Making Conclusions - How has student thinking changed?
  • Taking Action - What can students do with their learning?

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Step 13
Focus on Learner Profile and ATLs
To be able to effectively map attributes of the learner profile and approaches to learning, I reflected on opportunities students would have at home to develop and demonstrate growth. I went back to the learning experiences, key concepts and lines of inquiry to identify skills that could fit seamlessly in the virtual space. Due to COVID-19, early year learners are spending the majority of their time at home interacting with parents and siblings. These interactions and relationships have a significant influence on how children understand and experience the world around them. Therefore, I wanted to focus on building communication and thinking skills.

Through this unit, students would learn to:
  • Become caring (towards family and community helpers)
  • Think of new ways to help their community while following social distancing and safety norms
  • Use different modes of communication to share their feelings and thoughts with family and classroom community
  • Take risks to set up new learning spaces and opportunities at home
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Step 14
Understand Action in Early Years
Through learning experiences that focus on developing learner profile attributes and ATL skills, students engage in meaningful action and demonstrate choice, voice and ownership. PYP Action in the Early Years outlines indicators for what action looks like for the Learner, Adult and the Environment. Toddle’s inbuilt planning prompts helped me reflect on the types of actions I could plan for in this unit.

In the Goods and Services unit, students have multiple opportunities to take action. They have opportunities to engage in acts of kindness, participate in community service, produce goods to meet the needs of others. Through the market day, they are encouraged to think of ways to earn money and donate to a chosen charity. I also reflected on ways for students to take action in a remote or virtual learning environment. Therefore, students will be given opportunities to be innovative and think of creative ways to provide community services keeping safety and social distancing norms in mind. Families may even be inspired to raise funds and sponsor a child.
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Step 15
Justify Chosen Concepts
Concepts are integral to the unit and its learning experiences in the PYP. For the unit on Goods and Services, I wanted to focus on Form, Function, Connection and Responsibility. Keeping the pandemic world in mind, I realized that the concept of responsibility would be my main focus to drive student action. Form, Function and Connection were important in getting the students to understand the interconnectedness of needs and services that support these needs. After identifying these concepts, I re-examined the lines of inquiry and thought of questions or provocations that would help unpack and drive conceptual understanding.

For example, to unpack the concept of Form, students will focus on the first line of inquiry and examine the needs and wants of the community. They will engage in learning experiences such as the field trip to observe the needs of the school or home community and draw conclusions about goods and services needed to meet those needs. Mapping questions and learning experiences to key concepts helps us ensure that learning is truly transdisciplinary.

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Step 20
Share with the Learning Community
It is really important for us to feel connected - especially in this pandemic world. While we have to observe physical social distancing from one another, technology helps us be a close knit community online. Using social media is a great way to stay connected and learn from one another. I found my personal learning network on Twitter and recently through some Facebook groups. Toddle Community is also an amazing way to share and learn together with like-minded PYP teachers. Even before I created my own unit on Toddle Community, I spent some time exploring the wide range of unit plans and learning experiences created by PYP educators like me, and it truly is inspirational.

As important as it is for us to stay connected, it is even more important to create opportunities for students to belong to a learning community. Giving students opportunities to collaborate and share online will help them develop a sense of belonging. I used the Toddle Student App to create opportunities for students to share, like and comment on each other’s tasks.
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Step 19
Provide Templates
Providing student templates gives students a structure and directs their thinking process. I uploaded student templates and graphic organizers on Toddle which can either be printed or used virtually using the Toddle Student App.

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Step 18
Gather Resources
For the unit on Goods and Services, I wanted to ensure that I take into account resources that would be easily accessible to all children at home. I considered people, places, technology, learning space and physical materials to ensure that the learning experiences were authentic and meaningful. I asked myself, ‘how will resources add value and purpose to learning?’

I chose a variety of resources for teachers, parents and students. This included:

Human Resources
  • Interviewing and playing with people students are living with
  • Using junk and toys that are easily accessible at home
  • Contacting people in the community using technology

Physical materials
  • Things that can easily be found at home e.g. toys, loose parts, natural objects, real food, art and craft supplies,dress-up clothing, playdough, kitchen and food items, and recycled trash!
  • Downloading free resources from the internet
  • Going on Virtual field trips
  • Using Toddle App to collaborate with teachers, students and parents
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Step 17
Empower students
Toddle helps empower students in a variety of ways. Creating a unit on Toddle gave me a lot of different learning experiences to experiment with. Through Toddle's Student App, students can share their responses, reflections and questions easily and collaborate with one another through live classes or likes and comments. Students in the Early Years can record audio and video messages to virtually connect with their classroom community. Along with recording, I also find adding clear directions with visuals such as emojis, helps students complete the tasks independently.
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Step 16
Plan for Self Assessment
Observing uninterrupted play is one of the most important ways to monitor student progress for an Early Years teacher. Through play, students communicate, reflect, problem-solve and demonstrate growth in ATLs and attributes of the Learner Profile. While observing play is challenging in a virtual setting, we can monitor progress on an ongoing basis by partnering with parents and giving them the required tools for assessment.

To be able to effectively create assessment strategies for this unit, I asked myself and you can ask yourself:
  • What evidence can parents gather about their child's emerging knowledge, conceptual understandings and skills?
  • During remote/home learning, how are teachers monitoring and documenting learning against learning goals and success criteria?
  • How can we enable parents and young learners to use self-assessments and feedback to inform planning and next steps?
Whenever and wherever possible, I create opportunities for students to practise self-assessing. In learning experiences, I provide ways for students and the parents/teachers to be actively engaged in providing feedback using the Toddle Student App. Student templates and assessment tools are designed to help students make their thinking visible and I find that even young learners can easily learn to navigate Toddle to share their work and thinking with their community.

My personal favourite is using my modified version of De Bono’s coloured Thinking Hats for self-assessments. Each coloured hat has a different meaning attached to it, and students can reflect on their progress using these colours.

💛    Yellow= positive thoughts

⚫️    Black = challenges or problems

🔴    Red= feelings

🔵    Blue = PYP hat- notice and name the Learner Profile Attributes         and ATLs
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Click on the tiles to explore different steps of the planning process

As educators, we tend to give a lot of importance to our planners as opposed to the planning process. I really like Kath Murdoch’s response to Edna Sackson’s Planning for teaching’ post:

“A planner is a process – not a finished product…” One of my favourite moments in the planning process is when we ask : ‘So, what are our students revealing to us – and where do we go from here?’ This is true, responsive, organic planning that honours students’ voices. And it’s sooooo much more satisfying than simply coming up with ‘good activities’!

Discover these strategies in-depth in Cathie’s Toddle Talk here.

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Cathie Matthews
Cathie Matthews
Cathie has been an educator for over 30 years, 25 of these in international schools in S.E. Asia. She has taught PYP learners from age 3 to 8 in the PYP. She is passionate about The Early Years (in particular 5-6 year olds) and is an advocate for play. From 2011-2019 Cathie was a kindergarten homeroom teacher at UNIS, Hanoi. She is passionate about teacher training and has presented at the Vietnam Teach Conference and The Early Years conference in HCMC.
Disclaimer - This resource has been produced independently of and not endorsed by the IB. Toddle’s resources seek to encourage sharing of perspectives and innovative ideas for classroom teaching & learning. They are not intended to be replacements for official IB guides and publications. Views and opinions expressed by the authors of these resources are personal and should not be construed as official guidance by the IB. Please seek assistance from your school’s IB coordinator and/or refer to official IB documents before implementing ideas and strategies shared within these resources in your classroom.