Explore and Experiment: Learn by Doing

Explore and Experiment: Learn by Doing

True wonder leads to more wondering. Find ways to spark learners’ sense of wonder that will inspire them to engage in scientific practices to pursue answers. Use a self-assessment check to reflect on what you are doing supporting your learners around exploring and experimenting,  identify an area to improve.


4 - 12+


Biology, Storytelling, Experiential Learning, Photography

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This is part 2 of 3 in the Explore and Experiment Learning Package

In the I Wonder: Explore and Experiment video, Anand says, “In order to uncover the most interesting, the most compelling stories, you have to explore. And what that means is a little bit of tinkering, it means following your own curiosity, following your own nose … It kind of lowers the stakes of your early efforts that, okay, we're here just to play and explore and see what's possible.” It is clear from this quote that the step-by-step scientific method does not dictate how Anand explores phenomenon. Rather, Anand creates both intellectual and physical spaces in his WonderLab for wonders to emerge from wonders. This allows exploration to continue to be possible in whatever direction seems interesting at the time.

Educators can create conditions for this type of exploration, theory-building, hypothesis testing, and reflection so that their learners are encouraged to explore and experiment. “The goal of exploration and experimentation activities is to purposefully and consciously evoke wonder in children” (Conijn et al., 2021, p. 4). To support this kind of exploring and experimenting around wonders, educators can follow a process that supports learners in 1) Developing a Sense of Wonder, 2) Narrowing a Focus, and then 3) Making Space for Exploring and Experimenting.

1. Developing a Sense of Wonder

Anand started with a broad question related to how life takes shape based on experiences he had in the world. This question probably did not come to him in one day, but it was the result of many interactions with many living things at different timepoints in their lifespans that intrigued him.

Your Turn: Developing a Sense of Wonder

As an educator, this is where you play a role in stimulating wonder in your learners. You can start by providing a context that encourages wondering. This could be a demonstration, a puzzling phenomenon shown through video, or even trying the Take a Wonder Walk activity. It is helpful to take two stances when encouraging learners to wonder: 1) Be sensitive to your learners’ wondering experiences and respond with empathy and curiosity, and 2) Be a role model by sharing what you wonder about. Wonder with students to cultivate a community of wonderers. Learning Package: How to Set Up a “WonderLab” provides more information on Wonder Learning Strategies to stimulate wonder in the learning space such as stimulating meaning-making, defamiliarizing the familiar, encouraging contemplations, and stimulating the imagination. Depending on the context, any one of these strategies, or multiple strategies, can be implemented to stimulate wonder.

Reflect on the learners you have in your space and the content you typically cover with them:

  • Where can ‘wonder’ start for you and your learners?
  • What are you and your learners most curious about in the world?
  • Where are there spaces in the curriculum that might stimulate wonder?
  • Are there spaces within or around the learning space that learners could spend time observing phenomena to stimulate wonder?

2. Narrowing the Focus

To explore and experiment around his wonder, Anand narrowed his focus to an organism he could study in his WonderLab. He decided to focus his explorations around cephalopods based on earlier projects where he became fascinated with their complex behavior and intelligence. Additionally, Anand also identified the camera as the tool that could help him explore his broader wonder. Therefore, he had to consider an organism he could capture on camera as it developed.

Your Turn: Narrowing the Focus

This step really centers around your context. Many factors determine how to approach narrowing the focus, such as the age of your learners, your physical learning space, and the resources accessible to learners. You might work with your learners to develop a list of constraints and considerations to help them narrow their focus. A tool that is helpful is  “I Wonder … “Should We?” … I Investigate.” This tool will allow students to start with a long list of wonders and then identify the ones that they can investigate.

Consider your learners, your curriculum, and your physical space and resources within that space as you reflect on the following questions:

  • What do you and your learners “wonder about” that can be investigated?
  • What constraints and considerations should inform your focus?

3. Making Space for Exploring and Experimenting

Anand set up a “WonderLab” to support his explorations. Within this physical space, he had resources that allowed him to build incubators to keep his organisms alive and tools to explore cephalopods’ development over time, such as microscopes and cameras. He also had his team in the lab. Anand’s team contributed both intellectually and emotionally, offering contributions to incubator designs or sharing in the joys of a successful incubator model or new discoveries through photographs of the cephalopods. All of this matters in cultivating and sustaining wonder around a phenomenon.

Your Turn: Making Space for Exploring and Experimenting

Exploring and experimenting involves engaging in work that would help you learn more about the phenomenon you are wondering about, and also thinking about how and to whom you want to communicate your work. This step is closely linked with inquiry-based science education, as it engages learners in scientific practices. Scientific and engineering practices are great ways for students to work like scientists to pursue lines of inquiry related to their wonders.

Exploring and Experimenting can include more typical scientific experiments, but it can also look more like play and tinkering. The key is that learners should have the space and time to explore on their own terms, which means you, as the educator, should step back and allow your students to have more agency in exploring and experimenting around their wonders. Here is a checklist you can use to self-assess your progress in making space for your learners to explore and experiment in order to cultivate wonder:

  • I let students conduct experiments to test their assumptions

  • I let students try something for a while before I give them instructions

  • I let students try something for a while before I give them instructions

  • I encourage students to explore new themes or objects themselves

  • I encourage students to explore things in different ways

Reflect on how your learners typically interact with you, with each other, and with resources in the learning environment to explore and experiment. Consider the following questions as you work to make more space for your learners to lead their own explorations and experiments:

  • What resources would you need in the physical space to allow learners to explore, experiment, and generate their own questions?

  • Consider the content you teach. How can you make space for your learners to explore and experiment in ways that inspire wonder?

  • What might you need to change in your learning environment to make it most effective for learners to have more agency in what and how they explore and experiment?

  • How can you encourage your learners to take risks with their ideas? With their tinkering? With their explorations?


Conijn, J., Rietdijk, W., Broekhof, E., Andre, L., & Schinkel, A. (2021). A theoretical framework and questionnaire for wonder-full education. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 54(3), 423-444.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Elizabeth Wolzak, Director, Learning Innovation, Edu Lab, National Geographic
Heather J. Johnson, Vanderbilt University
Stephanie Hamilton, Education Consultant, Global Inclusive Learning Design Reviewer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Graphic Design
Patrick Cavanagh, National Geographic Society
Rights Clearance
Jean Cantu, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

March 7, 2024

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