Releasing Trial Balloons to Test Ideas

Topic Progress:

A search on the Internet for provocations in early learning will reveal some elaborate set ups of materials to engage children in a number of experiences. Prior to investing time, energy and funds, to determine the direction of the curriculum based on the interest and ideas of the children, why not release a trial balloon to test out your theories? The term trial balloons originated when in 1782 Joseph and Etienne Montgolfiere began testing the idea of releasing hot air balloons into the environment. They began by releasing several trial hot air balloons into the environment so that they could test the idea and to seek information on the level of safety to their idea. Since the initial coining of the term “trial balloons”, its usage has evolved as a way to “test the waters” to see how viable or successful the idea. Floating trial balloons aligns with planting seeds – the intent is to germinate ideas, fertilize children’s thinking and actions and nurture new experiences or dimensions for exploration that children have not necessarily encountered before. This positions early learning teachers to support and promote exploratory, experiential learning, dialogue, and reflection that could lead to new knowledge creation. Children learn through play.  Trial balloons don’t have to involve elaborate set ups. Consider this scenario:

It was late Friday afternoon and most of the children had left to go home. Only Jacob was waiting for his father to pick him up so Aya read a book to him under the big willow tree by the playground and they were sitting in the playground together reading a book. Jacob couldn’t focus on the book as he was fascinated by what Aya recognized were locusts and Jacob called flying grasshoppers. Jacob was chasing after them but he couldn’t catch one with his hands. He was disappointed when his father picked him up. On Monday morning, Aya wanted to test out her theory that Jacob would still be interested and thought at least one of the other children might join in so she strategically left two nets out in the playground and waited for the children to arrive. If there is an interest, Aya would discuss with the other teachers about whether they should begin a long-term investigation. Aya had released a trial balloon.

Early learning teachers use trial balloons to test out ideas. When you use a reflective framework and are intrigued by what the children are doing and/or saying you can launch a balloon prior to planning for a long-term investigation. After Aya has tested the waters to see if the children are interested in bugs and insects she might launch another balloon or two. It will be also effective if the children can be included in the plans. Aya can ask the children if they would like to continue their investigation of bugs and insects. She can brainstorm with the child all their ideas and thoughts on the topic. This will support the process of pedagogical documentation and include the children’s voices. Aya might also consider planning for a “spark” that will ignite the children’s interests.

Seitz (2006) writes in The Plan: Building on Children’s Interests outlines a plan designed to build upon children’s interests. Children, their families and the early learning teachers are researchers in this process as they review documentation of the spark to construct meaning following the plan. Sparks can be things, phenomena, conversations or anything that provokes deeper thought. Click the words below to find out more.


Sparks (provocations)—Identify emerging ideas, look at children’s interests, hold conversations, and provide experiences. Document the possibilities.


Have conversations with interested participants (teachers, children, and parents), ask questions, and document conversations through video recordings, tape recordings, teacher/parent dictation, or other ways. Ask, “What do we already know? What do we wonder about? How can we learn more? What is the plan?”

Opportunities and Experiences

Provide opportunities and experiences in both the classroom and the community for further investigation. Document those experiences.

More Questions and Theories

Think further about the process. Document questions and theories.

Once ideas have been tested and sparks ignited early learning teachers and children may be ready to undertake a long-term investigation or project related to outdoor play and learning. Project work as inspired by the work of John Dewey builds on children’s interests that has emanated from their own experiences (Glassman & Walley, 2000).  With others (children, families, educators) early learning teachers come together and discuss various possibilities or directions that the project might take and from a Deweyian perspective, there is an aim to the work. The aim can take the shape of a provocative question that will invite children to express their thinking (Glassman & Walley, 2000). These questions can frame the project. Rather than use a title that denotes a topic of interest, provocative questions seek higher order thinking rather than the memorization of facts. If the children are interested in worms after finding an abundance of the squirmy creatures in the playground after it rained, instead of embarking on a worm project, the question “why do the worms come out when it rains” can frame the direction of the investigation that will focus more on the children’s thoughts and ideas. The playground after it rains is the context of the experience. Before embarking on a project investigation, early learning teachers consider observations, plans, actions and reflections.