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Problem Solving in Action

Toddlers imitate what they see, preschoolers try hands-on trial and error, and kindergartners tap language and abstract thinking skills to solve problems.


Ages 0 to 2: Poole

Babies are born with built-in problem-solving tools called reflexes. Less then an hour after birth, a baby will use her rooting and sucking reflexes to feed. As she grows, many of her automatic responses will be replaced by more voluntary actions.

At 2 months, babies become more alert and eager to explore the world around them. By 4 months, the baby has developed the muscle control and hand-eye coordination to bring toys and other objects to her mouth. The joyful exploration and experimentation that leads to problem-solving has begun.

Looking for Results

By 8 months, babies enjoy playing with toys that produce interesting responses to their actions. Grasping, shaking, and banging toys that make unusual sounds and movements are especially popular. These fun experiences help to lay the groundwork for children's later understanding of cause-and-effect relationships.

Intentional Imitation

Children move to a more purposeful level of problem-solving by their first birthday. No longer limited to what's immediately in front of them, they can now push aside a toy in order to reach another, more interesting one.

One-year-olds also begin to solve problems through observation and imitation. Fourteen-month-old Daisy, for example, is puzzled by her new child-care enter's stacking toy. She watches closely as her caregiver removes the top ring from the toy. Daisy then takes off the next ring. When her caregiver replaces the first ring, Daisy again follows her lead and replaces the ring she was holding. Her caregiver smiles and claps, and Daisy laughs with pleasure at having discovered how to use this new toy.

Trying It All Out

Once they reach toddlerhood, children use the quot;What would happen if ..." approach to problem-solving. They experiment with a little bit of everything in their persistent search for a solution.

Eighteen-month-old Emma, for instance, is busy trying to make the mechanical dog move. She shakes it, turns it upside down, pushes the key, and pats the puppy's head. Finally, she turns the key — and the puppy moves!
Recalling Solutions

By age 2, children have begun to use an important new problem-solving tool: memory. Now the toddler can observe, think about the problem, and then later on remember what she saw and imitate it.

When 2-year-old Susie wants to open the drawer in a piece of dollhouse furniture, for example, she no longer shakes and bangs it as she would have a few months ago. Instead, she remembers watching her caregiver open the drawer and uses the same technique.

What You Can Do

Young children have so many problems to solve and so little time! You can help by providing opportunities for open-ended exploration and offering help before children become too frustrated.

Offer babies a variety of intriguing items they can grasp and suck. Exploring new materials sets the stage for later problem-solving skills.

Give babies toys that produce responses to their actions. Toys that make funny noises when they're grasped, shaken, and banged are very popular.

Place interesting toys just out of a 1-year-olds reach. This make her to work to get the toy. However, if she loses interest, bounce the toy and push it a little closer.

Help children find solutions to real-life problems. When a ball rolls behind the shelf, for example, ask the toddler how he thinks he can get the ball. Try out his suggestions, and then share your ideas.

Provide a variety of materials at the water table. Exploring which objects sink or float, how much water containers can hold, and which items absorb water are all great problem-solving experiences.

At a Glance

  • A baby's eager exploration of the world lays the groundwork for problem-solving skills.
  • One-year-olds solve problems by observing and then imitating the people around them.
  • For toddlers, the best solution is to try every approach — until they hit on the one that works.
  • With their improved memory, 2-year-olds can recall how other people solved problems similar to the ones they're facing.


Ages 3 to 4: Miller

Three-year-old Sarah tries to display the leaves she has collected on a sheet of paper, but they keep falling off. She remembers seeing her teacher use the glue in a plastic bottle to stick a picture onto the paper. Fascinated with exploring new materials, Sarah decides to try to solve her problem by using the glue.

Sarah squeezes streams of glue on her paper and then pushes the leaves on top. Like most threes, she's solving a problem through trial and error, depending primarily on her senses rather than reasoning. So it may take several experiments before she understands that the leaves won't stick quickly to the big pile of glue.

Focused But Frustrated

Threes enjoy using their imaginations to solve problems as they arise. Wanting a construction worker's hard hat for his dramatic play, Max enthusiastically decides to use an upside-down plastic bowl. Delighted, he then repeatedly demonstrates how to use the pretend supervisor's walkie-talkie he creatively made from a juice box.

Threes sometimes become frustrated in their problem-solving attempts because they can see only one possible solution — which may not be workable. For example, when Tommy's jacket zipper is stuck, he keeps pulling it up, convinced that this is the only available approach.

If At First ...

Adventuresome 4-year-olds frequently charge ahead in their quest to solve problems. While they may need some help in focusing on the actual problem, they are more patient than threes and can try out different solutions.

For example, several fours struggle to get their wagon out of the mud on the playground. First, they try pushing it. Then they attempt to pull it. When these methods fail to budge the wagon, they decide to take the heavy rocks out and then try again. Typical of fours, the children boast about how strong and what good thinkers they are!

Team Efforts

Using their larger vocabularies, fours are ready to negotiate with one another. Their developing language skills help them work together and engage in group decision-making. With practice, they learn to choose from various solutions.

For instance, a few children decide to build a house. They gather a variety of materials — colored foil, corrugated cardboard, dandelions, tree bark —Â and then work together to decide which ones to use. They share their predictions about which materials might work and how best to use them.

What You Can Do

Preschoolers learn best from frequent experience solving problems that are meaningful to them — those that arise in their day-to-day life.Provide opportunities for hands-on investigations. Offer children interesting items to explore, such as magnets, found objects, and broken (but safe) appliances. Rotate your materials to keep them fresh and thought-provoking.

Foster creative- and critical-thinking skills by inviting children to use items in new and diverse ways. Colored beads, for example, can become reins for a race horse, hair for a doll, measuring links, or can be impressed in clay to make designs.

Encourage children's suggestions and solutions. Promote brainstorming by asking open-ended questions: "What can you do with a ...?" "How many ways can you ...?" Listen carefully to their ideas.

Allow children to find their own solutions. Offer help when they become frustrated, but don't solve their problems for them.

Use literature as a springboard. Share books that show how characters solve problems, such as King of the Playground by Phyllis Naylor (Antheneum) and Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina (Scholastic Inc.).

At a Glance

  • Threes tackle problems through a trial-and-error approach, basing their ideas on what they see and feel.
  • Three-year-olds can become focused on one solution. If it doesn't work, they may give up in frustration.
  • Fours have more patience and are able to try out multiple solutions to a problem.
  • Developing language skills enable fours to share their ideas and approach problems cooperatively.

About the Author

Carla Poole is a faculty member in the infant-parent development program at Bank Street College of Education in New York.

Susan A. Miller, Ed.D., a veteran teacher and director, is a professor of early childhood education at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, and author of the Problem Solving Safari series of teaching guides.

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