How Children Solve Problems
Children are natural problem solvers, eager to make sense of their world. Supportive adults and stimulating environments can help them develop this important skill.
- Grades: Early Childhood, Infant, PreK–K, 1–2
"What happens if I ...?"' "Why do animals have ears?" "How can I get this wall to stay up?." Each day offers children a variety of problems to solve and ideas to think about. However, the ways children engage in problem solving depend not only on their experiences but also on their ages and developmental levels. Use these guidelines as you think about problem-solving abilities, activities, and natural inclinations.
0 to 2
- test the limits of their bodies and abilities. "How far can I reach?" "What happens when I push on that?" "What do my hands do?' These are the kinds of questions very young children act out daily.
- experiment with whatever they can touch, taste, smell, and hear.
- explore cause and effect, noticing what happens when they do something and using that information to decide whether or not to take that action again (dropping food off the high-chair tray for an adult to pick up).
- discover they can influence their environment just by being in its
What You Can Do
- Provide a safe and stimulating environment where infants can explore. Unbreakable mirrors, toys of different textures, and large-motor mats and climbers invite babies to test the limits of their bodies and abilities daily.
- Encourage infants to use sensory materials with playful abandon. As you offer supportive guidance, ask questions to build thinking skills: "What can you do with this toy?" "How can you try it another way?
- Use expressive language to narrate children's interactions with materials.
- Solve everyday problems out loud so children can see and hear you model problem-solving behaviors.
- Extend children's environments. Go for walks outside, in the hall, to the zoo, to visit older children. Encourage children to ask, explore, and investigate so they can begin to see how things fit together in the world and to think about their place in it.
- Make time for hugs and smiles even (and most especially) when the day is filled with problems.
2 to 3
- create new and unexpected uses for toys and materials.
- experiment with the same problem over and over again, such as stacking blocks to build a tower that keeps falling down.
- test their physical problem-solving skills in such ways as climbing over chairs instead of going around them and sliding down the stairs on their bottoms.
- produce a wonderful mess in the process of solving a problem.
- want to be helpful and enjoy finding ways to fix things.
What You Can Do
- Create a safe environment where children are encouraged to experiment.
- Allow twos and threes to keep trying to find solutions without solving the problems for them or offering the right" answers too quickly.
- Support creative problem solving by offering comments such as "What a great new way to use that material!"
- Accept that independent eating and cleaning up are important problemsolving activities and that messes are part of the process.
- Remember that even though every object in your room has a place, it doesn't always have to be in that place. When twos and threes use toys in different areas and ways, they are solving problems.
3 to 4
- experiment with materials in slightly more creative and detailed ways than twos, such as using toy bananas as telephones or pots as hats.
- use language in the problem-solving process.
- delight in showing you their thinking, repeatedly demonstrating clever new inventions and ideas.
- try to make something work when they are having difficulty - for example, pounding in puzzle pieces where they don't fit.
- show curiosity about new things and be fascinated by exploring how they work.
What You Can Do
- Provide an environment filled with open ended, undefined materials for children to use in new and creative ways.
- Model problem solving by sharing your experiences and talking through the problem-solving process out loud. Listen to children's ideas and acknowledge their thinking in specific ways. Say, for instance, "You solved your problem! When you decided to put those blocks there, you kept the train from falling off the track."
- Be supportive when children are frustrated, but avoid solving problems for them.
- Spark curiosity by bringing in new and unusual things to discuss and explore.
4 to 5
- construct elaborate ways to solve problems. Fours and fives not only use objects to represent things, they also add to them to create new items.
- experiment with problems of language by telling jokes and inventing new words.
- begin to get very involved in solving social problems. Fours and fives are highly concerned about rules and helping others find fair solutions.
- enjoy experimenting and problem solving with ideas as well as concrete materials. Questions like "What will happen if ...?" and "What might happen next?" naturally arise as fours and fives begin to imagine new situations.
What You Can Do
- Provide a rich, varied collection of materials, including art and fastening materials, so children can experiment, construct, and create.
- Support experiments with humor and language. Laugh with children. Acknowledge their jokes, new words they invent, and the thinking they use to create them.
- Be available to help children solve social problems without solving them yourself. Try asking, "What's the problem here?" or "What are you going to do now?" This may be enough to get children talking and focusing on the problem and not on one another.
- Stimulate creative problem solving by asking children to predict what they will see or what would happen in a variety of situations.
- Read books that encourage children to solve problems and involve them in predicting outcomes in the story.
5 to 6
- Children May show a new level of frustration when they can't solve complex problems as quickly as they used to solve easier ones.
- experiment with helping others work out a problem before they turn to an adult.
- be more likely to consider and discuss how possible solutions might work before trying them out.
- be very verbal as they solve problems. Children this age are beginning to be able to explain their thinking and delight in telling you in detail about their ideas.
- find much satisfaction in solving science problems. They are at an analytical-thinking stage and so find the process of observation, prediction, experimentation, and analysis appealing.
- test the limits of their physical bodies with large-motor problem-solving activities - looking to see how far, how long, and how high they can move.
What You Can Do
- Show you understand children's frustrations while supporting them as they solve their problems.
- Establish a place in your room where children can take conflicts "to the table" to solve through collective conflict resolution.
- Make certain that children feel safe to experiment and take risks without fear of "failure."
- Offer many ideas and opportunities for children to brainstorm and ask open-ended questions rather than supply answers.
- Teach children the steps of the scientific method by providing a science center that will inspire investigations children can do on their own.
- Provide movement games and exercises that challenge children in creative and athletic ways: yoga, dance, cooperative games, and aerobics.
This article originally appeared in the April, 1999 issue of Early Childhood Today.