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 into a pile on her paper and then pushes the leaves on top. Like most three-year-olds, she's solving a problem through trial and error, relying primarily on her senses rather than reasoning. So it may take several experiments before she understands that the leaves won't stick readily to the big pile of glue.
Focused but Frustrated
Threes enjoy using their imagination to solve problems as they arise. Wanting a construction worker's hard hat for his dramatic play, Max enthusiastically decides to use an upsidedown plastic bowl. Delighted, he then repeatedly demonstrates how to use the pretend supervisor's walkie-talkie he creatively made from a juice box. At this age, children can 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 four-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 three-year-olds and can try out different solutions.
For example, several four-year-olds 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 this age, the children then boast about how strong and what good thinkers they are!
Using their larger vocabularies, four-year-olds are ready to negotiate with one another. Their developing language skills help them as they work together and engage in group decision-making. With practice, they learn to choose from among several different solutions. For instance, a few of the children decide to build a house. They gather a variety of materials — colored foil, corrugated cardboard, twigs, dandelions, tree bark — and then work together to decide which ones to use. They discuss their predictions about which of the materials might work and how best to use them.
What You Can Do
Preschoolers learn best when they're given frequent opportunities to solve problems that are meaningful to them — those that arise in their day-to-day life.
- Provide opportunities for hands-on investgations. 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. Strings of colored beads, for example, can become reins for a racehorse, hair for a doll, links for measuring, or tools to press into clay to make designs.
- Encourage children's suggestions and solutions. Promote brainstorming by asking openended questions: "What can you do with a...?" "How many ways can you...?" Listen carefully to children's 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 and Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina.