How Your Child Learns to Problem-Solve

Your preschooler is figuring out what things are, why things are, and how things work.




In the course of your child's day, dozens of questions like these arise: "What's inside this box?" "How can I get into it?" "How far can I throw this ball?" "What will happen if I spill all of the crayons out of the box?" "I wonder if my teddy bear floats?" "How can I get these pieces of paper to stick to that piece of paper?" "Why does my block tower keep falling over?"

By asking these questions, your child is identifying and figuring out ways to solve them, and trying out her ideas. Every time she experiments with and investigates things in her world, such as how far water will squirt from a sprayer and what's inside a seedpod, for example, she is building her ability to solve problems. This is also true when she selects materials for building or when she learns to resolve an argument with a friend or sibling over a toy.

If we look at this process more closely, we discover that problem solving involves both creative and critical thinking. Both are necessary to figure out the solutions to problems of all kinds.

Creative Thinking

Creative thinking is the heart of problem solving. It is the ability to see a different way to do something, generate new ideas, and use materials in new ways. Central to creative thinking is the willingness to take risks, to experiment, and even to make a mistake. Part of creative thinking is "fluent" thinking, which is the ability to generate or brainstorm ideas. So ask your child "wide-open" questions! For instance, ask him to:

  • imagine all the different ways to get to school (walking, flying, driving, swimming!).
  • name everything he can think of that's red.
  • name everything he can think of that's round.
  • imagine all the things he could make out of clay or paper bags or even an empty box.

These are good examples of thinking problems that have many right answers. Research has shown that the ability to think fluently has a high correlation to school success later on. Another part of creative thinking is "flexible" thinking, which is the ability to see many possibilities or to view objects or situations in different ways. The next time your child pretends a pot is a hat or a spoon is a microphone or speculates on all the reasons that a child in a picture might feel sad, he is practicing his flexible thinking.

Critical Thinking

Critical, or logical, thinking is the ability to break an idea into its parts and analyze them. The math skills of sorting and classifying, comparing similarities and differences, are all parts of critical thinking. Whenever your child looks at, say, two glasses of juice and tries to figure out which one holds more, he is practicing this kind of thinking. To encourage it, ask your child:

  • how many different ways he can sort his blocks.
  • how many different ways he can make a building out of the blocks.
  • how the building would be different if he used blocks of only one size.
  • how a bottle of juice and his lunch box are alike and how they are different.
  • how family members' shoes are alike and how they are different.

Asking questions about things that don't seem to make sense is another way children think critically. Questions such as "Why do I have a shadow on the playground but not inside?" or "Why can't I see the wind?" are examples of critical thinking. You don't need to have one right answer, but do encourage your child to express his ideas. There's one other thing to remember about problem solving: It's fun! So make room for spontaneity and prepare yourself to be surprised and delighted as you discover your child's unique way of thinking.

Thinking Skills & Learning Styles
Logic and Reasoning
Critical Thinking
Age 5
Age 4
Age 3
Learning Styles
Problem Solving