0 to 2 "IT WON'T WORK!" by Carla Poole

Baby Kayla's eyes sparkle as she tracks the gentle swing of a mobile. Eventually she starts to fuss, so her teacher gently picks her up. "What's wrong, Kayla? Are you bored? Hungry? Need a diaper change?" Kayla has called for help with her discomfort. Your well-timed response instills feelings of trust. She develops positive feelings about herself, her teachers, and her ability to make good things happen. She senses that problems can be solved.

Babies are born with reflexes: nature's problem solvers. If a newborn is held upright on a table, for instance, he will make stepping motions. This is an involuntary movement. Gradually, reflexes fade and muscle control develops from the trunk outward. His movements become pleasurable sensory experimentations. It's as though he is saying, "Wow, it sure feels good to kick my legs!"

Thinking and Doing

During infancy, these random movements become more purposeful. Six-month-old Daniel smiles with glee as he thrusts his legs outward. By chance, he kicks a nearby rattle, which makes an interesting sound. He is still for a moment. What was that sound? He kicks again and again, and the rattle sounds. Daniel wiggles with joy as he repeats his successful movement. The pleasurable sensation of kicking is now combined with the excitement of realizing that he can make good things happen. He is beginning to understand the concept of cause and effect.

Toward the end of the first year, babies begin to realize that people and things mostly stay the same, and continue to exist, even when out of sight. This early object permanence, coupled with developing memory, helps babies use "tools" to problem solve. They might pull on a string attached to a toy that is out of reach, or push a toy with a stick to make it move.

Using Their Senses

Toddlers are experts at gathering information by using their bodies. They use all of their senses while finding out what things can do, as well as what they can do to things. These sensory experiences create learning pathways in the child's brain. So toddlers need lots of time to create their own "science projects." Sometimes, behavior that seems to be challenging you is really important exploration: What happens when I pour water on the floor? Or poke my friend?

Let toddlers choose from a wide variety of sensory activities involving different textures, sounds, shapes, and colors. Like all of us, toddlers are more motivated to stick with a problem when they have chosen it.

Making Plans

After 18 months, the toddler gradually begins to remember more and to make plans using his past experiences. For example, a 20-month-old watches closely as his teacher uses the edge of a table to pry apart some nesting cups that are stuck together. A few hours later, he tries the same technique with some DUPLO® blocks. Honor this remarkable thinking and describe what he is doing. If he gets stuck, make a suggestion or demonstrate another possible solution. Timing is everything, especially with toddlers. Helping too soon might stop the process, yet wait too long and feelings of frustration can overwhelm the toddler. Help him to manage his emotions so he can keep thinking about the challenge at hand.

Talking Helps

Since toddlers learn how to problem solve by watching and imitating others, be sure to talk through simple problems you face. You might explain, for instance, that you need to step on the stool to reach something on the top shelf. Help them make connections between similar situations.

Two-year-olds are curious and creative-and they don't like to be told what to do, so they encounter lots of problems. Fortunately, their thinking and language skills are growing. They are better "mental manipulators" and use order and sequence to solve problems. Riley, a lively 2 frac12;-year-old, wants to go outside right "now!" He runs to get his coat and proudly waits by the door. He knows this is the sequence of events that will resolve his situation.

Building Confidence

Riley's positive sense of self and his loving relationships make his complex thinking possible. Social/emotional development and thinking skills are like strands of yarn that spiral around one another as the child grows. The doubling of the "yarn" makes the child's development stronger and richer.

Nothing is more inspiring than the look of joy on a toddler's face when she makes something work, or the focus of a toddler who is paying full attention to what is going on in the moment. Form a partnership with your hardworking investigators; everyone will benefit from the hard work and fun.

What You Can Do:

  • Celebrate explorations! Positive feedback that is not overdone increases pleasure in learning.
  • Avoid helping too much. Even young babies enjoy the workout they get from finally grabbing a toy that is just out of reach.
  • Ask open-ended questions when problems occur. "The ball is stuck! What can we do?"

3 to 4 "THAT WORKS!" by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

When 3-year-old Abby tries to play with the play dough she helped to make with flour, salt, and water earlier in the week, it sticks to her fingers. However, she remembers seeing her friend, Diane, pour dry sand over her hands and rub them together to get the damp sand mixture off. Abby decides to try to solve her sticky problem by sprinkling sand from the nearby sandbox onto the dough on her fingers. "This looks yucky," Abby says, as she pours on more sand and rubs her hands. She goes to wash her hands, when her teacher asks, "What might happen if you mix the dough with a spoon?" After trying this, Abby flashes a big smile as she acknowledges, "It works!"

How do 3-year-olds like Abby become problem solvers? Young children think in a way that is qualitatively different from the way adults think. Abby's teacher would have instinctively added more flour to keep the dough from sticking to her hands. However, Abby sees the problem in the immediate moment. She relies on her senses for things she can see and touch-the sand is easily observable in her immediate environment, whereas the flour is in a cabinet, out of sight and reach. And she saw how Diane used the sand successfully on her hands. Her thinking and problem-solving-skills are very much based on action and perception.

Learning Through Experimentation

Three-year-olds enjoy experimenting with a wide variety of materials and they develop their problem-solving skills through trial and error. This is reflected in Abby's actions-sprinkling and pouring sand on her hands, then finally mixing it all together to eliminate the stickiness. Sometimes children this age become frustrated when an idea doesn't appear to work, as evidenced by Abby's "yucky." They may even walk away from their project, just as Abby started to do. They frequently become focused on one particular solution, which may or may not work. However, they can be encouraged to rise to a higher level of problem-solving when given support by an adult. The adult may give hints or ask questions in ways that will leave the actual solution up to the children.

Brainstorming Solutions

A small group of exuberant 4-year-old boys decides to create a gigantic dinosaur out of cardboard boxes. However, they are not sure how to keep the boxes together. Using a problem-solving approach, they brainstorm suggestions for attaching the boxes and then try out some ideas. The glue from the glue sticks doesn't hold. Doug finally suggests wrapping tape strips around the boxes like his dad does when he mails a package at the post office. The boys agree with this solution. They get busy tearing masking tape and wrapping it around the boxes-and so their dinosaur grows!

Working Together

Now more able to see things from the perspective of others, 4-year-olds listen to their friends' ideas and enjoy solving problems and working together cooperatively. Possessing more patience, they are willing to discuss and pursue multiple solutions to problems until they find one that seems to work. With their increased vocabulary, fours are able to negotiate materials and actions needed for problem-solving. They have developed the language to enthusiastically summarize and share their ventures and predictions. Using more complex thinking skills, 4-year-olds are able to think about events, people, and objects that are no longer in their immediate physical environment.

What You Can Do:

  • Promote brainstorming. Use lots of open-ended questions that begin with "What if...?" or "What can you do with a...?" to foster critical and creative thinking.
  • Invite children to use materials in new ways. For example, a blanket can become a cave, a superhero's cape, a baby's cover, a picnic cloth, or a floor map. You might try adding a basket of intriguingly colored ribbons to the block area to stimulate creative thinking. Rotate materials to keep choices exciting.
  • Turn mistakes into learning experiences. Help your children analyze why a solution did not work out. Encourage them to find other alternatives.

5 to 6 "FIX IT THIS WAY!" by Ellen Booth Church

"This book is ripped!" Terese and Niko exclaim as they rush to show the teacher a ripped book they found in the library corner. "Look what someone did to our book," says Niko. "That is bad. Now we have to throw it away!" The teacher, seeing a teachable moment, jumps in with a suggestion: "Maybe we can find a way to save the book. What do you think we could do to fix it?" Immediately, the children begin to brainstorm different possibilities and suggest looking in the art area for materials they can use. After discussing the various ideas, they choose one to try, and soon the book is repaired.

Natural Problem Solvers

Children are natural problem solvers. They explore the world with a curiosity that generates thinking and understanding, one problem at a time. From their earliest days, children are experimenting with problem-solving. In the crib, a baby might be trying to find a way to reach a mobile with his foot. A toddler might be trying to figure out how to get from here to there without falling down. Problems in the preschool years may be related to how to build with toys or how to share.

By the age of 5 or 6, children are already experienced problem solvers. They bring years of trial and error to each new problem. This allows them to tackle more sophisticated dilemmas, not only on a concrete level, but on an abstract-thinking level as well. At this stage, children can think about how to solve problems without actually needing to manipulate, or "do," something. For example, children can think about a problem that a storybook character is having and come up with different solutions. They can also visualize a problem, such as having a leak in a boat, and suggest several ways of fixing it before actually trying them out. But they still need to experience the process of testing out their solutions in a hands-on way. This ability to think abstractly is a skill that will grow over the next few years. It will allow children to be able to tackle everything from difficulties with social interactions to math problems.

Keen Observers

One of the strongest skills that 5- and 6-year-olds bring to problem-solving is their ability to use deductive reasoning. They do this by interpreting clues. Children are keen observers and are learning how to apply what they observe. Fives and sixes love being "thinking detectives," as they try to put together pieces of information to solve a problem. That is why they love "I'm thinking of something" games, riddles, magic bags, and treasure hunts. All these activities invite children to use information they receive though observation and to interpret it through problem-solving.

A Sense of Wonder

Problem-solving often comes from a state of wonder. What does a kindergartner wonder about? They wonder about how things work, how they go together, and how to take them apart. They think about where things come from and how they grow and change. They're curious about what they can do with their bodies and with their imaginations. Each of these wonderments leads to problem-solving adventures that help children construct their own knowledge about how the world works. Our role as adults is to create a state of wonder in the classroom by asking good questions. For instance, while taking a walk outside you might say, "I wonder how the leaves change colors. What do you think?" Then it is important to accept all of the children's ideas before actively exploring the leaves with a science experiment. Accepting children's suggestions, no matter how odd they may seem, will set a tone for the creative thinking and brainstorming that is needed for children to feel comfortable taking risks with their thinking.

Application Is Key

The key to developing the 5- and 6-year-olds' problem-solving skills is application. Once children have learned to solve a problem in one situation, it is essential for them to later apply what they have learned to a new situation. For example, if children are exploring which objects work for making crayon rubbings at the art table, it is important for them to then look around the room for other items to rub. What will make a similar design? What other bumpy or rough things can they find? Eventually, children can take the problem solving outside to find additional objects to rub.

At the age of 5 or 6, children's verbal ability (and their sense of self) has grown to the level where they can begin to receive and communicate ideas with other children. They can have real problem-solving discussions within a group and can begin to work collaboratively. This is a huge developmental step, indicating that they are more interested in working with the problem than in being "right." When children experience the joy of problem-solving without the fear of being "wrong," they are motivated to experiment with ideas and to work collectively.

What You Can Do:

  • Practice deduction with inference games. (Inference is the ability to reach logical conclusions from given or assumed evidence.) Use feely bags, riddles, mysteries, and treasure hunts to explore the use of deduction skills.
  • Create a safe environment for brainstorming and problem-solving. Welcome all ideas. Help children learn how to work together with the goal of solving a problem collectively. If a problem occurs in the classroom, explore it with the group for processing.
  • Invite children to expand their understanding. Whenever children experiment with an idea or problem, suggest that they test out their solutions in different settings.