As children are playing, circulate and ask open-ended questions that build thinking skills and expand their understanding of problem solving outdoors.
  • How can you make that trike go backward?
  • How can you get across the climber without touching the ground?
  • How many ways can you go down the slide? (Safely, of course! )

Go for It!

Play noncompetitive, cooperative games that encourage children to solve problems together: Ask:

  • How can we keep these balloons in the air?
  • How can we get a giant sack full of children from one end of the playground to the other without anyone falling out?
  • How many ways can we set up this obstacle course?

Move Things Around

Provide large, movable materials children can build and experiment with, such as tires, blocks, planks, and cardboard boxes. Items like these offer children opportunities to create their own structures and solve their own problems in the process. Ask:

  • What can you build with these?
  • What would you like to add to your building?
  • How can you make your building more sturdy?

Discover Together

  • Try the following ideas to help children get involved in scientific investigations and problem solving:
  • Have a Bubble-Making Day, when children experiment with a wide variety of bubble-making devices and different types of soap solutions.
  • Ask children to think about bugs: Which ones do they think they will see outside? What do they think the bugs will be doing? What do they think they might learn by observing bugs in their natural habitat? What are some questions they would like answered about bugs? Bring magnifiers outside so children can investigate their predictions and questions.
  • Have an outdoor Magnet Day. Before going outside, invite children to predict which objects will and will not be attracted to magnets. Chart the predictions. Then encourage children to investigate and, together graph the results.
  • Try rolling various sizes of balls and toy vehicles down the slide and predicting how fast and how far they will go.

Try a Math Focus

Standard and nonstandard measures are wonderful to use outdoors. For example:

  • Ask children to look for plants, equipment, and objects that are "as big as me." Then look for additional objects that are the "same." You might ask questions, such as "Which is bigger around, your head or that tree trunk?" Measure with yarn to find out.
  • Bring your pan balance outside to experiment with equivalents. Ask: "How many pebbles weigh the same as this large stone?" "Which is heavier, a cup of water or a cup of sand?" (You can use the seesaw as a pan-balance scale, too, and investigate such problems as "How many children are equal to one teacher?"!)

Art Works!

One of the best ways to do problem solving with art materials is to leave something out of the usual collection of materials, then ask children to figure out how to use what they have available. For instance:

  • Bring out paper and paints, but no brushes. Ask, "What can you paint with?"
  • Provide paints and brushes, but no paper; then ask, "What can you paint on?" Furnish brushes and water and ask, "What art can you do with these?"
  • Stock your playground art area with glue and large sheets of oaktag or poster board and challenge children to find things outside to glue to create collages.
  • Put out a bag of fabric scraps and see how children use them. One class turned their climber into a giant wind sock!

Good Books for Problem Solving

Take some books outdoors to a favorite shady spot. While you are reading, stop at a crucial point in the story and ask children to suggest how to solve the character's problem. Or try framing questions to inspire children to think about the story in another way: "How would the story of the `Three Little Pigs' be different if there had been five little pigs?" Open-ended questions can add a wonderful new flavor to reading and encourage problem solving at the same time. Here are a few books to try: A Bad Case of the Stripes by David Shannon (Scholastic/Blue Sky), Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett (Atheneum), Never Spit on Your Shoes by Denys Cazet (Orchard Books), The Nightgown of the Sullen Moon by Nancy Willard (Harcourt Brace), Parts by Tedd Arnold (Dial), Regards to the Man in the Moon by Ezra Jack Keats (Four Winds Press), and The Wind Blew by Pat Hutchins (Macmillan).