Children use problem-solving skills on a constant basis - when they experiment and investigate, when they select materials, and when they try to work together: "How far will that water squirt?" "Where is that sound coming from?" "What do you think will happen if we add one more block?" We often divide children's learning into emotional, social, creative, cognitive, and physical. But watching children as they go about their day reveals that problem solving encompasses all of these areas of development.


Creative-thinking and critical-thinking skills are essential components of problem solving.

Creative thinking is the ability to look at a problem in many different ways. This might involve seeing a different way to do something, generating new ideas, or using materials in unique ways. Basic to being a creative thinker is a willingness to take risks, to experiment, and even to make mistakes.

What you can do: Part of encouraging creative thinking is helping children become both fluent and flexible thinkers. Fluent thinkers have the ability to come up with ideas; flexible thinkers are able to see many possibilities or view objects or situations in new ways. Just as problem solving takes place all day long, so can the activities you do to encourage children to be creative thinkers. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Brainstorm. Invite children to be fluent thinkers by asking them to respond to questions that have many right answers. Incorporate these questions into the interests children are involved with and the situations they are in. For instance, if children are having a discussion about nighttime, you might ask them to think of everything that lights up in the night, all the people who work at night, all the things they'd like to do if they stayed up all night.
  • Reflect. Help children to be flexible thinkers by asking them to comment on specific objects or situations in your room. (Remember, this activity, too, works best in the context of what is going on.) For instance, Carla needs a hat in the dramatic-play corner and can't find one. What are some other things she could use as a hat? Are there any ways to make a hat? Or, during group time, you're reading a book and the boy on the cover looks sad. What are some reasons he might look this way?

Critical Thinking is the ability to mentally break down a problem or an idea into parts and analyze them. Sorting, classifying, and comparing similarities and differences are all a part of this important skill. Critical thinking can also be called logical thinking.

What you can do: When you break larger problems into smaller parts, they become easier to understand and to solve.

  • Challenge. Encourage children to practice critical and logical thinking by asking them open-ended questions, such as "How many ways can you sort these blocks?" "How many different ways can you make a building using these blocks?" "How would the building be different if you used blocks that were all the same size?"
  • Listen. Asking questions about things that don't make sense is another way children express critical thinking. When a child wonders, "Why do I have a shadow on the playground but not inside?" or "Why can't I see the wind?" you don't need to respond with one right answer. Instead, encourage children to express their ideas.


You help foster problem solving not so much by providing special materials or specific activities but by having a responsive, accepting attitude. Here are other key ways to facilitate children's growth:

Provide plenty of time every day for children to choose activities based on their interests and developmental levels. Free-play situations create endless opportunities for children to identify and solve problems.

Follow children's leads. By observing children's interactions and dilemmas, you can support their problem-solving efforts and help them accomplish their goals.

Reinforce children's solutions. Let children know that their ideas and efforts are valued.

Extend creative thinking and problem solving. Ask open-ended questions about activities to help children see the problem they are trying to solve in new and different ways.


Think of yourself as having four roles observer, supporter, facilitator, and model watching, encouraging, interacting as a questioning partner, and sharing with children how you solve problems.

As an observer:

Step back and watch children's independent problem solving. Sometimes it may seem easier and faster to jump in and solve a problem for children or to show them the "right" way But stepping in too early can stifle their thinking or send a subtle message that you're not confident they can think problems through by themselves. Instead of intervening right away, step back and watch children's problem-solving skills unfold. Keep in mind that children's problem solving doesn't always look like a thinking activity. In fact, it can look like an argument, an experiment, or an unusual and messy way to use materials.

Focus on the process children are engaged in. Try to be patient while you encourage children to try new ways and look at problems from new perspectives.

As a supporter:

Acknowledge children's efforts, letting them know that what they are doing is important. Offer verbal support: "Look at all the different ways you're trying to make that piece fit in your puzzle. You're working hard to figure it out, aren't you?" At times, nonverbal support may be all that's needed - a smile, an understanding nod, or a thumbsup can show support and encourage children to continue in their thinking process. Remember too, that just by sitting quietly next to a child, you can communicate: "I understand what you're doing, and I know it's important."

Create accepting environments where children feel free to express their ideas without fear of being wrong or of not being taken seriously. Make sure your setting is a protective "laboratory" where children know they can experiment and practice problem-solving skills throughout each day.

Give children opportunities for open ended play activities in long periods of time. Create opportunities for children to initiate and solve their own problems and plenty of time to test out possible ideas and solutions.

As a facilitator:

Watch for times when children are engaged in problem solving and interject provocative questions to propel them into new ways of thinking. Remember open-ended, divergent questions have many possible answers and, so, invite children to think and problemsolve. Closed-ended, convergent questions have right and wrong answers and can actually block children's thinking processes. (See "What Makes a Good Question?" below).

Encourage children to express themselves. Rather than telling children about what they can make at the art table today, try showing them the materials and inviting them to brainstorm ideas. You might say, "I need your help. I brought in this bag full of art materials. What do you think we can make?" Then let children act on their ideas and make whatever they choose, offering your suggestions too. This approach is a very successful way to help children feel comfortable solving problems. When they see that you don't have one "right" answer or method in mind, they can move past fears of being "wrong" and draw on their wonderful creative thinking.

Provide a variety of problem-solving experiences. Offer games, puzzles, discussions, literature, and projects that children design - a wide range of activities that inspire creative and critical thinking and encourage children to stretch their minds.

As a model:

Think about your own approach to problem solving. Whether you're aware of it or not, children are always watching you. They observe how you deal with problems as examples of ways they might solve problems themselves. Talk about problem solving. When problems arise in the room, discuss your thought processes as you work through the problem. For example, you might say, "I have a problem. I planned to put out finger-painting materials today, but we've run out of finger-painting paper. What do you think we should do? Should we use different paper? I wonder how that would work? Should we wait until tomorrow because I can buy some tonight? Or maybe I could ask the teacher next door if she has some we could borrow " In other words, model fluid thinking and a positive attitude as well as a process for solving the small problems of everyday life. And involve children further by asking them to suggest their own solutions.

Emphasize the vocabulary of problem solving. As you speak with children, use the words problem, think, ideas, and solve. Children will begin to use them to define and describe their own thinking.

Be willing to make mistakes. It is reassuring to children to discover that adults make mistakes too. So let children see some of the mistakes you make, then ask them to help you solve the resulting problems. They feel important and, at the same time, learn that making mistakes isn't really such a bad thing after all. Instead, it's an opportunity for learning.

Problem solving is not about memorizing facts like the names of colors or shapes or the letters of the alphabet. Instead, it is about using two very important skills - the ability to think logically and the ability to think creatively when using and applying facts to solve problems. Child-centered, child-- initiated problem-solving activities play a vital role in developing children's ability to learn, think, feel confident, and be competent at understanding their world. What could be more important!

Great Books!

If the Shoe Fits by Carolyn Chapman (Skylight); Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Development by Rima Shore (Family and Work Institute); Suppose the Wolf Were an Octopus by Joyce Paster Foley and Michael T Bagley (Trillium Press); Think It Through: Developing Thinking Skills With Young Children by Martha Hayes and Kathy Faggella (First Teachers Press); and What Will Happen If ...? by Barbara Sprung, Merle Froschl, and Patricia Campbell (Educational Equity Concepts).