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How to Encourage Problem-Solving

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Dear Elizabeth,
I’ve read a lot about how important it is to teach children problem-solving skills. Is my eighteen-month-old son too young to start learning these skills?
Danali Navarro
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
Host
  • Provide interesting, open-ended materials
  • Avoid rushing in to solve your child’s problems
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Encourage children’s problem-solving successes with praise
Expert Advice
Ann Barbour
Ann Barbour
Professor of early childhood education
It’s never too young for a child to start learning about problem solving. Your child is already solving problems everyday as she tries to figure out how to do things by herself. Sometimes adults don’t recognize children’s efforts in, say, trying to put on shoes by themselves, or stacking blocks to make a tower that won’t fall down as problem solving. But these trial-and-error processes and the persistence kids show as they try to do these kinds of things for themselves are exactly what we want to encourage to help them develop problem-solving skills.

Benefits of Problem-Solving
We all encounter problems in our lives and we need to develop a certain degree of self-reliance in solving them. As kids learn to solve problems for themselves they gain confidence in their own abilities and they develop the kinds of attitudes and skills that will serve them well in school and in life – abilities like being able to think flexibly (to generate more than one possible way of doing something which is what creativity is based on), patience, persistence, and a can-do attitude. When kids solve problems by themselves, they take pride in their accomplishments that deepens their sense of their own capabilities.

Kids who haven’t been given opportunities and encouragement to work out solutions to problems by themselves can become overly reliant on others for the answers. They can also give up when things become too hard.

Encouraging Problem-Solving
One of the best ways to encourage problem-solving is by not rushing to the rescue when kids experience everyday difficulties. Give them time to try to work things out for themselves. It’s often easier and a lot quicker for adults to do things for kids, but that can deny them the chance to learn to figure things out for themselves. Obviously, you want to observe their efforts and help them out a bit if they become overly frustrated.

Give kids time to explore, experiment and play with interesting materials. Materials that kids can play with and use in different ways encourage problem-solving. In the process of exploring and playing with these kinds of open-ended materials, children will do and make things of their own design that you probably never expected.

For example, that bowl in the bottom of your kitchen cupboard can be the basket in a basketball-type game, a hard hat, an insect’s home, or a stool. As children figure out how to use the bowl in their play, they’re solving a problem they have. Open-ended materials also hold children’s interest for longer periods of time than toys that are designed to be used mainly in one way.

Let children know that you have confidence in their abilities to figure things out for themselves and as they do, be enthusiastic about their efforts and help them take pride in their own abilities. Saying “Wow! You figured that out all by yourself!” reinforces their sense of accomplishment. And if you describe what kids actually did to solve a problem (for example, “It was a good idea to use that long block to make a bridge over that river.”) rather than simply saying “good job,” you’re not only telling them you value what they did, you’re encouraging them to think about the specific steps they took to work things out.

When Adults Need to Intervene
If you pay attention to what children are trying to do, you’ll have a pretty good idea when it’s time to step in to help. If they become overly frustrated or give up, you may need to offer just enough help and encouragement so they’ll continue to try. How you offer help depends on their stage of development. Sometimes giving them different materials (like child-size scissors) can make things easier for them. Other times, asking questions to encourage them to think about problems in different ways (What do you think you could try next? What would happen if . . . ?) can guide them in discovering solutions and encourage their persistence. You’ll also be able to see when kids are tired or distracted and you’ll realize that it’s better for them to leave things and come back to them later.

Make Problem-Solving Fun
You can help make problem-solving fun for kids by giving them lots of time for free play. Play provides endless opportunities for creative thinking which is at the heart of problem solving.

Don’t expect perfection when kids are trying to do things by themselves. They don’t learn how to run before they walk and most kids don’t walk without a few tumbles in the process. They’re going to spill juice, put their pants on backwards, write letters upside down, but without having opportunities to try by themselves and figure out what works and doesn’t work they’ll have a harder time developing problem solving skills. Show them you recognize and appreciate their efforts and give them lots of encouragement. You can also playfully challenge kids but asking questions like “What can you make with these materials?” or “How many ways can you use this?”
Child Care Provider Comments
Jennifer Botto
Jennifer Botto
Mother of two
I try to encourage my daughter’s problem-solving efforts. When she comes running and excited that she did something I’ll praise her, and say that’s great! I will ask her if she can do it again to show me if it’s not something that I saw myself. This helps to reinforce her confidence and independence.
Marianella Hickery
Marianella Hickery
Child care provider for 20 years
When a child is upset or frustrated by not being able to figure something out, I try to see what knowledge he has that he could use to accomplish a similar task. The child gets self-confidence back again. Then we can go back to the difficult task and usually they can then figure out what they couldn’t before.
Cathy Agnew
Cathy Agnew
Cares for her grandchildren, mother of two
Just the other day, my granddaughter found a big tub of toy logs – she had never seen them before. She saw in the instructions that you could make several different types of houses. Of course this intrigued her and she wanted to build one. We sat down and I showed her the different sizes and pieces. She started to make a house, but she began to realize that a particular piece would not fit with another. She had to figure out how to use corner pieces and different sized logs. If she didn’t put the right one on, it would fall off.

Locks, Latches & Switches Featured Activity:
Locks, Latches & Switches
How to Encourage Problem-Solving Featured Video:
How to Encourage Problem-Solving
Topic: Child Development
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