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Teaching Children Problem Solving Skills

Updated on May 16, 2015

Help your child develop effective problem-solving skills

Problem-solving skills are the foundation of all areas of knowledge, such as mathematics, science and the arts. Whether it's a toddler, trying to find out what made the wet spot on the rug, or a scientist attempting to find a cure for cancer, the processes involved in thinking and problem-solving are the same. It is through learning to problem-solve that children build their intellectual skills in these areas. Teaching children problem-solve also enhances their emotional, social, physical, aesthetic and moral development.

What is your child gaining by learning to problem-solve?

Learning to problem-solve helps children to:

How do you teach your child to problem-solve?

You provide lots of hand-on opportunities to engage your child in problem-solving situations that are age appropriate. For young children, the process of inquiry should derive from first-hand experiences; therefore, discovery-based learning should be encouraged.

As a teaching technique problem-solving involves helping children learn how to find answersto puzzles, questions, dilemmas and issues, and social predicaments they face in their daily world. Your child's individual learning should be nurtured through individualized learning tasks and small group-based learning. Small group projects are an important technique for building children's problem-solving skills across discipline boundaries and improving their ability to collaboratively solve problems.

6 practical things you should be doing to help your child problem-solve:

Children need to learn, repetitively and on a regular basis, how to problem-solve. In order for them to acquire this thinking process, you should:

1. facilitate a problem-solving climate
2. create time to problem-solve
3. create space to problem-solve
4. use materials to encourage problem-solving
5. show familiarity with how to problem-solve; and
6. choose appropriate problems to solve.

1. Facilitating a problem-solving climate

Your childshould know that it's okay to be 'wrong' and that they are not going to be punished for making a mistake, and they need to know that their judgements and solutions are valued whether they're correct or not. Remember, you are trying to encourage a problem-solving thought process, which dictates that all options to solving a particular problem be explored to find the one, or several, that fit(s). Do not make fun of your child, if their solution is wrong even if you think their solution to aproblem is 'cute'. Your child wants to have their opinions heard and taken seriously. Your child's interest in problem-solving will be increased if you pay attention to their answers and encourage them to try out their ideas in practice, thus creating positive reinforcement for their problem-solving attempts.

2. Creating time to problem-solve

This process takes time as your child will need to think about how to solve a problem and test their solutions in practice. Trial and error is an essential part of learning to solve problems. Set aside a time on a regular basis, such as weekend afternoons, to engage with your child in a problem-solving activity.

3. Creating space to problem-solve

Testing out solutions to problems is best done in a safe and suitable space, such as your child's sandpit or garden area where you can play with them. Sandpit is a particularly suitable space for a young child to test out their problem-solving skills as you can create many situations, such as tunnel digging or building a ramp using materials from your garden, for your child to have problem-solving input. Having a few other children of the same age engage in solving a common problem is also beneficial as this situation allows for valuable social interaction between the children as they try to negotiatethe solution together.

4. Using materials to encourage problem-solving

Your child needs lots of opportunities to play in a wide variety of ways with a wide variety of materials. The flexibility of open-ended materials such as sand, water, blocks and art materials are ideal as they can be explored in a variety of ways. Children can test out solutions readily and shape the open-ended materials in lots of different ways as they explore their solutions.

5. Familiarity with how to problem-solve

There is a logical sequence to problem-solving and you can easily teach your child to follow it:

1. Identify the problem
2. brainstorm possible solutions
3. test out one solution; and
4. evaluate what happened.

Understanding the processes of thinking involved in problem-solving helps improve children's problem-solving skills. You can help your child develop this by talking aloud as you solve a problem so that you're modeling appropriate thinking strategies to your child. You can ask questions to help stimulate your child's thinking in the right direction. The best questions which will help stimulate creative problem-solving thinking are those that are open-ended.

Examples of open-ended questions:

How could this be made to work again?
What else could you do?
What do you think will happen if we do it this way?
What will happen if you try - ?
How could we find out?
How could we do this?
Is there another way of doing this?

6. Appropriate problems to solve

Finding appropriate problems to solve shouldn't be difficult as your child has very little experience in the world and children, by nature, are very curious about the world around them. Problems you choose for your child to solve will most probably be related to how the physical world works, or how the social world works as these two aspects of everyday living are the ones your child is familiar with.

Sample questions of problems from the physical world:

How to keep a balance scale level while adding weights to it?
How to fill a bottle with water when there is a hole in the bottom?
How to tie a shoelace?
How to reach the top of the cupboard?
How to make a tunnel in the sandpit without the castle falling down?

Sample questions from the physical world:

How to join a chasing game that looks fun?
How to help a friend stop crying?
How to talk to a friend who doesn't understand your language?
How to decide who comes to your party?


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