Problem-solving and critical thinking are among the most crucial skills a child can learn. They provide children with the foundations for decision making, logical reasoning, categorising, analytical thinking, negotiation, and creativity.
Providing children with a caring environment that is rich in appropriately challenging activities is the key to developing problem-solving and higher-order processing skills.
Name the problem
If you can see a child struggling with an activity, give them the language to express what they are finding difficult.
Once you have named the problem, follow up with a prompting question that encourages them to take the next step to solve the problem.
For example, if a child spilled water and can’t find a cloth to clean it up, you could say: “That looks like a big spill of water. What should we do next?”
Answer with a question
When a child asks a question, resist the urge to answer immediately.
Instead, think about how you could use their query to encourage them to take the next step.
For example, if a child asks: “Where are my shoes?” ask them: “What were you doing when you were wearing them last?”
Prompting questions will encourage them to track back, problem-solve, and find the solution on their own.
Use prompting questions such as:
- What do you think about that?
- What do you think comes next?
- Which part are you finding difficult?
- Is there another way you could try that?
- Have you looked at it this way?
- Where could we find the answer?
Set the right level of challenge
Develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills by providing children with activities that are challenging but not impossible.
Activities should be a little out of reach and account for the child’s stage of development, skill level, and interests.
For example, you would introduce a child who is interested in name writing to the developmentally appropriate language materials, as opposed to presenting a counting activity.
A task that is interesting and appropriately challenging will encourage persistence, which ultimately leads to problem-solving and critical thinking skills, as opposed to frustration and discouragement.
Slow down and stand back
Children are often more capable than we think. Sometimes, all it takes is to slow down, stand back, and observe.
Take your cues from the child. Are they asking for help? Are they getting visibly upset? If not, allow them the time and space to persist. They will discover the learning outcome on their own.
If a child asks for help, offer the minimal level of assistance to get them to the next step, without solving the problem for them.
For example, if a child can’t figure out how to put on their jumper the right way, show them that the tag goes to the back and encourage them to try again.
Focus on effort
To encourage the development of problem-solving skills, focus on effort, as opposed to the result.
Using phrases such as “Good job!” and “You got everything right!” praise the outcome as opposed to the meaningful learning that occurred.
It also encourages children to continue to seek external validation as opposed to enjoying the process and seeing learning as its own reward.
Instead, use phrases of encouragement such as “I can see you have been working hard, or “That looks tricky! You worked hard on that. Maybe we can try again tomorrow.”
Focusing on the child’s effort, as opposed to the result, encourages them to try challenging things.