Problem solving can be defined as the ability to overcome obstacles to find a solution. Often we think of it in terms of mathematical or scientific ability, but in actuality problem solving is part of every developmental domain: cognitive, social/emotional, language/ communication, and physical. Luckily, children are natural problem solvers. From their first days, their brain works to overcome the obstacles they face. How do I get fed when I am hungry? What is making that sound? In fact, problem solving is so important that most states include it in their early learning guidelines. In Texas both “The Early Learning Guidelines for Infants, Toddlers, and Three-Year Olds” and “The Pre-Kindergarten Guidelines” (available online through the Texas Education Agency) have standards related directly to problem solving. Our job as early childhood educators is to provide learning experiences that enable children to become more proficient problem solvers and develop confidence in their own problem solving abilities. Yet with so many other activities that must be included in our day, we are not as intentional about it as we should be.
Here are 4 tips for including problem solving in your school day.
1. Choose materials for centers that encourage problem solving. One of the criteria you should consider when deciding which materials to have available in your interest centers is if it encourages the child to solve problems. Materials that allow children to interact with them in novel ways, have more than one way they can be used, or to ask and seek answers to questions encourage problem solving. For babies it may be a toy they need to figure out how to make move. Blocks that are unfamiliar to the children encourage them to figure out how to use them efficiently. Provide collections of items such as twigs, bottle caps, or feathers and allow children to determine how they are going to use them. (Loose Parts by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky is an excellent resource.) Be open to how the children use the objects. The more limitations and modeling you do, the less problem solving will occur.
2. Plan activities with the objective of letting children solve problems. Just putting materials out on the shelf and hoping the children use them to problem solve is not enough. Plan specific small group and individual activities with the objective of practicing problem solving skills. This may be a science investigation or math activity where children ask and seek answers. It could be an art project where children have to figure out how to use the materials given to create their project. Be intentional about the problem solving focus and scaffold the children by asking questions and giving them time and encouragement to find their own solutions.
3. Set up activities that encourage children to work with others to solve problems. Babies need to learn how to get the attention of their caregiver and communicate their needs. Toddlers can learn to trade toys with another child. Three-year-olds can start to negotiate turn taking with their peers. Preschoolers can work out how they can cooperate with a friend to make a block structure. Many times when issues arose between children in my classroom, I was too quick to solve the problem instead of taking the time to help children develop their own skills. This may take the form of modeling what they can do and then letting them try it on their own. Sometimes you can ask a probing question such as “What can you give Jamal so he will give you that truck?”
4. Use children’s literature to discuss problem solving skills. Many stories have a problem and a solution and you can use this as an avenue to discuss problem solving skills and introduce problem solving vocabulary. The book Caps for Sale comes to mind. The peddler has his hats piled up on his head and they disappear when he takes a nap. As the peddler starts to search for them, ask the children where he could look. He finds that the monkeys in the tree have taken them, but won’t give them back. Ask preschool children what the peddler should do. Instead of focusing on problem solving as you read the book you can discuss it at the end or on a second reading of the book. Introduce the words “problem” and “solution” and help the children identify them in the story. Discuss problem solving behaviors such being persistent to find answers. The peddler didn’t try just one way to get his hats back. He tried lots of ways! Older children can think of additional ways the problem could have been solved.
Be Intentional: “Teachable moments” are great, but if we wait for them to occur to focus on problem solving, many children won’t make the progress they could. So I encourage you to be intentional about including problem solving in your plans. At least weekly there should be materials and/or activities that promote problem solving in your classroom. You should be able to identify them in your plans if someone were to ask you what they are.
I’d love to hear how you are supporting problem solving in your classroom right now. Leave your activities in the comments section below.