Problem SolvingFew things fascinate my five-year-old daughter more than ice and snow. Unfortunately for her, we live in Texas.

Yesterday, after weeks of wishing for a winter wonderland, she poked around the kitchen drawers, looking for a solution to her problem. Her eyes lit up when she discovered that waxed paper felt “slippery like ice,” and she strapped some to her feet with duct tape and spent the afternoon ice skating on our tile floor.

To me, the absence of icy weather is no hardship, but my daughter saw the situation differently. The challenge was motivating. And because she had a deep desire to solve the problem — because she was uncomfortable with the world as it was — she tapped into her imagination and creativity.

Few skills will serve our children better than the ability to solve problems creatively. As education specialist Tony Wagner told the New York Times, “Today, because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know.” One of the most important skills, he continues, is “the capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life.”

The challenges that loom large to kids might seem small to adults: How do I put on my shoes by myself? Reach the cookie jar on the counter? Build a tower? Carry all my dinosaurs at once? Solve this math puzzle? Make a book? Build a fort? Join a group at recess? Ask a teacher for help? Keep my brother out of my room? Convince my parents to get a dog?

But these early challenges are the source of future innovation. When kids practice problem-solving skills at an early age — including the tenacity to keep trying when their first solution falls flat — they will be better equipped to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

Four Ways to Nurture Your Child’s Problem-Solving Skills

  1. Encourage Curiosity. All children go through a “Why?” stage. While that can tax our patience, we should be more concerned about children outgrowing their desire to understand why the world works the way it does.Problem solving often involves targeted research to find the information we need to develop innovative solutions. Use kids’ innate curiosity to teach them research skills. In fact, one of the best responses we can give to a “Why?” question is simply: “Let’s find out.” These three words tell children that you honor their curiosity and take their questions and interests seriously. It also shows that there are ways to find answers.
  2. Don’t Rescue, Reframe. When your elementary-age child comes to you with a problem — from a school science fair project to a social concern — resist the urge to step in and solve it for them. Instead, help them clarify the problem and brainstorm ways that they can solve it. Phrases such as these can help kids reframe challenges into opportunities:
    • Tell me more about the situation.
    • What have you already tried? What happened? What did you learn from that?
    • What’s one thing you can try that you haven’t tried already? Let’s brainstorm a list of possibilities.
    • How would so-and-so (a teacher, a classmate) describe the problem?
    • If you had a magic wand, what would you do to change the situation?
    • What information or skills do you need that you don’t have yet?
  3. Honor Tenacity. Tenacity is the ability to stick with a problem and approach a task with determination. It’s what gives us the strength to try, try again.

    Recently, my three-year-old wanted to climb onto a piece of playground equipment — a dinosaur rocker — that was a bit too high for his frame. He approached it from multiple angles, trying to boost himself again and again. Finally, he spotted a big rock nearby, lugged it over, and used it as a stepping-stone. While it was fun to ride on the T-Rex, that was nothing compared to his delighted cry of, “I did it, Mommy!”

    We honor our kids’ tenacity when we acknowledge the hard work they put into a project, when we give them time and space to experiment and when we don’t do for them what we know they can do for themselves. We encourage tenacity when we honor the effort they put into solving a problem. This might sound like, “You put a lot of hours into learning that song on the piano!” or “That was a challenging puzzle, but you stuck with it!”

  4. Look for Cues and Clues. Kids who are good problem solvers are also great observers. They take stock of the situation. They look for materials they need. They pay attention to the clues and cues around them. If your child is struggling with something, encourage them to press pause and take another look at the situation. What do they notice? Do they need to read the math problem again and look for key words? Is their block structure missing a support beam? Do they have a friend who can collaborate with them who might have new ideas to offer?

    Spending time in nature is one way to strengthen kids’ observation skills. Take a nature walk and encourage them to use their five senses. What do they see? What do they hear? What do they smell? What textures are around them? What clues can they find about they types of creatures who live in the area — what they eat, where they live? What “Why?” questions can you generate together?

About Deborah Farmer Kris

Deborah Farmer Kris spent several years as a K-12 educator and as an associate at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility. She is a regular contributor for MindShift and the mother of two young children. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris.

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