Parents and teachers understand firsthand the complexity of raising well-rounded children equipped to thrive in future settings like school, work and interpersonal relationships. There’s a lot to teach kids and a lot they must learn on their own — physically, mentally, emotionally and socially.
While there may not be one single most important skill a kid can learn, problem solving is certainly high up on the list of crucial life skills. The U.S. Department of Labor even notes that employers have said they need workers with skills “beyond the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic” — to grow their businesses and remain competitive, they need to hire people with critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Here’s more about the importance of problem solving and some tips for helping kiddos discover and strengthen this area of development from a young age.
Problem-Solving Skills: What They Are & Why We Need Them
It’s easy to forget how much goes into solving a problem — whether you’re a child figuring out how to solve a puzzle or an adult addressing a pain point in the workplace.
Problem-solving skills encompass a variety of specific skills that work together to help people find solutions and make decisions, such as:
- Observational skills
- Lateral thinking
- Creative thinking
- Critical thinking
- Attention to detail
When it comes to problem-solving skills for kids in particular, children need two foundational things in place:
- The confidence and comfort to try to find a solution, and to persevere in this task.
- Strategies they can use to tackle problems as they arise, like “trial and error” or “breaking large problems into smaller pieces.”
So, our role as adults becomes to help model and teach children strategies they can use time and time again when solving problems — but also give them the space to reason through challenges on their own. As tempting as it can be to smooth out our kiddos’ problems as they arise, we’re actually doing them a disservice if we take away those opportunities for them to actively practice problem solving. As they get more solutions under their belts, they’ll become more confident and have more experience upon which to draw.
Tips for Encouraging Problem Solving in Kids
Let’s dive into some specific tips parents and teachers can keep in mind as they aim to help little learners strengthen their problem-solving capabilities.
Give kids space to reason — and yes, struggle — when problem solving.
As Scholastic points out, showing kids the “right” way to solve certain problems robs them of the chance to think critically and creatively, as well as the confidence they get from reaching a conclusion on their own. Take a step back. Give them time to work through issues on their own.
Facilitate open-ended play.
Open-ended play involves materials that “do not have a pre-determined use.” This allows kids to let their imaginations run free, and encourages them to make choices as they play — which can help them practice creative play that builds resilience, focus and comfortability dealing with unknown outcomes. From building blocks to natural materials found outside (like pinecones and shells), open-ended play is a fun precursor to problem solving.
Teach and model problem-solving strategies
Much like the difference between giving someone a fish vs. teaching them to fish, teaching kids how to problem solve can set them up for future success in a way that simply helping them with a one-time solution never will. Here’s an example of a simple four-step process: 1). Identify the problem. 2). Brainstorm solutions. 3). Think about potential outcomes. 4). Try the winning solution.
Problem solving is one of the most important skills a child can learn — and some would even say it takes the top spot. It’s well worth doing what we can as parents and educators to help kids strengthen this skillset.