Children are confronted daily with rich opportunities to solve problems and exercise their own independent judgment when they're given the chance to safely explore the world. These problems, which might involve physical challenges, social relationship issues, or understanding how things work, often seem minor to us but provide great opportunities to practice critical thinking skills. For example:
- An eight-month-old has crawled under a chair and now can't figure out how to get out. He wonders what to do.
- A two-year-old thinks: "My teacher put out tongs for us to pick up our chicken nuggets, but I can't figure out how they work. Do I keep trying or just use my fingers?"
- A four-year-old thinks: "I am trying to get the water in the sandbox to stay in the 'moat' I'm building for my castle, but it keeps disappearing into the sand. How do I make the water stay?"
- A seven-year-old speculates: "Several of my friends are teasing a kid in our class about his clothes. Do I join in, not participate, or tell them how I really feel about what they are doing?"
Each of these problems offers children chances to exercise and build a foundation for critical thinking and are not minor to children. Our role as the adults in their lives may sometimes be to offer guidance for creative problem solving. In other cases, it may be more useful to let a child experiment on his/her own for a bit. How and how quickly we respond can have a significant impact on children's development of critical thinking skills.
Learning to think critically may be one of the most important skills which today's children will need for the future. Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making, includes critical thinking on her list of the seven essential life skills needed by every child. Helping children view themselves as problem solvers or critical thinkers is also one of ten strategies that Dombro, Jablon and Stetson describe in Powerful Interactions to extend children’s learning.
Tips for Teaching Critical Thinking & Problem Solving
So how can we best support and teach our children as they are developing critical thinking skills? Here are some tips and ideas to help children build a foundation for critical thinking and grow them into problem solvers:
- Provide opportunities to play. It is during play that children test their thinking whether dropping a spoon over and over again off the side of a high chair tray; rolling two marbles down a chute to see which is faster; seeing what happens when you dip chalk in water; or mixing cornstarch and water to make "goop". Providing space for playing, including time for outdoor or pretend play, can provide open-ended opportunities to try something and see the reaction; try something else and see if you get a different reaction. This informal process of testing how things work is crucial to critical thinking.
- Help children view themselves as problem solvers and thinkers by asking open-ended questions. Rather than automatically giving answers to the questions your child raises, help them think critically by asking questions in return: "What ideas do you have? What do you think is happening here?" Respect his or her responses whether you view them as correct or not. You could say, "That is interesting. Tell me why you think that." Use phrases like "I am interested to hear your thinking about this." "How would you solve this problem?" "Where do you think we might get more information about this problem?"
- Don't solve all problems immediately for children. Instead ask some of the questions above and provide enough information so children don't get frustrated, but not so much information that you solve the problem for them.
- Help children develop hypotheses. "If we do this, what do you think will happen?" "Let's predict what we think will happen next."
- Encourage thinking in new and different ways. By allowing children to think differently, you're helping them hone their creative problem solving skills. Ask questions like, "What other ideas could we try?" or encourage coming up with other options, "Let’s think of all the possible solutions."
- Support your child to research further information. You can help your children develop critical thinking skills by guiding them towards looking for more information. Say, "Now how could we find out more? Your dad knows a lot about this. Shall we ask him? Or shall we try searching on the computer?"
Of course there are times when you can't take this much time for your child to reach an answer on his or her own. At those times, it is okay to take short cuts. Children also learn from observing how you solve problems. However, when you can, taking time to allow your child to think through problems will be hugely helpful to developing your child's critical thinking skills in the long run.
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