A beginners guide to problem-solving for young children

Picture this, your child is waiting in line to get their dinner at school. Someone pushes in front of them. How do they react?

Children lacking in problem-solving skills might act without thinking or recognising the consequences of their actions. They may lash out. Either that, or they could avoid the issues they face completely. These types of impulsive choices can create bigger problems for them in the long run – it’s often a major factor in why some children fall behind in school or struggle to maintain friendships.

So how can we help our children develop the skills needed to face adversity and solve the problems they come up against?

Create a winning formula

1. Identify the problem

Whether your child is angry, frustrated, or anxious, first get them to take three deep breaths and calm down. Then ask them to state their problem out loud and say why they feel the way they do.

2. Develop a few solutions

Brainstorm ways to solve the problem. Think of as many different solutions as possible. And if your child is struggling, help them develop solutions. Even a far-fetched idea is a possible solution. Show them there are many different solutions to a single problem.

3. Identify pros and cons of each solution

Think about the positive and negative consequences of each potential solution. Is the solution safe? Is it fair? How will everyone who is affected feel?

4. Pick a solution and test it out

Once evaluated, get your child to pick a solution and try it out to see what happens. If it doesn’t work that’s ok. They can try another one.

light bulb with ideas popping out

Practice makes perfect

  • Don’t rush to solve your child’s problem for them. Instead, help walk them through and offer guidance.
  • You may still need a consequence for bad behaviour, but make it clear that you’re invested in helping them find a solution, so they can do better next time.
  • Let children fail. Without it, they won’t learn.
  • Try not to be a ‘helicopter parent’. When you are not over-protective, you allow your child to think creatively.
  • Provide plenty of praise when your child practices their problem-solving skills.
  • Allow for ‘natural consequences’ to occur (when safe to). Letting your child make a mistake can teach an important lesson. 
    • For example: Let your child leave their toys outside. The consequence being they may be ruined by sun or rain.
  • In the same vein, you can also occasionally build road blocks into their experience. But make sure the difficulty is reasonable and the solution possible.
  • Encourage creative play. Use building toys, strategic thinking games, questions and scenarios, drawing and cooking. Until eventually problem-solving becomes its own reward.
  • Ask your kids for help and let them show off their skills.

Try some problem-solving activities

Mix 'n Match

Gather a pile of materials together, including, paper straws, cotton balls, yarn, paper cups, cord, tape, paper clips and sticky notes.

Using these materials, try and solve the following problems:

  1. Make a device to move a stuffed animal from one room to another without touching the ground.
  2. Create a slide for mini figures.
  3. Build a ramp for toy cars.
  4. Make a device that can roll one metre.
  5. Build a house for a toy figure.

Tower Building

Another great problem solving activity is tower building using marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti. Try and make the tower as tall as possible, and able to support a book.

Clue me in

A fun detective game that encourages problem-solving, critical thinking and cognitive development. Collect items associated to a place, animal, historical event, or profession and place them in a bag. Have your child reach into the bag and pull out the clues one by one. Choose a minimum number of clues that they must draw our before making their first guess. The child should then venture a guess after each subsequent clue is pulled out until they answer correctly.

Find a Replacement

An intriguing way to make an activity more interesting is to leave something out of the materials list… So for example if you were playing ‘Outdoor Artwork’, forget the paint and ask your child, ‘What can we paint with?’, or forget the paper, ‘What can you find to draw on?’.

Introduce your children to problem solving role models

Many books show children how problem-solving works in practice. For instance, their favourite character is facing a struggle and manages to analyse the problem to find a solution. If you are reading with your child, while not stop at a crucial part, and then ask them how they would solve the character’s problem.

Here are a few good ones to try:

  • Havoc in a Hippo by Epic Adventures
  • A Bad Case of the Stripes by David Shannon
  • Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett
  • Never Spit on Your Shoes by Denys Cazet
  • The Nightgown of the Sullen Moon by Nancy Willard
  • Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty
  • Parts by Tedd Arnold
  • What do you do with a problem by Kobi Yamada
  • Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg
  • Regards to the Man in the Moon by Ezra Jack Keats
  • The Wind Blew by Pat Hutchins

Seeing the world differently

The best problem-solving activities and games get children to approach the world from a different perspective, and to think creatively about the issues they face. 

As parents, the best we can do is to guide and support our children as they learn how to problem-solve for themselves. Hopefully, the suggestions above will help you to put together your own plan. It may take a bit of tweaking to find out what works for you, but it’ll be worth it in the end!