About an hour after we are born, our innate problem-solving skills begin to manifest themselves, typically in the form of making rooting or sucking motions with our tiny faces. These are essentially natural reflexes, and may not seem like much at first, but they are the very first building blocks in a lifelong process of developing and honing our problem-solving skills. Those skills will be used and developed throughout the rest of our lives.
Most problem-solving skills, however, do not necessarily develop independently in the form of reflexes. Rather, problem-solving exercises must be used in such a way that skills can become tools to be used across a myriad of settings and contexts. The catch is that children’s problem-solving skills mature by watching their parents, caregivers, teachers, and others deal with situations and resolve problems. That’s why it’s vital to teach children to navigate and solve problems in a productive way.
Without an effective toolset derived through problem-solving exercises for children, a child may be more inclined to avoid taking proactive action, and rather invest their time and energy in avoiding the issue altogether. This lack of effective problem-solving skills may lead to far more serious consequences. A study in The Journal of Behaviour Research & Therapy (JBRT), the international peer-reviewed publication, confirmed that children and adolescents who are without effective problem-solving skills could be at a higher risk of depression and suicide.
The Progression of Problem-Solving Exercises for Children
At its core, problem solving is centered around three essential processes:
- Seeking information
- Generating new knowledge
- Making decisions
Because learning is an evolving process, different problem-solving exercises for kids are needed at different stages of the process to encourage intellectual and social development. Below is information that educators (and parents) may apply. It details techniques and exercises for specific student groups that may be used to develop their problem-solving skills.
- Engage in brainstorming sessions. Encourage your students to make lists that are related to what they are studying. For example, if the subject is an historical event that had negative consequences, inspire your students to think about steps that could have been taken to elicit a more positive result.
- Use your students’ imaginations for group thinking. Create an imagined scenario for which your students use their creativity to solve. One example: have them imagine they are lost in a forest, and they must work as a group to figure out what must be done to find food, water, and shelter.
- Encourage flexible thinking. Have your students comment on specific objects in your classroom. For example, if a book features the picture of a sad-looking boy, explore reasons for his expression.
At this stage of a child’s development, it’s time to emphasize real-world problems with more advanced problem-solving activities. The experiences of a former student shared by the George Lucas Educational Foundation stressed the importance of moving away from “nice, easy-to-understand” problems and toward more complex problems.
- One exercise had great impact by making problem solving relevant to students’ own lives. It involved focusing on statistics related to crime and the jury system. Exercises like this emphasize the importance of actually understanding and solving a problem rather than merely memorizing a correct answer.
- Another exercise involved writing policy briefs related to gene editing. This was especially beneficial because it demanded that students talk with researchers who actually worked with gene modification. The resulting policy briefs were then presented to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
As students make the transition to high school, it can be beneficial to place emphasis on the development of ‘soft skills.’ While ‘hard skills’ are those that are specific to how a job should be done, soft skills emphasize interpersonal or people skills, including communication and listening skills, and empathy. These skills are important to developing characteristics that help students function effectively both as individuals, and as members of a group.
- Time management, critical thinking and negotiation skills are essential. A good exercise to nurture these abilities involves establishing a list of tasks, and assigning each a point value. The list should include enough tasks to last more than 10 minutes. Then, divide the students into groups and give them 10 minutes to accumulate as many points as possible.
- After students graduate and enter the real world, they will be expected to continue to listen to, and show respect for others. To develop these lifelong skills, divide your students into pairs. As one student selects a topic card from a deck and talks about that topic, the other student listens without thinking how they will respond. Afterward, the listener will recap what the other student said and expand upon their thoughts.
The Roles of Parents and Teachers
Rather than simply providing the materials and ideas for developing problem-solving skills, it’s vital that both parents and teachers have an attitude that is responsive and accepting. Be sure to use words and language that encourage problem-solving like “think,” “ideas,” and “solve.”
Also, talk aloud about your own problem-solving challenges, so your children and students can observe how you conquer dilemmas. For example, to elementary school children you could say something like “I planned to focus on drawing today, but I’ve run out of pencils. What other tools could we use?”
If you are searching for ideas about problem-solving exercises, follow the lead of students and children. Watch how they interact with one another and address the dilemmas they encounter. While you may be tempted to jump in and help solve their challenges, doing so too early may send a message that you lack confidence in their abilities. Instead, use patience while encouraging those in your charge to look at problems from different perspectives, to be persistent, to be creative, and to invite collaboration.
It’s also crucial to be willing to show that adults can make mistakes too, and that it’s perfectly acceptable to ask others for assistance. This can be reassuring to students and children who may think they need to be ‘perfect’ in their problem solving. Take the extra step and ask for their help in solving your problems. This illustrates that making mistakes is not a bad thing, but rather an opportunity to learn and grow intellectually and from a personal standpoint.