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Problem Solving Skills

Problem Solving and Learning Through Play

by Ellen Booth Church
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A mind stretched to a new idea never returns to its original dimension. -Oliver Wendell Holmes

Are you a problem solver? Do you like a good challenge? Studies have shown that the ability to problem solve, to think creatively and critically, is one of the most essential skills for learning success. Think about it…no really! We can memorize facts -- even get the right answer on a test -- but it is the knowing of what to "do" with this information and how to apply it to real life that creates success in the world.

Preparing for a Future of Change
The skills of thinking and problem solving can be applied to any content…now or in the future. The "facts" may change, but the skills for using the facts do not. When we think about the future we might imagine the main constant is "change." Therefore, it is important for your child to learn how to use information creatively and critically in order to be prepared for a "future of change." I often think about my father when I think about the future. He was born in the late 1880s and traveled by covered wagon; and by the time he passed away, we had landed on the moon! That is a great deal of change in one lifespan. What will your child's world be like when he or she is your age? The best thing you can do for your child is to help him to build creative problem solving skills that he can apply to whatever he meets in the future.

Thinking Outside the Box
How do you do this? Ask lots of open-ended questions and provide your child with activities that do not have one "correct" answer. For example, you can share a familiar object (such as an empty box) with your child and ask him questions such as: How many ways can you use this? What can you do with this? How can you make it move? How can you build with it? What else can you find to use with it? Now what can you do with it? Will your box float? By asking these questions and providing these open-ended activities, you are inviting your child to think of boxes in brand new ways. The box is not important; it is the skills he uses while experimenting with it that count!

Extend this activity to anything in your house. For example, you can give your child mittens, socks, buttons, or any other common objects and invite him to explore all the different ways he can use them. You could invite him to use math skills by asking: Can you use the mittens as a measuring tool? How many mittens long is the kitchen counter? Can you organize your mittens in different groups? How can you use the mittens to make a patterned line? Lets try it and see!

Questions are the key to problem solving. It is the questions you ask your child that present him with problems to solve creatively and critically. Here are a few more generic examples you can apply to most situations: What would happen if...? How many ways can you…? What do you think about...? What do you wonder about…? What did you discover…?

Books for Building Problem Solving Skills
One of the best ways to promote problem solving is to share a book in which the character has a problem to solve. Instead of reading the book to the end, stop at a crucial moment and ask your child how he would solve the problem. Some good choices are: Problem Solving Activity Books for More Ideas
If you like the idea of doing these types of problem solving activities, you can get additional ideas in some of these excellent activity books: Toys for Problem Solving
Of course, there are wonderful open-ended toys available for you child to explore problem solving. Just apply some of the questions above to these fun, educational toys:  
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Meet Our Expert
Ellen Booth Church
Early Childhood Consultant
Well-known early childhood educator, Ellen Booth Church spent several years as both a pre-k and kindergarten teacher before becoming an early childhood assistant professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz. She is currently an educational consultant, keynote speaker, curriculum/product developer, and writer, dedicated to enriching the lives of young children and their families. In addition, Ellen is a columnist for Scholastic's Parent and Child magazine as well as the author of many books for teachers and parents. In the world of Children's Television, Ellen has consulted for PBS, Nelvana, and Cartoon Network on a wide variety of projects.

You can find out more on Ellen Booth Church's website.
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