All parents and teachers have seen the unique ability of toddlers to use toys and materials in unexpected ways. One child may turn a cup into a hammer or a basket into a hat. Another may stand on a truck to try to reach a toy or pull over a chair to climb onto a bookshelf. These are signs that young children are learning to use their thinking skills to solve problems.
Experiences in problem-solving help children develop curiosity and patience, along with thinking skills such as flexibility and the understanding of cause and effect. They learn to work toward achieving a goal, and gain confidence in their ability to reach a solution.
Even very young children make discoveries on their own. An infant who accidentally creates a noise with a rattle may then make the sound again and again on purpose. An older infant discovers that by looking under a blanket, he can find a hidden toy. A toddler who cannot pull a wagon up a hill by herself learns that she and a friend can push it up from behind.
By not rushing in and rescuing young children who are facing minor everyday problems, adults can help infants and toddlers develop confidence and increase their thinking abilities. Here’s how it can work:
Provide your toddler with materials and activities that encourage her to explore. Choose materials that won’t pose any kind of choking hazard and watch your child play, since youngsters often put items into their mouths. Use the following everyday, fun materials to hold children’s interest and watch them experiment and learn.
• Jack-in-the-boxes and busy boxes help children learn simple cause-and-effect relationships.
• Empty cardboard boxes, plastic bowls or scarves can provide open-ended experiences through which toddlers can make choices and decisions, and find different ways to manipulate the materials.
• Clear plastic tubing (such as that used for aquariums) can be filled with bright materials, and toddlers can watch those materials move as they shake the tubes.
• Wooden blocks can be built into inclines or ramps so that your toddler can see what happens as objects roll down them. He may discover that some objects roll faster than others. He may learn about actions and reactions when he sets plastic bottles at the bottom of the ramp to create a unique bowling game.
In addition to supporting cognitive development, problem-solving activities help in the social arena as well. Groups of children engaged in these activities negotiate with their friends and learn how to solve interpersonal problems.
By providing interesting materials and enthusiastically reinforcing children’s attempts to explore and solve problems, parents and teachers can stimulate children’s development, promote advanced critical thinking, and help them take pride in their own abilities to find out more about how their world works.
Adapted from “Using Everyday Materials to Promote Problem Solving in Toddlers,” by Laura Segatti, Judy Brown-DuPaul and Tracy L. Keyes, published in the September 2003 issue of Young Children, the journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). For more articles and resources on early learning, visit “Beyond the Journal” on the NAEYC Web site.
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