20 Nov How to develop problem-solving skills in kids
Problem-solving skills are massively important. We all encounter challenges in our personal lives and in work and business. Being able to address problems and get confident in solving them is something we can’t take for granted for children growing up today. This article is all about nurturing problem-solving skills in kids and will give you some ideas about how to do just that.
Why are problem-solving skills important?
Without the ability to solve problems, we lack confidence when faced with anything new and potentially challenging. We may be overly cautious. The walls of our comfort zone stand firm. We don’t try anything risky for fear we’ll face something we can’t deal with. We shirk responsibility and look for the easy option every time. This can lead to a life of unfulfilled potential.
Let’s face it:
Kids encounter a lot of different problems. They have literal problems in school they need to solve, like in maths, but there are many others. They have disagreements with their friends. They feel shy or uncomfortable about something. They struggle to find ideas for a creative project. Maybe they can’t complete a difficult level on a computer game or they’ve misplaced their favourite pen.
When we’re confident in our ability to solve problems, we’ll try new things. We’ll back ourselves in the face of a struggle. We’ll come up with a game-changing solution that improves our situation or helps other people. Innovation happens through identifying problems and imagining a better way of being. The greatest scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs are essentially brilliant problem-solvers.
Can you improve a child’s problem-solving ability?
Absolutely we can. It is argued that our innate intelligence (or IQ) is defined by our genetics, but this is not the only thing that governs our ability to solve problems. Problem-solving is a trainable skill. It comes down to two core components:
- Attitude to problem-solving (mental)
- Experience and skill with challenges (practical)
People feel more confident solving problems when they’ve encountered the same or similar problems before. They can use what they learned and apply it to this new scenario. Maybe they developed certain skills to overcome challenges too. However, having the right attitude towards problem-solving and the right character attributes is required when faced with something new or particularly difficult.
We’ll see in this article how to develop both of these areas. There’s also a list of activities you can do with your kids at the end.
How to nurture problem-solving skills in your child
Being good at problem-solving starts with the right attitude and mindset. If a child has the right mental approach to solving a problem, they’re far more likely to succeed. Our first four tips focus on this area.
Reframe problems as challenges
Problems are an opportunity to overcome a challenge and learn something new. If we always see a problem as a cause for concern and something that knocks us backwards, we’re starting off on the wrong foot. Tackle problems with positivity and possibility: “Great, we have something to solve!”
Align with the solution
When faced with a problem, it’s too easy to focus on all the terrible things that the problem might mean. We all do it. But the problem is that focusing too much on the problem means we’re not thinking about solving the problem and what things will be like afterwards.
The trick is, as quickly as possible, to accept that we’re faced with a challenge and start thinking about what the solution could be. This puts the focus onto action, and can make us feel motivated to get going.
Make solving the problem an inevitability
If we believe a problem is impossible to solve, we’ll stop trying to solve it. If we think it will take hours to solve, we’ll be discouraged. When your child is facing a challenge, reassure them that it’s a case of how and when they’ll overcome it, not if. They must have the belief they will solve the problem.
Done often enough, your child will never see a problem as insurmountable, which is the first step to being a great problem-solver.
Sometimes we’re wrong
The final piece of the mindset puzzle is accepting that sometimes our best guess at a solution might be wrong. It’s important to understand that failing is part of the journey to success, and we don’t always need to be right first time. We don’t need to be perfect.
Taking the pressure off solving a problem first time means we might be more likely to tackle a problem head-on and get to a solution sooner, even if we find a few wrong solutions along the way! Resilience is a key characteristic for great problem-solvers, as is the ability to review what happened and see how we can improve next time.
Once the mindset is sorted, it’s time to take on practical problem-solving.
Problem-solving games and exercises are age specific. For toddlers, finding the right shapes to put through the right holes is a big challenge. For slightly older kids, solving a 500-piece puzzle may be more appropriate.
Some problems have a defined solution, like in maths or science, others may have several correct answers. When there are lots of different ways to solve a problem, it allows for more creativity and discussions of which attempts to make. All exercises should encourage critical thinking.
At the end of this article, we’ve listed lots of problem-solving ideas to try!
Involve them in your decision-making processes
Real-world problems can be infinitely more complex than those set out in games. There are far more moving parts and often there’s no clear right answer. Without a right answer or a crystal ball, problem-solving is a case of making the best decision possible with all the available information. Giving kids experience of working through a challenge like this will advance their understanding of the best approach. Maybe they’ll come up with ideas you haven’t!
Outside the box thinking
Some problems can’t be solved with linear thinking. You have to use the creative side of your mind and think outside the box to find all the potential solutions. Riddles are a perfect example of this. You can find some fun (but very hard!) ones on TED-Ed on YouTube. The punchlines of some jokes is hard to work out, but trying to find the answer uses the same type of thinking. Try some brainteaser-type questions too. Mindtrap is a great game for these.
Computer games are sometimes portrayed in a negative light. Sure, we must be mindful of how long a child spends in front of a screen as well as what they’re encountering in certain games. However, many computer games are based on finding a solution to a problem. Navigating a map, finding treasure, beating a baddie, building a team and making a plan to achieve a goal. This practice has applications in the real world.
Practise negotiation and empathy
Sometimes problems arise because of conflict or misunderstanding. Learning how to find a solution that is in everyone’s best interests is a useful skill learned from as young as when kids are fighting over toys! As we get older, these negotiations become more complex but we also become more experienced.
Empathy can play a huge role in finding shared solutions because once we see a problem from someone else’s perspective, we realise why our favourite solution might not work for everyone.
Watch and help others solve problems
Seeing other people solve problems gives an insight into how their mind works. Being able to help them through their problems makes us better at solving our own, whether they be puzzles or personal challenges. TV shows like Crystal Maze are fascinating to watch. Some YouTubers share themselves gaming, solving puzzles or Geoguessing.
What about characters in books – how could they have done something differently? What if they’d done this instead?
Problem-solving frameworks kids can understand
Break problems down into smaller chunks
Sometimes problems can seem overwhelming. Often it’s difficult to know where to start. Breaking a problem into smaller chunks or working out a logical order to the solution is a useful tool to deploy here.
Think about how we complete a jigsaw puzzle with 1000 pieces. We don’t just start trying to fix random pieces together. First we find the corner pieces. Then the edges. Then we might group colours together because they’re from the same part of the puzzle. We then might look for unusual parts of the picture that we can put into place.
Many problems that look impossible on first glance can be solved like this. If a teenager has too much work to do, they need to first look at what they need to do and create a priority list. They can then see where they can save time in their schedule or get an extension on a deadline. Little by little, the solution becomes clearer.
Solution idea generation
A really useful tactic is to think about all the potential options someone has when facing a problem. Create a mind map or spider diagram of everything they could try, even if it seems like a silly idea. Keep trying until you get ten options. Then find another ten. Think really hard and explore every possible option, thinking outside the box.
Evaluate ideas with pros and cons
Even very young children can tell you if an idea is good or bad! Every action we take has pros and cons. This is a great way to show that not every problem has a perfect solution. It also helps kids think more about the consequences of each potential decision.
Whether you’re searching for a single right answer or simply trying to make the optimal decision, sometime deduction can be the best tactic. Start by ruling out the worst ideas based on your criteria. Keep going until you’re left with the only option, which now must be the best.
More advanced exercises:
Seeing into the future is possible. If you throw a ball up in the air, you can see where it’s going to land. That’s pretty easy – your brain knows from experience what the ball is going to do and it’s only seeing a few seconds into the future. If a strong wind picks up, however, it might blow the ball into a different trajectory. Maybe a dog sees the ball and jumps to catch it before it lands. The likelihood of those things happening depends on factors like the weather and how many dogs are in your vicinity at the time.
In the real world, we make decisions and predictions based on the available information and what is most likely to happen. Anyone can make decisions about pretty much anything. The result of a coin toss. The result of a football match. The value of Bitcoin against the dollar. Being better at predicting the future helps solve problems where the “right” answer isn’t yet clear.
Being better at predicting the future involves accruing the information available, processing it, and playing events forward. If this, then that. If this, then what? You can then begin making predictions on the most and least likely outcomes of any action. Introducing this kind of framework to a child gives them a powerful tool to use in the future.
And here’s how you can bring this to life…
The what would you have done? exercise
Find stories and examples from history where an individual or business faced a challenge or difficult decision to make. Ask your child what they would have done if faced with those same challenges. Can they predict what happened? You can then show them what happened and see how their decisions would have panned out.
They can then reflect and see what mistakes they made in assessing the situation. This can feed back into their method for solving problems moving forward.
Problem-solving with time-pressure
Problem-solving in the real world often has some form of pressure. Decisions have consequences. In order to improve someone’s problem-solving ability, introducing time-pressure is a great way to make things more challenging. Some people are great at solving problems when they’re relaxed and have no pressure to come up with the solution, but as soon as the clock is ticking, they get flustered and can’t think straight.
Ideas and exercises to develop problem solving skills in kids
There are literally hundreds of ways to develop a child’s problem-solving skills, but these are our favourites.
Maths problems – although hopefully they get enough of these at school!
Jigsaw puzzles and most board games – ones that require solving problems, like Connect 4
Sudoku and brain teasers – you can find these online
Chess puzzles – solving for check mate or finding the best move
Card games – like solitaire or patience, or those played in a group
Building block or Lego – for figuring out how different pieces work together
21-questions or the post-it note game – where you have to ask questions to get closer to the answer
Geoguessing – check out Geoguessr where you have to work out where you are
Sporcle – a trivia website with some great logic puzzles on every topic
Cryptic crosswords – once you’ve learned how to solve them, they’re really addictive
Murder mystery – these can be loads of fun and can be played with family and online
Orienteering – following clues to find milestones
Geocaching – a real–life treasure hunt
If you have more ideas and suggestions for developing those key problem-solving skills, we’d love to hear them!