Helping Toddlers Become Problem Solvers

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 toddler may stand on a riding truck to try to reach a toy or pull over a chair to climb onto a bookshelf. Observant adults recognize these innovations as signs that 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 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.
It's also helpful for parents and teachers to provide materials that encourage children to explore. Some toys, such as jack-in-the-boxes and busy boxes, provide opportunities to explore simple cause-and-effect relationships. Other common materials like 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.
Other activities can involve materials such as clear plastic tubing (such as the tubing used for aquariums) which children can fill with bright materials, and watch the materials move as they shake the tubes. If you provide inclines or ramps of wooden blocks, a toddler can watch what happens as objects roll down inside the tubes. She 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.
(Whatever materials you provide to help children experiment with problem solving, remember to be very careful about choking hazards.)
These everyday materials are fun, and can hold children's interest for long periods. They also help children experiment with cause and effect and with gravity and physics. 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 children take pride in their own abilities to find out more about how their world works.
Excerpted from "Using Everyday Materials to Promote Problem Solving in Toddlers" by Laura Segatti, Judy Brown-DuPaul, and Tracy L. Keyes - an article in the NAEYC journal, Young Children. Many articles and resources from Young Children are available on the NAEYC "Beyond the Journal" Web site, at .

Early Years Are Learning Years™ is a regular series from NAEYC providing tips to help parents and early childhood educators give young children a great start on learning.